Fourteen potential City Council contenders gathered yesterday in City Hall to denounce the current Council for toying with the idea of undoing Philadelphia's limits on political contributions.

The challengers, who are vying for several of the 10 district seats and seven at-large seats up for grabs in the May 15 primary elections, took turns attacking two proposals that Council will discuss at a hearing today - one that would revoke the donation caps when rich candidates give their campaigns more than $2 million, and one that would double the limits every time a candidate gives his own campaign an extra $2 million.

Both bills, sponsored by Councilman Jim Kenney, are a reaction to the self-financed candidacy of multimillionaire Tom Knox, who rose from unknown to second place in a recent political poll after spending millions on television advertising. Knox has said he will spend whatever it takes to win.

Kenney says it's all about leveling the playing field. But the challengers said yesterday the real story was a political establishment changing the rules to help it fend off an outsider.

"What has been proposed is not reform but the abuse of the trust of the people of Philadelphia," said the Rev. Jesse Brown, an at-large candidate.

"It does not create a level playing field for candidates who are about change . . . It supports incumbency," said Curtis Jones Jr., who is running for the district seat now held by Councilwoman Carol Campbell. Campbell gave a speech on the floor in favor of Kenney's bill.

Kenney, an at-large councilman, noted that his bills featured increased transparency, including a requirement to report large donations within 24 hours. He said the question of whether a wealthy candidate could buy the election was legitimate.

But Alex Talmadge Jr., a candidate for the North and Northwest Philadelphia seat now held by Donna Reed Miller, a co-sponsor of Kenney's bill, said the timing remained suspicious.

"You can't change rules midstream," he said. "It's unfair to everyone."

Contact staff writer Michael Currie Schaffer at 215-854-4565 or