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Allies and allegiances on new City Council

West and Northwest Phila. factions joined forces with Nutter in the primary. Will that alignment last?

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah: One of the primary's big "winners."
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah: One of the primary's big "winners."Read more

A "new age" in City Council began with Tuesday's primary election, which assured at least six fresh faces on the fourth floor of City Hall, but will the influx bring a new day for Mayor Nutter and the city?

More than anything, the election was a victory for a potent but volatile alignment of black political factions from West and Northwest Philadelphia, led by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and State Rep. Dwight Evans, respectively. Those camps have feuded on and off since the 1980s, periodically working against each other on campaigns, including the 2007 mayoral primary, in which both Fattah and Evans lost to Nutter.

Last week, arm in arm with Nutter, that partnership flexed its muscle with impressive showings in two Democratic Council races, lifting newcomer Cindy Bass to victory in the Eighth District and making Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown the top vote-getter of all at-large candidates. Both are former Fattah aides; Bass became the flash point of West-Northwest animosity in 2006 when she unsuccessfully took on LeAnna Washington for a state Senate seat that the Northwest regarded as its own.

Evans, the former House appropriations chair, has long been a force in city politics as part of the Northwest Alliance established by former U.S. Rep. William H. Gray III.

Fattah has been building his West Philadelphia organization since 1979, when he and childhood friend Curtis Jones Jr. brashly challenged the Democratic establishment in unsuccessful bids for city commissioner. Jones' hold on his Fourth District Council seat - formerly Nutter's - is so strong after his first term that he did not draw an opponent from either party.

Over the last year, the fortunes of the Northwest have been threatened, while Fattah's fortunes have risen. Evans was knocked out of his leadership position last year by the House Democratic caucus, leaving State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Fattah protege, as new minority chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the highest-ranking Democrat in Harrisburg.

Talk of unity between the groups has not produced a working coalition in recent years, unity generally crumbling in the face of territorial battles such as the Bass-Washington race.

Should it hold, the alignment could provide Nutter with his first real coalition and lift Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco, a Nutter ally and charter member of the Northwest Alliance, to the Council presidency.

"You really don't want that organized group to be against you. That's a fight," said State Rep. Jewell Williams, the heavy favorite to become sheriff of Philadelphia after winning the Democratic primary with the help of the Fattah-Evans coalition.

"City Council will be very interesting this year, and the coalitions will prove to be very formidable," said William R. Miller V, a political consultant and Northwest Alliance member by birth. He has worked for Nutter's mayoral campaign, and his father is a close friend of Tasco's. "I definitely think this is a pro-Nutter Council," he said.

Or the goodwill will crumble under the weight of old animosities or new political opportunities, as it has on previous occasions, and Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, the third-ranking Democrat and sometime Nutter rival, will be elevated to the president's chair.

"I would not sleep Darrell Clarke, because Darrell has a lot of history in working with City Council," said Williams, an old friend of Clarke's from North Philadelphia. "He knows about legislation. He's a guy who knows how to run the floor. Here you have a guy who has experience as an inside player."

Clarke's ascendance could be boosted if his old boss, former Mayor John F. Street, returns to City Hall in an independent Council bid in November. In an e-mail Friday, Street said he would review his options with "a bundle of people" and decide next month whether to run for mayor, Council, or neither.

The future of Council before the primary was a still, muddy pond into which no one wanted to wade. Now, with information to at least predict who will be in each of the 17 Council seats next year, observers are splashing in the politics and presaging.

"It really is a new age," said Richard C. DeMarco, a former Council lawyer who dropped out of the Second District Council race this year.

The departure next year of Council President Anna C. Verna after 36 years in office, along with Councilman Frank Rizzo, son of the iconic mayor, who lost in the Republican primary, will remove the last vestiges of a whole political era, DeMarco said.

The four new Democrats who appear to have won Tuesday's primary in district races - Bass, Bobby Henon, State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson, and Mark Squilla - owe their elections to established interests, including ward leaders and unions. That does not augur well for changing the status quo. (Johnson still must survive a count of absentee ballots before he can be declared the winner over Barbara Capozzi.)

But they would instantly make Council younger. Their average age is 421/2. The outgoing foursome - Verna, Jack Kelly, Joan Krajewski, and Donna Reed Miller - average just over 71.

"The political reality of the situation is if you are elected to a public post and simply support the status quo . . . I don't think that is going to cut it in the city of Philadelphia any more," said Rob Wonderling, president of the Greater Philadelphia Area Chamber of Commerce, who said he was impressed with the winning candidates' responses on business issues.

Of the 17 members on Council, 10 are from districts and seven are at-large. Likely returning Democratic district Council members are Jones, Clarke, Tasco, Jannie L. Blackwell, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. They will be likely joined by Bass, Henon, Johnson, and Squilla.

Republican Councilman Brian J. O'Neill in the 10th District faces Democrat Bill Rubin in November as a solid - though not prohibitive - favorite.

Of the at-large candidates, the five Democrats - Brown, W. Wilson Goode Jr., Bill Green, William K. Greenlee, and James F. Kenney - should return.

That leaves the five Republican nominees, and possibly Street as an independent, to compete for the two spots reserved for a minority party.

The top two Republican at-large candidates in the primary - David Oh and State Rep. Denny O'Brien - can take comfort in knowing that the top Republican primary finishers have not failed to be elected in November in anyone's memory. They will have to beat Al Taubenberger, Joe McColgan, and Michael Untermeyer to continue the streak.

Those Republicans always play a pivotal role in choosing the Council president, and Oh and O'Brien have connections that could favor Tasco. Oh is close friends with Quiñones-Sánchez, a Tasco ally, and O'Brien and Evans have a good relationship from the state House.

Some candidates pledged never to back Tasco for president because she plans to return to work after collecting a pension payment of nearly $500,000 through the Deferred Retirement Option Plan without retiring.

Oh and O'Brien did not make that promise.

Street, however, predicted that DROP was too odious to a Republican to allow support for Tasco.

"All those anti-DROP Republican at-large nominees will NOT be for Tasco," Street wrote in an e-mail.

Michael Meehan, the Republican City Committee counsel, whose family has run the organization for most of the last century, noted that division among Democrats always made Republican members part of the Council equation.

"If the Democrats sit down," Meehan said, "they could do what they wanted."