THE LIFE STORY of Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown could be adapted into a Broadway musical about a hardworking showgirl who breaks into politics with the help of an ambitious congressman.
Let's call it "Blondie!" (Spelled out in glittering gold lights.)
Like the best shows, it's true. Brown, a Democrat who just began her fourth term as an at-large councilwoman, is a former professional dancer and teacher who counts U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah as a political mentor. After 12 years in office, she has risen to a leadership position in Council and has made education and health care her signature policy issues.
But what's really interesting about Brown, 59, is her next act. As her star continues to rise, some insiders are chattering about whether she might be able to succeed where Fattah failed in 2007 — winning the mayor's office.
The 2015 mayoral race is far enough away that discussing the potential candidates is a political parlor game at this point. Still, many think that Brown has a legitimate shot at becoming the city's first woman mayor.
"If we're going to have a female president in my lifetime, it's going to be Hillary, and if we're going to have a female mayor it's going to be Blondell," said Terry Grayboyes, a former candidate for state representative, who has known Brown since they attended Girls High together in the 1960s.
In the city's history, there has been only one viable mainstream female candidate for mayor — former Councilwoman Happy Fernandez, in 1999. Experts attribute the scant number of female elected officials in Philly to a variety of causes — like the traditional male-dominated Democratic Party machine and a limited number of viable female mentors for young women. Whatever the reasons, many think the election of a female mayor is long overdue.
"It strikes me that there is a historic opportunity for a woman to become mayor," said former Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz. "The right woman, with the right message, with the right money, could find a natural constituency."
Brown said that the possibility of running for mayor is on her mind.
"I'm exploring it," she said, noting that she's assessing the fundraising chops and the policy expertise she'd need to launch a successful campaign. "I don't profess to know it all. I've been mettle-tested four times successfully [running for Council citywide], two times coming in first place. Now, that's not the same as running for mayor. But there are a lot of parallel factors."
Focus on families
The past year has been a big one for Brown.
Her first-place win among 14 candidates in last year's Democratic primary was an ego boost after her poor showing in 2007. Her key interests — education, women's rights and health care — have never been more relevant. And a shake-up of Council leadership last year concluded with her winning the post of majority whip, making her the only woman in leadership.
"Not only is she in a leadership position, she's shown leadership on a set of issues," said Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg. "And frankly they're issues that have come into fashion."
Brown, who in recent weeks has called for more women on executive boards in the city, said that she savors her job because of the opportunity to work on issues that matter to her.
"When you can change and make life better for children, you can help families," Brown said.
That focus on families shows in the legislation on which Brown has worked. Key achievements include urging the Phillies and the Eagles to contribute to a fund for children as part of the stadium negotiations, working with Councilman Darrell Clarke for the merger of the parks and recreation departments, and pushing through the menu-labeling rules that mean most city restaurants must provide calorie information about their food.
"She's chosen a series of issues that are important to a lot of people," said State Sen. Vincent Hughes, who Brown worked for before running for office. "Women and children and issues of concern to families. We need somebody to focus on those."
There are still policy areas in which Brown is admittedly weaker than some of her colleagues. In particular, she's trying to gain expertise and understanding of the city finances and budget process.
"I'm looking for a municipal-finance course," Brown said. "I have an interest in growing in a new and different way."
Known for carrying stacks of note cards to meetings and hearings, Brown often approaches her job as if she were a student. And she acknowledges that she must work to figure things out sometimes — just as she did back at Girls High, and at Penn State, where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education.
"I have never considered myself brilliant," Brown said. "But I am convinced that hard work and discipline towards goals can get you to where you need to be even if you are an average thinker."
It began with graffiti
Unwanted graffiti drove Brown into politics in 1980. She had just bought her first home, in Mantua, after graduating from Penn State. Not long after she moved in, Brown noticed that the side of her house had been tagged with spray paint.
"Having come from a pristine environment like Penn State, it was shocking to me," Brown said. "I saw it as bad behavior. I was more shocked than anything else that this was happening."
Instead of going to the police, Brown said that she wanted to figure out how to work with neighbors to combat graffiti. After discovering that the block had no block captain or political-committee member to help organize neighbors, Brown was appointed Democratic committeewoman.
A trained teacher who had danced professionally for local troupe Philadanco and in productions in Atlantic City, Brown never lacked the energy to take on new challenges. That graffiti cleanup effort led, besides becoming a committeewoman, to volunteering for former U.S. Rep. Bill Gray. From there, though she taught third grade for a short time and contemplated law school, Brown just couldn't shake politics. By the early 1990s, she was working for Fattah, when he was in the state Senate. In Harrisburg, Brown noticed the lack of racial and gender diversity in the Capitol.
"If women are not at the table, issues that resonate with them are not being acted on," Brown said. "That's when I decided, I thought I could do this."
It took two attempts: a narrow loss for a Council at-large nomination in 1995, followed by victory in 1999. Although she can be cautious about wading into policy debates and sometimes strains to find the right words when she speaks on the Council floor, over the years she has won the reputation as a behind-the-scenes player who works diligently to win votes for measures she supports.
"I've seen when she has to be feisty," said Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez. "I've seen when she has to be the consensus builder. I've seen when she's trying to be the facilitator."
Getting the menu-labeling bill passed in 2008 is an example of how Brown works. She said that she spent two years working with special-interest groups and lobbying colleagues, before gaining passage of the menu-labeling legislation, which was treated by many with great suspicion at first. By the end, Brown said that she'd moved enough votes from nay to yea to pass the bill, 12-5.
With her new leadership post, the cautious Brown has been flexing her negotiating muscles more recently, as evidenced by when she took over Council's Committee on the Environment, previously run by Councilman Jim Kenney.
"It was very, very difficult to do that," Brown said. "Women think about it first because we want to be considerate and thoughtful. At some point you have to step up."
Jerry Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia NAACP, said that he recently saw Brown speak at an event and said that it was hard to remember the shy teacher who started as a political volunteer 30 years ago.
"I was so wowed with her," Mondesire said. "I told her she was very mayoral. I told her she should explore it."
Money and muscle
But do hard work, family-friendly policies and calorie counting get you to the mayor's office?
Some might note that Mayor Nutter did pretty well using an ad featuring his daughter and promoting a quality-of-life measure that he passed as a councilman — the smoking ban in bars and restaurants, although he also ran as a government reformer.
"Yes, it's true she's been identified with some quality-of-life issues," said Stalberg. "I think it was the quality-of-life issue of smoking that made Nutter a front-runner." .
Other possible Democratic mayoral candidates are already jostling for an advantage leading up to 2015, as is always the case when the seat is open. Among them are City Controller Alan Butkovitz, Councilmen Bill Green, W. Wilson Goode and Jim Kenney, District Attorney Seth Williams and state Sen. Anthony Williams.
Just like that lineup, Brown, the only woman now known to be exploring the race, has the requisite years in office, the policy experience and a proven ability to run citywide.
There are a number of hurdles, the biggest being the requirement that elected city officials must resign to run for another city post.
Brown, who is separated from her husband, has a teenage daughter and cares for her 84-year-old mother, would have to leave Council. Unlike some of her colleagues, she does not hold another job.
"I have to be able take care [of my mom]," Brown said. "I have to weigh all of that in. I don't have a wife.".
Many say that Brown will likely carefully consider the impact that a race would have on her 16-year-old daughter, Brielle. She attends the Agnes Irwin School, in Bryn Mawr, a school choice that Brown said they made after problems with bullying.
Brielle would likely enter college in the fall of 2014, which is another reason that the timing might be right for Brown to run.
But to do that, Brown would need to raise big money, stump across the city, prepare for difficult debates — and gird herself for the kind of deal-making and mudslinging usually associated with a competitive Democratic mayoral primary. One unanswered question is whether she could muscle ward leaders, charm union bosses and play political hardball against the array of male opponents.
"Nobody knows," said Mondesire, when asked how he thought Brown would hold up in an aggressive primary fight. "But she's been in the game for a while. She's won many battles. She's well-liked by the majority of her colleagues."
Brown said that she'll be taking exploratory steps this year. She wants to investigate staging a fundraiser and see how much money she can raise. And she said that she might pay for a poll to get a better sense of the field.
Brown doesn't doubt that she has the energy to run.
"It's a marathon where you do have to pace yourself," Brown said. "I had a boss who told me early in my career, it's a marathon not a sprint. Campaigns are a marathon."
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown
YEARS IN OFFICE: 12
FAMILY: Separated from her husband, lives with her 16-year-old daughter and 84-year-old mother
EDUCATION: Graduate of Girls High, holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Penn State University
KEY ISSUES: Education, health care, parks, women's and children's issues