IN NORTHEAST Philadelphia, an increasingly vicious battle is brewing for control over a largely white, middle-class section of the city.

The upstart Boyle brothers - Congressman Brendan and state Rep. Kevin - have ridden their ambition and charisma (not to mention support from electricians union boss John Dougherty and some well-timed political vacancies) into seats of power, against the wishes of the party establishment.

Bucking established neighborhood ward leaders has earned them enemies - like 56th ward leader John Sabatina, who backed Brendan's congressional opponent Marjorie Margolies. It's also encouraged other insurgents.

The latest is John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Last week, Democratic ward leaders backed Sabatina's son, state Rep. John Sabatina Jr., instead of McNesby for the state Senate seat recently vacated by Lt. Gov. Mike Stack.

Now McNesby says he won't rule out a run against Sabatina as an independent or a Republican. And he has a case: the power of blue.

McNesby notes that the union has 7,000 retired members, in addition to 6,500 or so active duty cops, many of whom call the Northeast home.

"I'm confident we would have the votes" to win regardless of what label he runs under, he said.

That's not to mention the FOP's growing war chest, built in the image of Dougherty's powerful union PACs, flush with cash from the rank-and-file's dues.

Interestingly, McNesby still has a year left on his term as the head of the FOP and has dodged questions about whether he'd resign that post if he won Stack's seat.

Sabatina, meanwhile, scoffs at the idea of a McNesby run.

"I heard some rumors he was gonna post as a Republican," Sabatina said. "I've heard that's not happening, but that's just what you hear."

But Sabatina didn't dispute the growing power of the FOP as a political actor under McNesby, who he described as "ambitious."

"I did point out that the members may not be too pleased that their PAC is being used for one person," he said.

The Del Ricci switch

The Boyles have dropped their quest to win back Brendan's old state rep seat in a special election next month. Their candidate abandoned the race this week.

That leaves the Democratic field to ward leaders' favorite, Sarah Del Ricci, who will face Republican Martina White in a district with an unusually high number of right-leaning voters.

Del Ricci's candidacy raises eyebrows. The operator of a therapeutic horse farm in the Northeast, she jumped into the race at the last minute. It was assumed that a nighttime assembly of ward leaders last week would result in the long-speculated selection of Sarah's husband, John Del Ricci.

Why the switch? Sabatina said that John had feared losing his pension from his gig at the state's Turnpike Commission. But a GOP source suggested that Democrats simply wanted a female candidate to counter White in what could be a close race.

Packed Council field

With at-large City Councilman Jim Kenney quitting to run for mayor, the slate of at-large Council candidates in the May primary seems poised to grow.

Along with the six incumbents and 12 announced challengers, former Council aide Derek Green, education advocate Helen Gym and mayoral scion Sharif Street are also rumored to be on the cusp.

The field of Democratic incumbents is a troubled one - Blondell Reynolds Brown is a disciple of scandal-plagued U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah who's had her own problems with ethics violations.

Bill Greenlee has a dangerously low profile and is credited by insiders with hanging on to his seat largely because of lucky ballot positions and his friendship with Council President Darrell Clarke.

Ed Neilson is a former state rep who has done little to distinguish himself since quietly slipping into office last year.

On the Republican side, an unusually long list - nine at last count - is eyeing the two seats reserved for the minority party.

Those spots are currently held by Councilmen David Oh and Denny O'Brien. Insiders say the long list is an indication that both incumbents are perceived weak.

Lawyer Matt Wolfe, who garnered some name recognition when he ran against Neilson in a special election last year, has declared, along with ward leader and Cheyney University track coach James Williams and Dan Tinney, who has strong labor ties.

Republican ward leader and Controller-wannabe Terry Tracy, former mayoral candidate and thousand-time political loser Al Taubenberger and unknowns Randy Robinson and Billy Pounds are all rumored to be strongly considering runs as well, according to executive director of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee, Joe DeFelice.

- Staff writer David Gambacorta and's Ryan Briggs contributed to this report.

Contact Gambacorta at 215-854-5994.