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Clarke flexes muscle over Council matters

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke is an accomplished old-school pol, a disciple of John Street. He is a master of prerogatives, mostly for the self-important body he governs.

President Darrell Clarke  (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )
President Darrell Clarke (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )Read moreINQ SUWA

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke is an accomplished old-school pol, a disciple of John Street. He is a master of prerogatives, mostly for the self-important body he governs.

Council believes it is in the business of fixing all things in a city where so much is perpetually busted and broken, when that is actually the job of the executive branch. Council is supposed to legislate - except when it isn't about to enjoy a six-week holiday break because January seems too bleak to work.

But if members don't try to constantly fix stuff for constituents, part of their prerogative, how can they enjoy the glory of incumbency and lengthy winter breaks in perpetuity?

In recent weeks, Clarke has exercised greater authority and dominated the news, sometimes seeming more like the mayor than his constant adversary, Michael Nutter. Yet despite decades in politics, Clarke remains an enigma, a man who keeps his cards close to his natty suits, and who tends to meet with Council members one on one, the better to hold those cards.

At the eleventh hour, Clarke decided to big-foot the bill for a much-needed land bank that would consolidate, supervise, and expedite the acquisition and sale of many of the city's 40,000 vacant lots and eliminate a good deal of blight.

Though Clarke is the bill's cosponsor, it's been the signature legislation of Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez since early 2008. Clarke chose to blindside her and other members. He amended the bill with multiple hurdles that render Council the ultimate gatekeeper of vacant land, the duchy, and Clarke the prince in all his Machiavellian glory.

A Philadelphia Daily News editorial labeled him a "bully," and there's some truth in that.

It's medieval

This is not how you do reform - especially with Council enjoying a six-week recess around Christmas and a recess of almost three months in the summer. This is politics so small and old-style as to be medieval, maintaining prerogative, incumbency, and forcing supplicants to court the 10 district Council members, kissing their rings and then some.

Clarke has done much good, especially with AVI and property assessment, and usually knows how to streamline matters and create consensus in his chambers. He's opposed to raising taxes, Nutter's default strategy, and keen on finding alternative revenue sources and selling public assets.

Yet in conversations with Council members, observers, community activists, and developers, there was almost no consistency in their appraisals of the veteran politician. At times, it was as though they were describing different people.

Ad man

Difficult to read, the Council president remains increasingly difficult to predict. Well, except for his passion for selling ads on everything (city-owned buildings, vehicles, public schools) - he views ads as the economic equivalent of penicillin. Oh, and his consistent opposition to Nutter, a crowd-pleaser with Council every time.

This year, Clarke did nothing to stop a raucous crowd of municipal union workers from drowning out the mayor's annual budget address in Council chambers. Instead, Clarke recessed the meeting, forcing Nutter - like a student bullied out of the lunchroom - to move to another City Hall location.

"Clarke's plan clashes with one Mayor Nutter has been pursuing for months," The Inquirer's Troy Graham recently wrote, a sentence that could appear in almost any story about the two politicians. Clarke's theme song might as well be the Groucho Marx ditty, "Whatever it is, I'm against it!"

In this case, the matter was Clarke's plan for forlorn LOVE Park, Philadelphia's most misnamed public space. Clarke, who has a strong interest in development, wants to put seven - count 'em, seven - restaurants in the park, which, by my count and even that of martini-mogul Stephen Starr, is six cafes too many. To my knowledge, food courts have never been the cornerstone of any economic recovery strategy.

The Council president's initial plan lacks his beloved advertising, but I'm sure it's coming. One day soon, I fully expect to walk into Council chambers and find a sign for Chickie's & Pete's mounted behind Clarke's high-backed leather throne.

Clarke appears to be running for something, possibly mayor but maybe just prince, while usurping Nutter's authority. He's test-driving the position and kicking the tires while kicking the mayor, too.

215-854-2586 @kheller