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City Council, past and present, start throwing money, support at Philadelphia mayoral candidates

City Council members are quietly starting to bet on possible winners through endorsements and campaign contributions as the deadline to file petitions for mayoral candidacy draws closer.

City Council members are quietly starting to bet on possible winners through endorsements and campaign contributions as the deadline to file petitions for mayoral candidacy draws closer.

All of Council is up for reelection this year, and while endorsing mayoral wannabes can be a delicate business, hitching to a successful candidate can have a big political pay off.

Among the most intriguing, and long-running, chatter is about whom Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez will throw her support behind. Although she has aligned herself with progressives and educational causes throughout her council career, Quiñones-Sánchez said she's backing frontrunner and State Senator Anthony Williams, whose mayoral ambitions are heavily financed by controversial school choice advocates. Nevertheless, Sánchez took the stage with Williams' at his mayoral announcement, in November.

Those backers, the millionaire founders of the Main Line trading firm Susquehanna International Group, want to expand charter school enrollment in Philadelphia to the chagrin of teachers unions, who say the charters divert money from traditional public schools and undermine union hiring.

Sources said Sánchez threw in with Williams partially out of frustration with former mayoral candidate Ken Trujillo, resenting that the wealthy lawyer hadn't throw any money behind her misbegotten bid to run a slate of Latino candidates for Pennsylvania statehouse positions last year.

Sánchez said Wednesday she's sticking with Williams even though Trujillo dropped out of the race last month.

"I've worked with the senator for 20-plus years," said Sánchez. "One of the things we're working with him on is his Latino agenda and when he launches that agenda, that's when we'll formalize [the endorsement]."

In some ways, the alliance is unsurprising — Sánchez accepted over $22,000 in political contributions from Students First, a political group that represents the same school choice interests that are behind Williams' mayoral run. Sánchez also happens to have been a founding member of the Hostos Community Charter School in her district.

Sánchez said it was unfair to cast Williams as a "single issue candidate," despite his heavy backing from ed reformers.

"The challenges facing the next mayor do not allow us to make any candidate a single issue candidate," she said. "[Williams] has represented a district with many challenges, housing, education. When you look at the challenges around poverty in the city and you look at his consistent record, I think, pound for pound it's unfair to do that."

She also argued that Williams' experience in the capital made him the best candidate to tackle issues like shortfalls of educational funding.

"Are their critical issues facing the city? Absolutely. But who better than someone who has Harrisburg relationships to help?" said Sánchez. "Clearly we have been unsuccessful in dealing with Harrisburg."

What her support practically means for Williams is unclear. Voter turnout in Latino neighborhoods is historically weak, and Sánchez's campaign was light on cash as of late last year. Former state Rep. Ben Ramos speculated that her early affiliation with Williams, who many City Hall insiders say is still the frontrunner, may be more about survival.

"What I hear is that there might be people trying to challenge her in the Council race," said Ramos. "So she has other things to worry about."

Two other Council members also shared the stage with Sánchez at Williams' announcement — Curtis Jones, Jr. and Kenyatta Johnson, who is well known to be a political protege of Williams.

Candidate and former Councilman Jim Kenney didn't receive the same show of support from his former colleagues at his recent announcement event. Despite Kenney's popularity, gained from 23 years on City Council, only fellow South Philly native and Councilman Mark Squilla showed up, even though the event was in City Hall, just two floors below council offices.

However, Kenney is backed by powerful electricians' union boss John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, and has the quiet support of fellow Doc acolytes on Council — like Bobby Henon, Ed Neilson, and Squilla, for that matter. But those may prove to be the only of his 16 former colleagues to join with Kenney unless his electoral prospects improve.

Support from Dougherty can be divisive. Dougherty blocked Councilwoman Marian Tasco's 2011 bid for Council president in favor of Darrell Clarke. Dougherty said publicly that he believed she didn't pay "attention to details the way Darrell does."

Tasco, who is retiring, has not endorsed any mayoral candidate. Dougherty's backing might also help to explain Sánchez's reluctance to jump on board with Kenney — groups associated with Doc supported union-affiliated candidates against her, as well.

Besides Jannie Blackwell, who came out in support of Williams last week, other sitting members also seem to be staying out of it, at least for now. Clarke, true to his secretive reputation, has continued to sit on a large war chest he assembled while considering his own run, despite some rumblings he had considered supporting Kenney financially.

Kenney didn't seem to be taking the anemic support from his old co-workers personally in an interview earlier this week.

"I'm going to remain friends with all my former colleagues, regardless of the outcome of the election," he said.

There are also some "Ghosts of Election Day Past" out there, too — including a couple former Council members with money to spend.

Former City Council President Anna Verna, who will be 84 by the time the election is over, also has money left over from her days in City Hall. She donated $11,500 to Kenney's campaign in September, back when he was simply looking at a reelection campaign for Council. Verna has $116,000 more in the war chest and may be looking to spend it.

Bill Green, who jumped from Council to become chairman of the School Reform Commission last year, has also made a donation. He gave $2,900 from his old campaign fund to Williams at the end of last year.

He and Kenney frequently clashed on council, and now Kenney is living out Green's unrealized dream of running for mayor. Green did not respond to requests for comment, but Kenney took exception to his getting involved in the race.

"I think it's strange for the chairman of the SRC to be contributing to candidates for mayor," he said.