The framers of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter in 1951 seemed to have a particular role in mind for the seven at-large members of City Council.
While the 10 district council people tended to more parochial concerns, the at-large members were supposed to think broadly about the needs of the city, to look over the horizon.
Sounded good at the time, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. At-large members who try to fill that grand role often find themselves thwarted by the superior numbers of district members, and their narrow concerns, or by the superior clout of the mayor. As a result, at-large members often lapse into small-bore thinking, content to represent niche groups or to fill gaps in constituent service left by other Council members.
As citizens thirst for fresh thinking and reform at City Hall, now would be a fine time for the at-large contingent on Council finally to live up to its grander role.
Luckily, the civic ferment caused by the pay-to-play scandal and the casino jam-job has produced a deep at-large field on the Democratic side. At least a half-dozen of the challengers would be an upgrade over some of the weaker incumbents.
It's hard to choose, but let's try: For the five Democratic slots on the November at-large ballot, The Inquirer recommends that voters retain two incumbents, JIM KENNEY and WILSON GOODE JR., and reward three challengers: DEREK GREEN, ANDY TOY and MARC STIER.
Kenney is a rarity, a guy up from the neighborhood (in this case, South Philly) who still gets the big picture with clarity and creativity. Yes, Kenney got discouraged beating his head against walls during Mayor Street's tenure. The prospect of a new era seems to put the pep back in his step. From setting a strategy to attract immigrants to bringing a 311 customer service hotline to Philly, Kenney is eager to import great ideas that have worked elsewhere. And he'll sweat the details to make sure Philly does them right.
Goode marches to his own drummer, with integrity and a sophisticated knowledge of economic development. He was lead sponsor of the desperately needed campaign finance reform law.
Green learned how Council works and how good policy takes shape in his years as a top aide to Councilwoman Marian Tasco. As a small businessman, he knows exactly how burdensome the city's business tax structure is to entrepreneurs. He's bright and personable, and has an unusual grasp of the need for Philadelphia to reach out to its suburbs in thinking regionally.
Toy doesn't try to dazzle at candidate forums with flashy answers; he just impresses with steady substance. He has a legion of admirers around the city based on his community and economic development work with the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and the city Commerce Department. He doesn't hinge his campaign on being Asian American, but he'd be a proud and worthy trailblazer as that community's first representative on Council.
As founder of the Neighborhood Networks reform organization, Stier has been a thoughtful, forceful voice for cleaning up the ethical swamp at City Hall. The former Temple professor would take up the late David Cohen's mantle as the voice of progressive populism on Council, but he's updated that outlook for modern times.
By the way, each of these three challengers - Green, Toy and Stier - were named by Leadership Philadelphia Inc. as one of the 101 Connectors, a list of the most trusted leaders in Philadelphia. That speaks to their ability to advocate and to get things done, without flinging sharp elbows or making enemies.
Backing three challengers means rejecting three incumbents. A word on each. Blondell Reynolds-Brown is a sincere advocate on children's and women's issues. But she's had two terms to figure out how to make a big impact; she hasn't. Juan Ramos was pushed onto Council to be a reliable vote for John Street and trade unions; he's served his purpose. Bill Greenlee is a genial former Cohen aide; he got his seat last year through all-too-typical closed-door Democratic machinations. It's not his fault, but voters shouldn't endorse that kind of machine behavior.
The field contains other impressive challengers. Matt Ruben, a Northern Liberties civic activist, expounds his reform/big picture agenda brilliantly, but he's made some alliances this election season that give you pause. Caryn Hunt is a smart, intense and intensely anti-casino "green" candidate. Maceo Cummings brings a wealth of economic development experience, but would fill much the same niche as Goode and Toy. There's also another Ramos on the ballot, Benjamin, a former state representative and deputy mayor who is a more impressive option than the incumbent.
The field has a decided All in the Family flavor. Goode isn't the only son of a former mayor on the ballot. Incumbent Frank Rizzo is a shoo-in on the Republican side, while Bill Green and Sharif Street are challengers on the Democratic side. Both Bill Green and Street show admirable grasp of issues and city government; temperamentally, though, neither acorn seems to have fallen far from the tree.
There are a few others on the ballot, including, heaven help us, Milton Street, Sharif's eccentric uncle, but they don't measure up.