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Philadelphia City Council is about to see some big changes

Philadelphia City Council is in store for significant changes when the new term starts in January, thanks to the arrival of Working Families Party insurgent winner Kendra Brooks and three other new members. Here's what to expect.

From left to right, Kendra Brooks, Isaiah Thomas, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, and Jamie Gauthier will join Philadelphia City Council in January.
From left to right, Kendra Brooks, Isaiah Thomas, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, and Jamie Gauthier will join Philadelphia City Council in January.Read moreInquirer staff

Kendra Brooks is coming to City Hall. And she’s not there to make friends.

Brooks, who scored a historic win on the Working Families Party ticket this week, is one of four new members who will join Philadelphia City Council in January. She’s the first person from outside the two major parties to win a seat in the 100 years since Council adopted a modern structure. Also among the four new members of the 17-person legislative body are its first two millennials.

All that means City Council is in store for significant changes when the new term starts in January.

The biggest shake-up will be the arrival of Brooks, who won one of two seats effectively set aside for non-Democrats, seats that have been held exclusively by Republicans for decades. Trading a Republican for a movement progressive will almost surely move Council politics and policy to the left — though how much remains to be seen. Brooks, who fought against both the local Democratic and Republican machines in her campaign, isn’t shy about how she’ll approach the job.

“I am going to be true to who I am,” she said in an interview. “Part of making decisions is getting people to move on bills you want, but I’m not going in there to make friends. I’m going in there to build a movement and pass policy.”

Brooks will have an ally in fellow at-large Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat first elected in 2015, who received the most votes Tuesday and had endorsed Brooks. While they’re only two votes of 17, they can call upon the progressive activists who elected them to put political pressure on their less liberal colleagues.

But Brooks and Gym will also face skeptical colleagues, who have been miffed at the attention more insurgent candidates have received in recent elections — not to mention a local business community ready to push back against any legislation it views as a threat to economic growth.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke played down the notion that Council will become more progressive in 2020. It already is, he said.

“We’ve had significant turnover in the last three or four terms in terms of membership, and we continue to push the needle,” Clarke said Tuesday as he gathered for an Election Day lunch with other Democrats at Relish in West Oak Lane. “We continue to be progressive while still being practical.”

Joseph McLaughlin, the director of Temple University’s Center on Regional Politics, said the way Brooks was elected means she’ll be “freer than most to be focused on issues that are more controversial.”

“She also probably has a more active constituency than the average at-large member and therefore she may have more influence than the average freshman would have,” McLaughlin said. “Clearly they’ve become an important voting bloc in the city.”

» READ MORE: How Kendra Brooks and the Working Families Party beat the odds to win in Philadelphia

Gym said issues such as increasing affordable housing, reducing poverty, and ending the 10-year tax abatement helped propel her and Brooks to victory.

“I think the election results speak for themselves,” Gym said. “This is a winning agenda for the entire city of Philadelphia. And I think it’s shared by many on City Council, not just the two of us.”

The tax abatement looks poised to be a particularly contentious issue next year. The abatement exempts property owners from paying real estate taxes on new construction or rehabilitation projects for 10 years. Its defenders call it a necessary development incentive that creates jobs and expands the tax base over time. But it has come under attack from some officials and activists who say the city and School District need extra tax money immediately, and blame the tax break for driving rapid gentrification of neighborhoods.

Clarke has repeatedly called for reforming the tax abatement, Gym and others have introduced legislation to do so, and Brooks campaigned on eliminating it entirely. Mayor Jim Kenney, who has supported keeping the abatement intact, has said he would sign a bill changing it if Council passes one.

“I don’t think it will be eliminated, but I think there’ll be a change," Clarke said Tuesday.

Calls to end the tax abatement have been met with particularly fierce resistance in the business community. In the run-up to Election Day, the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia bought digital ads and sent text messages urging voters to reject the Working Families Party agenda of “higher taxes." In a statement Thursday, Chamber spokesperson Dan Fee didn’t address Brooks’ win but said the business group would continue to focus on job creation and economic growth.

“Increasing the number of people employed isn’t just the best way to significantly reduce Philadelphia’s highest-among-big-cities poverty. It’s the only way,” Fee said.

Councilman Allan Domb, a real estate developer, said he’s heard concerns from some in the business community about City Council becoming more progressive. He said he’ll focus on expanding the tax base while also helping poor residents.

“It’s in all of our interest not to be on one side or the other but to figure out how we can expand the taxpaying base so we can have money to expand our programs,” Domb said. “I think you have to remember that Council represents all Philadelphians.”

Brooks’ arrival may also change some of Council’s procedures. The current Council rules, for instance, don’t contemplate the possibility of a third-party member for such tasks as electing the majority and minority leaders. Council customarily adopts its rules for the ensuing four-year term at the inauguration ceremony in January, and could amend them to account for Brooks’ election at that time.

The parties don’t technically caucus together like in Washington or Harrisburg, so Brooks doesn’t have to decide whether to caucus with Democrats or to effectively serve as minority leader of her own one-member caucus. She said she’ll wait until after meeting with Clarke and other members to decide how to approach Council chamber politics generally.

On the campaign trail, Brooks said challenging the GOP’s hold on the two set-aside seats was meant to bolster a Democratic agenda. But the Democratic City Committee opposed the Working Families Party campaign, and by the end of the race Brooks was openly warring with the party establishment.

Regardless, Brooks is expected to chair a council committee, thanks to a tradition Clarke started to make sure each member gets to wield a gavel.

“Every Council member has a committee chair. That is likely to continue,” Clarke spokesman Joe Grace said. “It’s an inclusive Council."

Clarke will also be grappling with the loss of three of his most reliable allies: Jannie Blackwell, who lost her long-held West Philadelphia seat in the Democratic primary to challenger Jamie Gauthier, and at-large members Bill Greenlee and Blondell Reynolds Brown, who both retired and will be replaced by Democrats Isaiah Thomas and Katherine Gilmore Richardson. The new Council will be younger — Thomas and Gilmore Richardson are millennials — and less experienced, with eight members in their first or second terms.

Thomas, 35, said the injection of youth will be a good thing for Council. “I plan to have innovative ideas, transparency, and just a whole different approach for what it means to be an elected official,” he said.