PHL Council

Lifetime appointments and dynasties: Why it’s impossible to lose Philly City Council seats

Ori Feibush is running against Kenyatta Johnson for the 2nd District City Council seat. Some eight-plus others are running against four Democratic incumbents for five spots in the at-large race. If you’re a supporter of any of them, wish them luck, say a prayer, whatever. Just don’t make any bets on their success. Any challenger for City Council has almost no chance to win, and it has nothing to do with their qualifications, policy stances or likeability. It has to do with the fact that they are running against an incumbent who is not dead or embroiled in a scandal.

Now, that’s a slight overstatement. But only a slight one. Since 1983, 12 incumbent council members who had served a full four-year term have lost their seats to a challenger. In that same time period, 14 retired or resigned for normal reasons, five died while in office and six resigned because of scandal. A handful of others have served partial terms and then lost.

Scoreboard: Lost seat because they actually lost: 12, lost seat because they were dead or in big trouble: 11. That’s not quite a resounding victory for fresh political thought.

And yet those numbers don’t quite illustrate the sheer impossibility of losing one of the 17 Council spots if you’re alive and not getting ensnared in the “American Hustle”-famous sting operation Abscam, like three Councilmen were in the early 80s. When you break it down further, you’ll see that eight of those 12 challenger victories have come in at-large races, and three have come in the 7th District.

So, only once since 1983 has an incumbent who served the previous full term lost to a challenger in one of the other nine districts. That plucky, motivated challenger who did the impossible? Michael Nutter. You’ve probably heard of him. He unseated Ann Land in the 4th District in 1991. Land had locked down the 4th since 1980, serving two full terms and one partial term. How did she ascend to the position? Well, the guy who had the 4th District before her was involved in Abscam. Obviously.

In 2011, Pew released a study on Philadelphia’s 2010 City Council and found the average member had been tenured for 15.5 years. It compared Philadelphia to 14 other big cities, and none had a higher average. The average tenure for all 15 cities combined was 7.9 years.

Thomas Ginsberg, project manager for Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative and the lead author of the study, says some of the major factors for Philly council members’ longevity were the lack of a term limit rule in Philadelphia, some of the best pay and benefits of anywhere in the country and the rule forcing Council members to resign if they sought another political office.

There’s also the voter turnout effect. Council voting numbers can be dismal, especially when there’s no real challenge in the mayoral primary. In 2011, with Nutter facing just Milton Street as opposition, about 21 percent of registered voters actually voted in the primary. Those who do vote for Council might not even know who they’re voting for.

“There’s something about the nature of the institution,” Ginsberg says. “People pay less attention to legislators and I don’t know why.”

Even after they retire or die, longtime council members’ influence still pervades elections, with their successors often being former aides — like Darrell Clarke when he took over for John Street in 1999 — or family members. Jannie Blackwell won the 3rd District in 1991 after her husband, Lucien Blackwell, resigned to run for mayor. Anna Verna led the 2nd District from 1975 to 2012, succeeding her father, William Cibotti, who died of a heart attack while part of Council.

Though the pros and cons of having a long-tenured council versus a younger council can be debated, the financial cost can’t. “Life-appointed” Council members are expensive for Philadelphia, with pension benefits increasing with time accrued, and Pew found Philadelphia’s council to be the second-most expensive of the 15 cities it researched.

This current rendition of Council is actually the freshest in a long time. Pew reported its average tenure to be about nine years when six new members took over after the 2011 elections, replacing five former Council members who had retired or chosen not to run while under pressure for being enrolled in the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan. A sixth, Frank Rizzo Jr., lost in the Republican at-large race.

By the way, if you count those five former Council members as being embroiled in scandal instead of as traditional retirees then the scoreboard of incumbent defeats since 1983 actually reads like this: Lost seat because they actually lost: 12, lost seat because they were dead or in big trouble: 16.

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