Councilmember Cherelle Parker in early March 2020

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City Council could soon have several empty seats.

Philly’s 2023 mayoral race is expected to kick off any moment now, and at least six of the people rumored to be running are sitting city councilmembers. One is the city controller.

Those potential contenders face some pretty high stakes in considering whether to run: Once they decide to make their candidacy official, they’ll have to quit their current job. That’s thanks to a local provision known as a “resign-to-run” law.

The requirement has been on the books since the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter was adopted in 1951. It’s certainly not universally loved, but it has held for more than 70 years. Over the past decade and a half, Philadelphians have twice voted to keep it in place.

Why does it exist — and who wants to change it? Here’s a look at how the resign-to-run rule works, where it came from, and why some people think the city should get rid of it.

What exactly is the rule, and who does it apply to?

“No officer or employee of the city” can be a candidate for public office unless they’ve already resigned from their city office or job, per the Home Rule Charter. The only allowed exception is when officials run for re-election to their current office.

The rule applies to anyone employed by the city — no matter what position they hold or what office they’re seeking.

A city councilmember would need to give up their seat regardless of whether they’re running for mayor, state legislature, or president. And a Department of Public Health employee running for City Council would have to follow the same rule.

Something to note: this requirement applies only to city officials and workers. Federal- and state-level officeholders are free to launch campaigns while they’re still in office, even if they represent a Philadelphia constituency.

For example, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah ran for Philly mayor in 2007 while still holding his seat in Congress, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta remained in his Pa. House seat while running in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate this year.

How soon after they announce do city officials have to resign?

Formal candidacy announcements aren’t supposed to happen until after a city official has resigned from their current office.

When Mayor Jim Kenney announced in 2015 he was resigning from Council to run for mayor, for instance, he refrained from making any official declarations until after the resignation took effect.

“I’m not going to be able to tell anybody what I’m going to do until after Thursday because I would then run afoul of our city charter,” he said after announcing his intent to resign, but before confirming his intent to run. “But clearly, resigning is a huge step. It shows that I have intention to move forward with what people have been speculating about.”

When a councilmember resigns to run for mayor or another office, what happens to their seat?

When a member of City Council resigns their position, the council president must call for a special election to fill the seat through the rest of the term, according to the city charter. (In special elections, political leaders pick who’ll represent each party on the ballot.)

As long as there’s at least 30 days’ notice, the council president can decide to put the race on the ballot in the next primary, in the next municipal election, in the next general election, or in a totally separate election. The charter doesn’t specify a time table for how long a seat can stay vacant.

Council President Darrell Clarke in January 2020 Credit: Jared Piper / Philadelphia City Council Flickr

Why does the rule exist?

For a few reasons.

The rule exists in part so city officeholders or employees can’t be “in a position to influence unduly and to intimidate employees under [their] supervision,” per the city charter.

Also, the document notes, if candidates were allowed to run while keeping their old city jobs, they might “neglect [their] official duties in the interest of [their] candidacy.”

In other words, it’s to prevent a situation where people employed by the city aren’t actually putting in the work their job calls for. Proponents of the rule argue that it would be unfair for taxpayers to continue funding officials’ salaries while they’re distracted from their current roles by the intense process of being a candidate.

The requirement also keeps more “pay-to-play” culture from spreading in city politics, The Inquirer Editorial Board argued in 2013. If they didn’t have to resign first, city officials running for state offices would be able to accept unlimited campaign donations from special interests. (There are limits to how much candidates can accept in campaigns for city offices.)

Has anyone tried to get rid of the resign-to-run requirement?

Yes, and more than once — though it wasn’t successful.

Proposals that would’ve modified the requirement were questions on the ballot in 2007 and 2014. But — unusually, because ballot questions overwhelmingly pass — voters rejected the measures both times.

Opponents of the resign-to-run rule have a few arguments for ditching it, including concerns over unequal representation and equity. Specifically, per a Committee of Seventy Q&A from 2013:

  • It could temporarily leave some constituencies without representation on City Council, if it’s a district councilmember resigning.
  • Some would-be candidates — those who aren’t flush with money — might be discouraged from running because they’d have to give up their income source.
  • It simply makes races less competitive by raising the stakes involved with becoming a candidate.

Some also argue it’s unfair for the city’s elected officials to be held to different standards than those at the state and federal level (or who don’t work in government at all — like rumored candidate and grocery store magnate Jeff Brown, for example).

Councilmember David Oh, who’s led several charges to get rid of resign-to-run, said in 2013 that the requirement has created a “bottleneck of elected officials”: it incentivizes Philadelphia’s elected officials to hold onto safe seats for long periods of time, rather than giving them up to seek higher office. That dynamic lessens Philly’s political influence in Harrisburg and D.C, Oh has argued.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...