Councilmember Brian O'Neill at the opening of the Northeast Municipal Services Center at 7522 Castor Ave. in 2016. (Flickr/PHL Council)

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For more than four decades, City Councilmember Brian O’Neill has been cruising to victory in election after election.

The 73-year-old Republican has represented District 10 in the city’s Far Northeast since 1980. He’s served on Philadelphia lawmaking body longer than anyone in modern history.

Emphasizing his work helping residents navigate city rules and services, support for law enforcement, and preservation of the district’s suburban feel with adamant opposition to denser development, he has repeatedly fended off Democratic hopefuls with double-digit margins of victory.

This year, like some other candidates, he’s trying to motivate supporters by attacking current leadership over the city’s high homicide rate. O’Neill did not respond to requests for interviews for this story, but his campaign website describes him as “someone who stands up to Kenney and Krasner” and is “tough on crime and backs the blue.”

“I will continue to oppose the mayor and district attorney’s soft-on-crime policies that increasingly endanger the  law-abiding residents of the Far Northeast,” O’Neill said in a press release announcing his reelection bid.

Law enforcement officers and groups figure prominently among his supporters. His biggest campaign contributions last year included $7k from the Fraternal Order of Police and $5k from the Philadelphia Police Home Association. 

Past Democratic challengers have tried to entice voters with ideas about bringing change to the 10th district – or at least to its representation on Council – but found little success. In 2019, Judy Moore had a well-funded campaign and was endorsed by Philadelphia 3.0, an independent political action committee. Yet she lost to O’Neill by 10 points.

The Dems are trying again this year, putting up Sheet Metal Workers union leader Gary Masino. 

Masino has drawn notice for early fundraising efforts that have already pulled in more than $180,000 for his campaign, almost all of it from building trades unions. That’s much more than Moore had raised by this point in the election cycle. As of January, however, O’Neill had twice as much cash on hand as Masino, about $363,000. 

Roman Zhukov, a community group leader, had been gearing up a Republican primary challenge, but dropped out after failing to collect enough valid signatures for his ballot petition.

O’Neill also has to contend with the progressive trend in recent elections that propelled Working Families Party Councilmember Kendra Brooks to victory. If O’Neill were to lose to Masino and the WFP is able to win both at-large seats reserved for non-majority parties, Council could end up with no Republicans for the first time since he took office.

Reza Ali, a college student and Bustleton native, said he would like to see a more progressive representative for the district. 

Ali, who has worked on Democratic campaigns and whose parents immigrated from Pakistan, thinks O’Neill has paid little attention to the area’s very diverse immigrant communities. He also dislikes that the councilmember has consistently opposed the soda tax, which funds pre-K programs, community schools, and the Rebuild program to renovate parks, playgrounds and libraries. 

“Someone who’s in District 10 like Brian O’Neill and sees what our kids need should absolutely be fighting tooth and nail for that funding,” Ali said. He previously had an internship with the Kenney administration, including a stint with Rebuild.

O’Neill’s website says he is “known for making investments in our community playgrounds, parks, and recreation centers.”

Pundit: O’Neill will lose only if ‘Democrats get serious’

In the relatively conservative Far Northeast, Republicans make up 35% of the District 10’s registered voters, compared to 11% citywide. 

But an apparent moderate like Masino, running a meat-and-potatoes campaign focusing on schools and crime, might be better able to peel votes away from O’Neill in the November general election.

Past challengers have failed in part because, when push comes to shove, many Democrats in the district actually like O’Neill’s resistance to change, according to Brett Mandel, a former deputy city controller who closely follows city politics. He says during past elections he’s watched as the “Democratic machine” in the 10th supported strong candidates, but voters failed to follow through on Election Day.

“If and when the Democrats are serious about taking Brian O’Neill out, Brian O’Neill will lose,” said Mandel, a business and political consultant. “They are comfortable that he is going to stand in the way of the things that they want him to stand in the way of.”

This year, Masino has done little or no public campaigning so far. He does not have a website or social media presence. He twice scheduled and then canceled interviews with Billy Penn, and did not respond to a followup message.

When he announced his Council run in December, he said Northeast Philly had changed for the worse and he could not “sit idle any longer.”

“The increase in crime in our community is alarming and needs to be addressed. Our police departments need to be properly funded, our teachers need to be adequately paid, and our small businesses need the opportunity to thrive,” Masino said, according to the Northeast Times.

He enters the race with a long history of serving in union positions and on government boards. 

In addition to his job as president and business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 19, which has over 4000 members, he’s a vice president at the national union and holds leadership positions at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and other labor organizations. He’s received the maximum contribution of $12,600 from several unions, including the sheet metal workers, electricians, iron workers, operating engineers, painters, laborers, plumbers, roofers, steamfitters, and bricklayers. 

Under Mayor Michael Nutter he served on the Zoning Board of Appeals and on the Department of Licensing and Inspection’s Board of Appeals. Gov. Tom Wolf appointed him to the board of the Delaware River Port Authority, which oversees PATCO and several major bridges.

Masino briefly weighed a 2019 run against Kenney, apparently because of a dispute involving another politically ambitious union leader, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. Dougherty is a close Kenney ally who at the time headed the IBEW Local 98 electricians union. When Kenney took office, he booted Masino from the ZBA and replaced him with Dougherty pal Anthony Gallagher, then the head of the steamfitters union.  

When status quo is a selling point

Philadelphia Republican City Committee Chair Vince Fenerty acknowledged Masino’s fundraising strength. But he argued that O’Neill’s lengthy Council tenure — something Zhukov and other past challengers have tried to use against him — continue to appeal to district voters.

“There’s always concern Masino will have a lot of union support. I would hope that Brian O’Neill’s constituents recognize his long years of service, and his excellent service, and they don’t turn the 10th councilmanic district into amateur hour with a new councilman,” Fenerty said.

Masino does not appear to have directly criticized O’Neill or explained why voters should pick him over the longtime Republican stalwart. 

Asked why the union leader might do better than previous challengers, Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady said, “Gary Masino should be well-funded, he has a name that people do know, and he will be successful.” Brady also said the union leader has been endorsed by all of the district’s Democratic ward leaders.

Ali, the college student, argued that Masino’s resume and reputation might not play entirely to the candidate’s favor.

A few years ago Ali might have “held his nose” and voted for someone like Masino, he said, but the revelations that came out of the 2021 federal corruption trial of Dougherty and former council member Bobby Henon made him reluctant to support labor leaders who run for office.

“If Masino is projecting the same way as Johnny Doc or former councilman Henon, just on City Council to do a union’s bidding… I don’t think I would help him,” Ali said. “That’s out of a love for my community. The corruption that comes from Local 98 types within City Council does not help my community whatsoever.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Philadelphia 3.0 did not spend any money to back Judy Moore in 2019.

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Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...