The Rise of Darrell Clarke: From John Street protégé to City Council president.

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This article originally appeared in the January 19, 2012 edition of the Philadelphia City Paper, now defunct. The author does not own the copyright. 

The Rise of Darrell Clarke

From John Street protégé to City Council president.

Isaiah Thompson

City Paper

Joel Kimmel

On Jan. 2, as legions of Two Street revelers snored off the New Year, Fifth District Councilman Darrell Clarke took the stage at the Academy of Music to acknowledge his formal anointment as the new president of Philadelphia’s City Council.

It was an intensely public moment for an unusually private politician. Among his colleagues, Clarke is something of an enigma. While most Council members seek the spotlight, Clarke tends to avoid it. (One unconfirmed rumor has it he never sits at the head of the table, and keeps an eye on the exit.) For the past five years or so, Clarke has lived not in Strawberry Mansion, where he grew up and where his core constituency resides, nor in one of the more affluent parts of his district, but in a modest row house on a low-profile street in Kensington — the outermost corner of his gerrymandered district. When angry AIDS activists sang modified Christmas carols outside Mayor Michael Nutter’s house, the mayor silently let them, but when advocates for paid sick days for Philly workers — a bill sponsored by Clarke himself — flyered Clarke’s house, the councilman was reportedly furious. Following a rowdy party at an arts space on Front Street near his home, as City Paper reported two years ago, Clarke introduced legislation prohibiting anything but residential use along that strip.

Clarke, like other longtime Council incumbents, has used his success to build a seemingly impregnable fortress of support within his district, which encompasses a wide swath of North Philly down through Logan Square and part of Center City, and which snakes into areas of Northern Liberties and Kensington. Every four years, he appears to face less opposition than in the previous campaign. But for all those votes, there are voices in his district that characterize his leadership as divisive, favoritist, even despotic. Those who would criticize the Council president to this reporter would do so only anonymously or off the record. (Clarke himself declined repeated requests for an interview for this story.)

In Council, Clarke is a workaholic and a law-making machine, introducing at least one bill — and often half a dozen or more — at every single meeting of City Council last year. And yet for all that, Clarke has not been a particularly prominent voice on the more contentious issues to come before Council over the past few years. As the city’s legislative body has debated bike-lane bans; student curfews; fracking; casinos; changes to taxes on properties, businesses and soda; and the redistricting of its own district boundaries, Clarke was often to be seen lurking quietly in the background.

But don’t think he wasn’t paying attention. Clarke’s rise to the presidency of City Council is the outcome of years of careful maneuvering, subtle politicking and often-brilliant, hair-raising, last-minute deal-making that’s put the subtle Clarke in the not-so-subtle position of being the second-most-powerful person in city government. Or, depending on how it all pans out, possibly the first.

In his inaugural speech, Clarke began by acknowledging the “two people who taught me so much since I came into city government over 20 years ago.”

The first was former Mayor John Street, Clarke’s own political mentor and benefactor. From Street, Clarke said, he had learned the importance of “hard work.” The second was the outgoing Council president, Second District Councilwoman Anna Verna, from whom Clarke said he’d learned “the true value of fairness.”

“If I can work as hard as John Street and treat people as fairly as Council President Anna Verna,” he concluded from these comparisons, “I’ll have a solid foundation on which to lead City Council.”

It was a point that did not fall on deaf ears among Clarke’s colleagues, allies, rivals and watchers in City Hall.

Street was notorious for his micro-managing and, some would say, tyrannical rule of City Council as its president. Verna, on the other hand, ruled by deference, allowing Council members to set their own agendas and settle their own disputes. Each style had its strengths and weaknesses: The upside to Street’s was the increased power of a tightly marshalled Council; the downside to Verna’s was a Council that hemmed and hawed at critical moments.

Some see in Clarke the possibility of bridging the two styles of leadership.

“Street ruled with an iron fist. Verna was more the conciliator. I think he’ll take the best of both,” said one Council source, sounding a note of optimism that’s not uncommon within City Council right now.

So far, Clarke has made Verna-esque gestures to his colleagues, offering each the opportunity to chair a Council committee, and praising Nutter, who had doggedly supported Ninth District Councilwoman Marian Tasco for president. But it’s too early to start singing “Kumbaya,” and there are aspects of the councilman’s style thus far — shadows, in many cases, of Street — that lend themselves to a less sanguine vision of things to come.

Clarke might be making nice now, another Council source opined. But, “I don’t think it will last. He never forgets a slight … I suspect he’ll bide his time, consolidate his power, and when he feels the need to make an example of someone, he won’t hesitate.”

Darrell Clarke grew up in Strawberry Mansion — at one point a thriving, working-class Jewish neighborhood, later a thriving, working-class black neighborhood, but, by the time Clarke came up in the ’70s and ’80s, a neighborhood in rapid decline.

Then he met John Street, at that time an insurgent politician who, following in his brother Milton’s footsteps, was staging a challenge to entrenched African-American leadership in the Fifth Council District. According to Street’s son, attorney Sharif Street, Clarke “came up to my dad and got up in his face, saying, ‘What do you know [about] this neighborhood?'”

Whatever the true origin story, Street hired Clarke as a constituent services representative, eventually making him his chief of staff. Clarke stayed on, sharing an office with another aide, Shirley Kitchen, now a state senator, until Street was elected mayor in 1999, vacating the Fifth District seat and giving Clarke his blessing to run for it himself.

Clarke’s first race, in 1999, was his toughest. He faced two opponents in the primary: engineering consultant (and wife of then state Rep. Andrew Carn) Dorothy Carn; and Julie Welker, a Fairmount real estate attorney who had made two prior runs against Street for the seat. Clarke came out on top by just 141 votes, and Welker sued in federal court, accusing the Street/Clarke organization of stuffing ballot boxes with ghost voters (some 100 votes, she alleged, were traced back to vacant and abandoned buildings). Eventually, she lost the lawsuit and conceded.

Clarke faced no other opponent until 2007, when Fairmount developer and businessman John Longacre and Strawberry Mansion newcomer Haile C. Johnston ran for the seat. Clarke won handily with 70 percent of the vote. And last year, Clarke defeated all-but-invisible opponent Suzanne Carn (the second wife of Andrew Carn to take on the councilman) 73 percent to 27 percent.

With each election, the councilman’s war chest has grown impressively. Two weeks before the primary in 2007, facing two vocal but poorly funded opponents, Clarke had more than $162,000 in campaign funds (Johnston, by comparison, had raised $27,000; Longacre about $20,000) and came out of his uncontested general election with $63,000 in spending money left over. In 2011, Clarke faced off against the little-known Carn with almost $200,000. In the last two weeks of the primary alone, Clarke managed to raise an additional $30,000 toward his all-but-guaranteed re-election.

But Clarke’s finances might not be the only reason more Council hopefuls haven’t stepped up to the formidable task of challenging him: Following Clarke’s 2007 primary victory, as the Inquirer reported at the time, opponent Haile Johnston found his and his wife’s Philadelphia Horticultural Society contract to clean vacant lots mysteriously canceled thanks to a policy change handed down by Mayor Street’s chief of staff — allegedly at Clarke’s request. (Clarke denied having intervened.)

Neither Johnston nor Longacre would comment for this story. A call to the Carn residence, from which two challenges to Clarke have originated, yielded the former rep’s statement: “I just wish [Clarke] congratulations” on his presidency. Former opponent Julie Welker, who spent 12 years running for the Fifth District seat and whose federal challenge to Clarke’s victory lasted nearly a month, told City Paper that she thought Clarke was doing “a great job” and that she could “barely remember” running against him. “I remember running. I remember he won. That’s about it,” she said cheerfully.

Over his 12 years on Council, Clarke has accrued impressive political power. And the currency of power in his district, perhaps more than any other, has been development. The walls of the councilman’s office — before he moved to his presidential suite, at least — have long been lined with ornamental shovels, the trophies of one Clarke-assisted development after another. The councilman claims credit for helping create more than 100 units of new affordable housing.

Campaign finance records show hundreds of donations to Clarke’s campaigns by developers big and small. Developers are some of the councilman’s best allies — but they are also among his chief detractors.

CP has spoken with some small and would-be developers who complain bitterly — and only under the condition of total anonymity — of difficulties in dealing with Clarke’s office, especially when it comes to buying city-owned vacant land. Doing so requires the district councilperson’s approval. Several describe waiting indefinitely for access to vacant parcels, while other developers seemingly navigated the system easily. They point to cases — there is no shortage — where individuals and companies that have obtained vacant land also appear in the councilman’s campaign finance records, or seem to have political connections. (Clarke has authorized redevelopment contracts with at least three individuals listed in 2010 as committeepeople in his district.)

Some accuse Clarke of playing favorites, and the councilman has indeed seemed to embrace certain developers for projects utilizing city funding — companies like Pennrose and Michael’s Development Co., for example (both generous longtime donors to Clarke’s campaigns). And while Clarke has overseen partnerships with many notable community groups — Project H.O.M.E., Habitat for Humanity, Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha — he’s also presided over at least one project that had more dubious ties.

As CP reported this summer, the councilman attended the ribbon-cutting of a housing complex in Strawberry Mansion in which the main developer, Pennrose, had partnered with a long-defunct nonprofit (the Strawberry Mansion Housing Coalition) and a contracting company run by Anthony Rhaney, a former business partner of Clarke. Rhaney had received properties, apparently for free from the defunct nonprofit, even while signing documents as its president. Clarke, interviewed at the time, said he knew nothing about Rhaney’s involvement, although a letter from Rhaney and Pennrose to the RDA cited Clarke’s support.

The flip side of favoritism, say Clarke’s detractors, is potential unfavoritism. “All of a sudden, you’re just hitting stone walls,” said one such developer who has done business in the Fifth District. “He’s always one step ahead of you … and you have developers so afraid of this guy they won’t speak up.”

But Clarke, of course, is hardly the only district council member with close ties to developers, and Clarke has authorized the sale of land to plenty of individuals, companies and nonprofits who have no ostensible connection to politics or his re-election campaigns at all. And the process of obtaining city-owned vacant land can be so profoundly complicated that it’s very hard to know whether a delay originates from a councilman’s office or from one of a slew of other agencies involved in the messy process of land sales.

Meanwhile, other developers in Clarke’s district describe his approach quite differently.

“It can be difficult, but difficult for a reason,” says Herb Reid 3d, vice president of the Maze Group, a developer that’s done large projects in the Temple University area of the Fifth District, and a member of the Temple Area Property Association (TAPA), a group of influential local developers.

Reid, like most developers, says that he wants to see the process of buying vacant land separated from city politics. But he also says he understands why Clarke and other Council members feel a need to keep a close eye on who gets land deals. “The councilman wants to see that you can deliver,” says Reid. “He’s being responsible.”

Indeed, Clarke faces a delicate balancing act when it comes to promoting private development and being responsive to his core constituency, especially around the booming Temple University area, where residents worry about being gentrified out and accuse students of being bad neighbors. Last September, Clarke introduced a bill in City Council that would ban new student housing around Temple.

The proposal was highly controversial — and, as critics pointed out mockingly in online forums, possibly illegal. But what critics called a foolish law, developers who’ve worked closely with Clarke described as a tactical move. “He divides by economics, by race — he’ll do anything he can to keep people fighting so they don’t see what he’s actually doing or not doing,” says one developer who used to do business in the Fifth District.

Not long after, Clarke introduced another bill that would create a Neighborhood Improvement District in the area, imposing an extra assessment on most new developments while exempting owner-occupied houses.

The bill’s implication is that more development will be allowed, but not without the neighborhood’s getting its share — a compromise some developers can get behind. TAPA (many of whose members, including Reid, are generous donors to the councilman’s campaign committee) has come out in full support of the bill. (A call to the Yorktown Community Organization, which has fought scattered student housing, was not returned.)

“You come to him with a proposal, and he says, ‘What’s in it for the community?’ I think he’s managed that appropriately,” says one longtime observer of Clarke’s development policies. “But the question is whether there’s a wider view of what the city’s policies should be — or is it all just reactive?”

Clarke has proven himself a tactical master of Council politics, using legislation to achieve favorable ends for himself and his allies on Council. His skill has been particularly evident over the past year, as he worked to shore up support for his presidency and prove his abilities as a leader.

Last June, Council wound up in a marathon session as it considered two major proposals — one to mandate paid sick days for city workers, and the other to provide extra funding for the ailing School District. The mayor had made his second push for Council to pass a tax on sweetened beverages to fund the schools. Clarke proposed a property-tax hike instead, and, with the help of Councilman Bill Green, he won over a reluctant Councilman Bill Greenlee by making sure the sick-days bill passed muster.

During Council’s recent struggles over redistricting, Clarke seemed to play a secondary role in the drawing of new maps. But once the proposals surfaced, he seemed to be everywhere at once, working his colleagues in the hallways outside Council and eventually helping to broker an agreement. In the process, he thwarted an alternate plan supported by rival Tasco and bolstered his own credibility as a leader.

There are tactics, of course, and then there’s strategy. Some of Clarke’s legislation over the years has drawn criticism for lacking the latter — in particular, bills that imposed new gun-control restrictions in Philadelphia and that critics said were clearly trumped by state law. So far, judges have ruled against the regulations, despite considerable expense by the city in fighting for them.

The bigger question now is whether and how Clarke will move from tactical politics — “transactional politics,” as one observer puts it — to the strategic politics of running the city’s legislative body.

In his inaugural speech, Clarke outlined some of his priorities, among them a plan for “Development Districts” where certain city-owned land could be sold at 50 percent to 90 percent discounts.

Indeed, the disposition of vacant land — an issue dear to Clarke’s own career thus far — will likely play a major role in Philadelphia politics in the coming year, and Council President Clarke will have a major say in how that plays out.

The Nutter administration is rumored to be circulating its own proposal for a long-delayed comprehensive vacant land policy. Meanwhile, Council members Green and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez have been pushing hard for the creation of a land bank, which would become a central repository of vacant land and, in theory, allow for land to be distributed in accordance with community needs.

Clarke’s own proposal isn’t quite either one of these. It might work hand in hand with the other two proposals, but it could also pose direct competition.

We’ll learn whose approach wins out soon enough. Council will begin hearings on the city’s budget in the spring. Whether President Clarke will, as the daily editorial sections hope, usher in with Nutter a new era of vision remains to be seen.

“With Darrell Clarke as president, there really is an opportunity for the mayor and Council to do a lot together. I know that’s not the conventional wisdom,” opines Councilman Bill Green, “but if the mayor and President Clarke agree on a policy, it will get done.”

So far it’s not clear exactly what those mutually beneficial policies would be.

Clarke hasn’t articulated a sweeping agenda — but, argues Green, neither has Mayor Nutter. “What we’re really lacking is a clear vision statement from the mayor,” says Green. Without one, he says, the new Council, under Clarke’s leadership, will create its own: “We will fill that vacuum.”

(isaiah.thompson@citypaper.net) (@isaiah_thompson)

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