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In the beginning, Darrell Clarke was a pleasant surprise as President of City Council. Part of it was due to low expectations. Clarke, a protégé and former staff member of John Street, had done a steady, but unspectacular, job representing the Fifth District. He seemed a born follower, not a leader.
But, he quickly got Council to act in concert, which is an accomplishment. And he did the right thing last year when it came to AVI. The mayor wanted it passed and implemented quickly, even though there were more questions than answers about it.
Council members were missing key information — most importantly, how the citywide property reassessment would affect their districts. The administration’s roll out of this new, complicated method of determining market value was maladroit, a sign that someone at the top (who could it be?) wasn’t giving enough attention to the details or the politics of the project.
Wisely, Clarke decided to postpone AVI for a year, reasoning that his members didn’t have enough information to take an intelligent vote. He was right. And by doing the right thing — even though it was an exercise in caution — he got noticed. Serious people began to mention Clarke as a candidate for mayor, which was partly an honest endorsement of his abilities, but mostly a measure of their displeasure with the mediocre field lining up to succeed Michael Nutter.
Clarke himself never said much to encourage or discourage the chatter. This is in character for him. He is remarkably opaque as a public figure. A man who always wears a mask in public, like the hero of V is for Vendetta, though not with quite so manic a smile. He is always nattily dressed, perfectly composed and completely remote.
He makes enough soothing noises about taxes and the need for development to please the business community. He upholds Council’s high regard for itself and its prerogatives. He talks the talk when it comes to the little people, those service-starved folk who live in his district. Depending on how you view Clarke, he is either a man who has mastered the task of achieving equilibrium among the competing forces in the city; or he is a political cipher, someone who gives the last person he talked to the impression he is on his side.
It wasn’t until this year when the hubris and vindictiveness became evident.
During the long, frustrating debate over money for the schools, he took to lecturing the state legislature on its obligations to help, reminding leaders in Harrisburg how City Council had done its part, now it was time for them to act. It seems a harmless statement, until you realize how fundamentally unimportant the position of President of City Council is to legislative leaders.
Philadelphians prefer to forget that every scintilla of power the city possesses is at the largesse of the state. We are not a sovereign nation. In a twinkling of an eye, the state legislature could raise, lower or eliminate local taxes; change our form of government or — to use real examples — take over the Parking Authority, the Convention Center and our entire public school system.
Why Clarke sought to goad the legislature — a Republican-controlled body — is a mystery, in terms of politics. In terms of ego, though, it manifests an inflated sense of self-importance.
Then there is Clarke’s relationship with Michael Nutter, though calling it a relationship strains the meaning of that word. When Clarke opposed the mayor on AVI, it was for the right reasons. How were we to know it was the prelude to opposing the mayor on nearly every issue that intersects with the legislative branch? Today, it is axiomatic that if the mayor is for it, Clarke is against it.
Clarke knows how to count heads. He knows that antipathy for the mayor runs deep in his chamber and he can always unite his members behind sticking it to Nutter. To outsiders, though, it smacks of pettiness. People scratch their heads and wonder why a mayor and a legislative body, composed of members of the same party, with similar policy goals, can’t work together — at least once in a while.
Since Nutter has two years left on his term, and since his political power is ebbing at an ever increasing rate, it looks like we will see the politics of personal antipathy played out again and again.
Clarke should be in the forefront of making this stop. Instead, he is the leader of the pack. Behind the personal animus, though, is something more dangerous: Clarke seems determined to make Council the premier branch of government. This is not what the makers of the City Charter envisioned. They created a strong mayor/weak Council form of government, recognizing that Council is, inherently, too parochial and too retrograde politically to reliably set the direction for the city writ large.
Now, what Clarke offers us is a strong Council form of government, where a single councilperson, elected to represent a small slice of the city, can dictate policy citywide. We end up with a big city ruled by midgets.
In Council World, personal prerogatives trump policy, and transient political needs override the long-term public good.
We’ve seen this recently in Clarke’s handling of the land bank bill. The land bank idea is the policy equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. It is designed to take the dysfunctional system we have for disposing of vacant property and turn it into something that actually works. It sets up a mechanism for getting blighted properties into the hands of people who want to use it for profit and non-profit development and community purposes.
It is supported by a board coalition of groups who have worked for five years on the legislation now before Council. Clarke is even a co-sponsor the bill, along with Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez.
It’s unimportant — though true — that somewhere inside Clarke has suspicions about the bill. He senses it will lessen a Councilperson’s control over disposition of land within their districts, though it will not. Supporters had already conceded the prerogative of a district Council member to put a “hold” on certain land deals.
What is important is that Sanchez stood up publicly to Clarke’s attempt to change the bill to double down on Council’s power in the process — specifically to retain a committee that reviews all sale proposals that is, coincidentally, chaired by a Council President designee.
Now, it seems, Clarke intends to school Sanchez, either by amending the bill to death or by outright killing it. He has no good motive for this, other to offer her an object lesson on the dangers of crossing him. It’s petty and unnecessary and revelatory of Clarke’s character and disposition. Behind that smiling mask lies a man unafraid to work against the broader interests of the city merely to underscore the point that he is in charge.
The smile is still there, but in this case, the “V” is for Vindictive.