Council President Clarke's Departure Dramatically Raises the Stakes for 2023 City Council Elections

(Photo Credit: Thom Carroll | Philly Voice)

Further cementing the 2023 election’s status as a pivotal election year for the city of Philadelphia, Council President and 5th District Councilmember Darrell Clarke announced last Thursday he would not run for another term.


First elected to office in 1999 via a special election, and then to the Council Presidency in 2012, Council President Clarke has been City Hall’s most powerful operator for over a decade, pulling the strings in both visible and invisible ways across many areas of city policy. 

Under CP Clarke’s leadership, the institution of City Council amassed a good deal of power at the expense of the institution of the Mayoral administration, particularly concerning built-environment issues like housing and zoning, streets, sidewalk seating and streeteries. Under Clarke, City Council also gathered more power and influence over major bonded spending initiatives like Rebuild and the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative. Council also gained approval power over some types of Mayoral appointments to important governing bodies like the School Board and the Zoning Board of Adjustment. 

More Scope for Councilmanic Prerogative

In many of these policy areas, the effect has been to shift more power specifically to District City Councilmembers, and to widen the scope for discretionary decision-making by those members as opposed to more clear citywide laws and rules. 

A few recent examples of this pattern include the move to require City Council ordinances again for streeteries and sidewalk cafe seating in most of the city, the move to apply the newly-state-authorized affordable housing tax abatement only within a small slice of the 5th District rather than applying it citywide, and the increase in District-wide zoning overlays with bespoke code text rules. 

Just within the last two years, it has become the case that there are now 10 different sets of rules for building a simple rowhouse in Philadelphia, and to CP Clarke’s way of thinking about things, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

To our way of thinking, there is something really wrong with a lot of that because the wider scope for member discretion across a broader range of issues cuts against the city’s ability to actually plan in any real way. It also creates opportunities and incentives for corrupt pay-to-play dynamics, and it tends to give a political leg-up to the reactionary Not-In-My-Backyard style of politics. 

One recent absurd example of how things can play out under this approach was the long-delayed disposition of a city land parcel in North Philly that CP Clarke had promised to Habitat for Humanity for deeply-affordable housing, but which he then held up for months due to complaints from a few neighbors who were using the land as a makeshift parking lot, despite the lots being zoned for residential-uses only. The number of affordable homes allowed was also reduced at CP Clarke’s request to preserve some of the parking. 

One consistent throughline of CP Clarke’s political orientation has been his willingness to put residents’ parking concerns near the very top of his priority stack, even in cases where more basic needs like affordable housing would be on the chopping block as a result. Another more significant example of this was the Council President’s 2021 decision to nullify the city’s density bonus for affordable housing all throughout District 5, ensuring it would not be used there. 

To the more planning-skeptical members of Council, these are mostly features, not bugs, of the reigning governing dynamic and Council President Clarke has been a very skilled and devoted steward of this order of things. One of the main upshots of CP Clarke’s decision to step down after this year is that the adherents of this style of politics are losing their most effective strategist and most powerful operator.

The next Council President will inherit a much larger staff with more policy capacity than the office had before Darrell Clarke took over, and will similarly exercise a lot of power over City Council’s agenda. Writing about the race to succeed CP Clarke in Friday’s Inquirer, Sean Walsh and Anna Orso have a good overview of the high stakes involved

The Council president’s office, in consultation with other Council leadership, decides what legislation is considered, if it gets a hearing, and when it comes up for a vote. The Council president schedules and presides over weekly meetings, and he or she casts the final vote on bills.

In addition, the Council president appoints members to a variety of standing committees, where hearings are held and details of legislation are hammered out. Members who maintain a good relationship with the Council president can be rewarded with more powerful committee assignments or chairmanships.”

CP Clarke will serve as President through the end of the year, and the new Council President will be elected by a majority vote of the new City Council members. The open top leadership seat dramatically raises the stakes for who may win the 17 City Council elections, since a plurality of the members will be brand new. While four current incumbents—Cindy Bass, Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, and Mark Squilla—are reported to be actively interested, it’s not necessarily guaranteed the next President will be one of them with so many new members joining the body. 

The Race for the 5th District

In the 5th District, Council President Clarke has announced his preference for Curtis Wilkerson, his chief of staff, to succeed him. That hasn’t stopped several other candidates from throwing their hats in the ring, including another former Clarke staffer, zoning attorney Jeffrey Young, Senator Sharif Street's staffer Aissia Richardson, attorney and Fairmount Civic Association board member Patrick Griffin, and recently-deposed 18th ward leader John Scott.

Now halfway into the petition-gathering period, it seems unlikely many new candidates will be able to act with sufficient time to start up a campaign. It’s also unclear whether all of the named or rumored candidates will be able to get on the ballot at this point. 

CP Clarke’s choice to stay mum on his intentions well into petition season was in many ways a vintage Clarke move, for City Hall watchers. The Council President is not known for making decisions very quickly, which can appear very strategic and cunning, but can also be self-undermining too. There were rumors for months that CP Clarke might choose not to run again, which had gotten a lot louder over the last few weeks. 

It would've made sense to wait until late in the game to announce, and avoid giving any advantages to candidates besides his preferred successor. But then as the petition period began, and a week went by, things started to look a little more curious. Particularly since, according to sources, CP Clarke was still telling ward leaders he had not yet made up his mind or confirmed his plan to Wilkerson as of earlier last week. 

Few of the candidates in the mix would likely stay in the race if Clarke were to announce he was running again, and especially not Wilkerson, who would very likely only want to run with Clarke’s blessing. But Clarke allegedly did not make clear to Wilkerson when he would make a decision by, or when he thought Wilkerson should resign from his office by to begin collecting petition signatures with sufficient time to spare. That’s left Wilkerson with less of a decisive head-start on other candidates than he might have gotten, and the whole episode makes CP Clarke seem a little more like a master procrastinator than a master strategist. 

CP Clarke has been rumored for years to favor State Rep. Donna Bullock as his ideal replacement candidate for the 5th District, but according to sources, Rep. Bullock has not been interested in taking the reins, leaving Clarke without much of a bench of well-known proteges in the district who might replace him. It is presumed, but not assured, that CP Clarke will be able to direct some of his own supporters and their resources toward Wilkerson’s campaign, but he missed an opportunity to clear the field. Of all the District Council seats one might have imagined would be left up to the regular democratic process to fill, the 5th District seat would not have ranked high on many City Hall watchers’ lists, but here we are.

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2023-02-27 12:04:27 -0500