IN THE KNOW: Why Council Elections Matter

The biggest show in town this year is the election for all 17 seats on Philadelphia City Council

Who sits on City Council has a huge effect on the everyday lives of the people who live and work here - maybe even more than who sits in Harrisburg or even the White House. Along with the mayor, Council members make decisions about your city services and the taxes you pay for them. Your district Council member even gets a say in whether you get a zoning change to build a deck on your house

Despite Council’s importance, only 28 percent of the city’s voters turned out for the last City Council general election in 2007, and only slightly more (31 percent) for that year’s primary (which had a hotly contested mayor’s race).

The non-partisan Committee of Seventy has no horse in the 2011 Council races – or in any political election for that matter. But we do care about educating voters and encouraging more people to show up at the polls. 

For that reason, starting today, we will issue a new series of IN THE KNOWs -- our signature easy-to-understand pieces about key issues. This series will  focus on City Council.

Today’s installment concentrates on what it takes to run for a Council seat. It has lots of information for people thinking about throwing their hat in the ring. But it is primarily meant for the millions of people affected by Council’s decisions. Let us know if you like it and give us your ideas for other things you want to know about City Council.

- January 18, 2011

(note: The orginal version of this IN THE KNOW, published by the Committee of Seventy on January 18, contained incorrect numbers on the 2007 campaign spending by Council members Frank DiCicco (First District) and Bill Green (at-large). These numbers have been corrected. Seventy regrets the mistake).

Is Council more important than the mayor?

Philadelphia has a strong mayor form of government, but that doesn’t mean the city has a weak Council. Not by a long shot. The current Council, in particular, has been very vocal about pursuing its own agenda – which is often at odds with the mayor’s. For two years in a row, for example, Council has forced the mayor to back down on his original budget proposal.

People seem to blame Council more than the mayor. Is that true?  Is that fair?  

City residents who responded to a February 2009 public opinion poll from The Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative graded Mayor Nutter’s job performance higher than City Council’s: The mayor received an “A” or “B” from more people (47 percent) than Council (31 percent). In truth, the mayor and City Council members are dedicated public servants who deserve respect. Most of us wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. 

Are the 2011 elections any different from other Council elections? 

This is the first Council election since the economy crashed. So it’s an opportunity for voters to use it as a referendum on whether they like – or don’t like – where the city is headed. In the current budget, which Council approved, city services remained pretty much untouched. But property taxes were raised 9.9 percent. The 2011 candidates will talk about their priorities for handling your tax dollars given the new financial realities.

Is anything else different?

The 2011 Council elections could be a dry run for the 2015 mayor’s race. Think that’s far-fetched? Incumbent at-large Council member Bill Green reportedly was this-close to challenging Mayor Nutter in this year’s Democratic primary. He didn’t jump in. With Nutter term-limited from running again in 2015, Green and other Council members are likely to be eying the open seat. Look for this to impact how they behave in Council too.

Are all 17 Council seats up for grabs?

Yes. Ten members represent specific areas of the city called Council Districts and will be elected by voters living within the district. (District maps are available from our website here.) The other seven Council members serve “at-large” and will be elected by all Philadelphia voters.

How do the at-large elections work?

In the district races, the Democrats and Republicans each pick one candidate in the spring primary to run head-to-head in the November general election. For citywide at-large races, the five candidates who get the most votes in their party’s primary move on to the November general election. The top seven vote-getters in November – which in recent years has been five Democrats and two Republicans – become the at-large Council members.

So Republicans always get two seats?

Not necessarily. The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, the city’s “constitution,” guarantees no more than five at-large Council members from one political party. The other two at-large seats are guaranteed for members of a non-majority party. In Philadelphia today, non-majority parties include the GOP, independents and other minority parties.

Can other candidates compete in the Council races?

Yes, independent and minority party candidates can run in the November election for either a district or at-large Council seat as long as they get enough signatures to appear on the ballot. But as tough as it is for a Republican to win anything other than a guaranteed seat (as of January 1, 2011, the registered voters in the city included 798,391 Democrats and 126,884 Republicans), it’s even harder for other candidates (there are 70,699 independents, 2,551 Libertarians, and 16,567 registered to other parties).

Everyone makes big promises. Why should I bother to listen to the campaign rhetoric?

As we said earlier, there is very little about your everyday life that Council doesn’t have a hand in. It’s up to voters to demand that challengers present real solution-oriented agendas rather than just feel-good words. As for the incumbents, you can examine their record on Council and also hold them accountable for whether they kept or ignored the promises they made during their 2007 campaigns.

Do the candidates really care what the voters think?

You can make them care by paying attention to the races and coming out to vote in the May 17 primary and the November 8 general election. 

Even if I do participate, it seems like people stay on Council forever.  

There are no term limits for Council members. Council President Anna Verna, the longest serving member, was elected to represent the Second Council District in 1975. But there are changeovers. Three newcomers beat incumbents in 2007: Bill Green (Council at-large), Curtis Jones, Jr. (Fourth District) and Maria Quiñones Sánchez (Seventh District).

When will we know who is running?

People are beginning to publicly announce their candidacies. That’s important because, under the city’s campaign finance law we just mentioned, you aren’t technically a “candidate” until you publicly declare your candidacy or file nomination petitions for the May 17 primary. The last date to file nomination petitions is March 8, although you can withdraw them by March 23. (Different rules apply for independent candidates.)

I thought I heard most of the incumbents want to be reelected. 

As of the date of this IN THE KNOW, three Council members have announced their retirements: Joan Krajewski (Sixth District), Donna Reed Miller (Eighth District) and Jack Kelly (Republican at-large). Presumably the other 14 are running again, although Frank DiCicco (First District), Frank Rizzo (Republican At-Large), Marian Tasco(Ninth District) and Anna Verna (Second District) are enrolled in the controversial DROP retirement program. (They don’t have to really leave office. Read more about DROP here.) We will keep you posted on who is actually running as the races develop.

If I were to consider running for Council, how much would it cost?  

It depends. In the last round of City Council elections in 2007, the range of expenditures among the 17 winning candidates went from a low of about $80,000 to a high of almost half a million dollars.

Why is there such a big range?

Many factors go into why some people spend more and others less. For example, at-large candidates have to reach out to voters all over the city, not just in one Council district, so their elections could be more expensive. The biggest at-large spender in 2007 was first-timer Bill Green, who spent $495,473. But the at-large/more-expensive theory doesn’t always hold: two other successful at-large candidates were among the lowest 2007 spenders: W. Wilson Goode, Jr. ($108,000) and Frank Rizzo, Jr. ($102,000). But, unlike Green, they were incumbents.

Aren’t Green, Goode and Rizzo all sons of former mayors with the exact same names?  

Yes, they are. And the name recognition definitely helps (and could affect spending). Then again, Sharif Street, son of former Mayor John Street, lost in the 2007 City Council at-large Democratic primary. (Olivia Nutter is too young to run yet.)

So District Council elections are cheaper than at-large races, right?  

Not necessarily. Sixth District Council member Joan Krajewski spent less than any incumbent on her 2007 election: $80,045. But she had no opponent in the Democratic primary and her Republican challenger in the general election spent $0. On the other hand, On the other hand, Frank DiCicco, who represents the First District, spent $451,939, including $337,344 in his contested Democratic primary race. In the Fourth District, Curtis Jones spent $222,397, the vast majority to defeat two serious primary opponents, Carol Ann Campbell ($130,889) and Matt McClure ($217,887.)

Why are you telling me about the 2007 elections?

Since it’s the last time Philadelphia had a Council election, it’s the best information we have. By the way, it also happens to be the first time the city tested its new campaign finance law, which limits the amount of money donors can give to a candidate. Before the law, the city had no contribution or spending limits at all.

Will the still-sour economy mean the 2011 races will cost less? 

It didn’t seem to affect the money raised and spent on 2010 mid-term election campaigns across the country. But it’s hard to predict what will happen in local elections until we see what the field of candidates looks like.

Do the incumbents have money left over from 2007 that they can use now?

Many do, although incumbents aren’t required to report how much cash they have on hand until an annual report is due each year on January 31. However, if their political committees (the groups candidates form to take in contributions or make expenditures) engage in any activity (such as making contributions to other candidates) between annual reports, the campaign finance law requires them to disclose this. So we have some indication of the money incumbents could dedicate to 2011 if they decide to run again.

Who has the most money?

Council PresidentAnna Verna is the clear champ, based on what we know so far. According to the last report filed by her political committee, she had $324,687 in her account as of November 22. If she runs for reelection, matching that would be a pretty steep climb for anyone thinking of running against her in the Second District.

Does everyone else on Council have big war chests too?

Remember that Verna was elected to Council in 1975. Since then, she hasn’t had much opposition so she’s had plenty of time to build up money. (Remember, too, that before 2007, there were no contribution limits so candidates could raise an unlimited amount of money.) Tenth District Council member Brian O’Neill had $133,197 in the bank at the end of 2009 (the latest report we have from him) and at-large Democrat Bill Green had $124,065 on hand in his latest report, which was filed in mid-July 2010.

Let’s put it another way: does any incumbent not have money?

According to the last report that all incumbents had to file (at the end of January 2010), most had less than $100,000 in their campaign accounts. Frank DiCicco, for example, had only $20,247 and he already faces a Democratic primary challenge in the First District.

What else besides money helps win Council races? 

Getting your political party’s endorsement. There, too, incumbents have an advantage since they are likely to have the backing of their party organizations, which have their own money and people to put towards their favored candidates. But exceptions happen: In 2007, Curtis Jones won the Fourth District Council seat by beating incumbent Carol Ann Campbell, Secretary of the Democratic City Committee. She had been elected  a year earlier to fill out the term of Michael Nutter, who had to resign from his 15-year Council job to run for mayor.  

You seem to be mentioning a lot of Democrats. What about Republicans?

As we said earlier, Republicans are guaranteed at least two seats on Council. But the district races are another story altogether. Only one Council District – the Tenth in the Northeast – has a majority of Republican voters and is represented by a Republican (Brian O’Neill). Whoever wins the Republican primary in the other nine Council Districts faces an uphill battle against the Democrat in the general election – no matter how much the GOP candidate raises or spends. (We’ll be talking about internal battles within the city’s GOP in an upcoming IN THE KNOW.) 

So if I am thinking of running, how do I raise money?

That’s a long, complicated question. Unless you have started by now, you may find yourself behind already. The city’s campaign finance law caps annual contributions from any one person at $2,600 per year and from political committees at $10,600. You’ll have to talk to a lot of people to raise the type of money most candidates need to be taken seriously.

Can I spend my own money on my campaign?

Sure, you can spend anything you want. But if you’re like most of us, you’ll have to ask other people for most or all of your campaign money. Think of it as a plus: raising money from the public forces you to interact with your would-be constituents. (One thing to know about self-funding: If you spend over $250,000 of your own money, the campaign finance law doubles the contributions that you and anyone else running for the same office are allowed to raise.) 

Why do political races have to cost so much?

Lots of people have debated that question and proposed possible solutions. But as long as some candidates are spending money, it’s tough for any genuine opponent not to spend money too. You can have all the best ideas in the world, but unless you are willing to raise and spend money, your chances of winning aren’t great.

How can I find out more about raising money in city politics?

You can go to the website of the city’s Ethics Board, which enforces the city’s campaign finance law, to learn the rules about campaign fundraising and spending – and to see what has happened to candidates who violate the law. You can also check out past campaign finance reports, and reports that will be filed during the 2011 campaign, either on the city Records Department’s website or by visiting the office at Room 154, City Hall. 

How do I find out what Council district I’m in or who represents me on Council?

We’re happy to help with that. You can get this information by logging onto our Online Citizens Guide  and entering your address or by calling 1-866-268-8603. You can always call us too at 215-557-3600. 

The Committee of Seventy will keep you informed about the Council races throughout 2011.  In the meantime, please feel free to e-mail your comments, or requests for other IN THE KNOWs on City Council and other topics you care about, to We look forward to hearing from you.

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