2016 PUBLIC SERVANT OF THE YEAR: Darrell Clarke, Master Of The Policy Shop

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DarrellClarkeby Tony West
Darrell Clarke came of age in a neighborhood with problems, in a city with problems, in an age of problems.

Born in 1952 in Strawberry Mansion, Clarke saw the ravages of racism, poverty, injustice and conflict in North Philadelphia. Politics was in the air and on the streets in the 1960s and 1970s and Clarke took to the cause.

It shaped him into a disciplined public servant with a steady, laserlike focus on problems, the bigger the better. The story of the Philadelphia City Council President’s life is the story of the problems he has tackled – and the next ones on his agenda.

This Thursday evening, Mar. 24, he will receive the Philadelphia Public Record’s prestigious Public Servant of the Year 2016 award at the newspaper’s annual gala. His choice was an easy one for our editorial board and readers we queried.

“When I was elected to City Council in 1999, I made a decision I was not going to be a ‘pothole Councilman’. I wanted to become involved in policy,” Clarke explained earlier this month.

Take, for instance, the Mayor’s Auto Insurance Task Force in 2002, which drilled into the city’s sizzling auto-coverage rates and, after a fair amount of backroom jawboning of the insurance industry, did see some improvement. Clarke’s fingerprints were on it.

The Mayor’s Office of Consumer Affairs was created as a forum for business-consumer complaint resolution in 2003. Then-5th Dist. Councilman Clarke was the impetus for this innovation.

Tower Investments’ “The Shops at Avenue North” next to Temple University was the first upscale development in North Philadelphia in a lifetime. Clarke was a major player in launching this in 2004.

CITY COUNCIL President Darrell Clarke at his latest swearing-in.

CITY COUNCIL President Darrell Clarke at his latest swearing-in.

In 2011 the City of Philadelphia established a permanent Jobs Commission to lay out guidelines for promoting private-sector job growth. Clarke’s idea.

In 2014 Clarke began work on the Community Sustainability Initiative, the Affordable Housing Initiative, the Landcare Reentry Initiative, the School-Based Family Service Centers. Progress is being made in partnership with the Kenney administration on all of them.

In 2015 voters approved Clarke’s to set up a new Dept. of Planning, Development & Housing to smooth the city’s increasingly hectic building growth.

Now, in 2016, with Clarke beginning his second term as City Council President, we are seeing an avalanche of “Initiatives” and other systems to confront an entire landscape of long-standing civic and social problems. In the works this year are a comprehensive Philadelphia Energy Campaign, as well as proposals to press city-connected development contractors to ramp up hiring of Philadelphians and minorities, and to forbid employers from running credit checks on job applicants.

Many agencies and many agents are involved in developing these programs. Collectively, though, they bear the hallmark of Clarke. They rely on massive coordination between different government depart­­ments as well as private-sector businesses. They take a holistic approach to problems, treating construction, jobs and education as parts of the same Rubik’s cube.

But they very often begin at the “ground level” – literally, with real-estate planning.

Clarke cut his teeth on development issues. While still chief of staff for then-Council President John Street in the 1990s, Mayor Ed Rendell pushed for a mass property-tax lien sale.

“There was obviously concern in the 5th Dist. because North Philly had a high concentration of tax-delinquent properties,” Clarke recalled. “Street said, ‘Darrell, put together a plan to keep the district from being bought up wholesale.’”

By working with the boundaries and powers of existing development districts, Clarke crafted ways to apply brakes to tax-lien sales, reserving much developable land for community input and City planning.

Clarke goes way back with the Street family. He began working with John Street’s colorful brother Milton as an activist in the turbulent 1970s. “I saw injustices and I got involved,” he said. In 1981 he became an aide to John, who was the Councilman of Clarke’s home district, which takes in North Central, Strawberry Mansion, Ludlow, Yorktown, West Poplar, Fairhill, Brewerytown, Francisville, Spring Garden, Fairmount, Logan Square, and parts of Northwood, Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Hunting Park and Center City.

In the 1980s one feature stood out in most of these neighborhoods: blight. Abandoned buildings, vacant lots, block after rowhouse block pocked with emptiness and decay. Development prospects were rare then; and when they appeared, they often weren’t seen as community-friendly.

During most of the 1990s, Street played an able first mate to Mayor Ed Rendell’s administration, presiding over City Council with a deft but firm hand. How to handle the dual role of Council President and 5th Dist. Councilman? Street dealt with it by delegating that job to Clarke. “I maintained core-level services while John ran the Council,” Clarke said.

But Clarke got to study City Council’s machinations close up, under the tutelage of a master. A couple of masters, actually. “Street and Lucien Blackwell were prime movers,” Clarke noted. “Lucien ran the Finance Committee, Street the Appropriations Committee.” As money goes, so goes the City.

FORMER colleagues, Council President Darrell Clarke and Mayor Jim Kenney have walked many a mile together.

FORMER colleagues, Council President Darrell Clarke and Mayor Jim Kenney have walked many a mile together.

When Street quit City Council in 1998 to run for Mayor, Clarke ran to fill his seat on Council in a special election, followed by a Democratic primary.

It wasn’t easy. He faced a smart, well-heeled opponent in Julie Welker, a Realtor with a strong base in Fairmount in Spring Garden, neighborhoods which were already gentrifying. State Sen. Vincent Fumo, then Philadelphia’s Cardinal Richelieu, maintained a mansion there.

It was a squeaker. After a year in appellate courts, Clarke won by 144 votes. It was the closest District Council race Philadelphia has seen in a lifetime. Meanwhile John Street eked out a victory over Republican Sam Katz by 7,228 votes out of a total of 420,420 cast – a razor-thin margin of 0.4%.

Clarke and Street took to calling themselves “the Landslide Brothers.”

Clarke learned a lesson from that election.

Before then, he said, “I knew the community leadership and the ward leaders. But that did not translate into notoriety among the general populace.”

Democratic City Committee Chairman Congressman Bob Brady (D-Phila.) reached out to counsel him after his narrow pass. After that election, Clarke methodically reached out to that part of the district where he had been weakest.

He soon had reason to. A proposal was up to relocate the Phillies baseball stadium to Broad & Spring Garden Streets, following the fashionable downtown model of Camden Yards in Baltimore. Rendell, now Governor, was all for it. But Fumo wasn’t. What to do?

Clarke, as District Councilman, organized six public meetings in his district, with dueling presentations. The affected neighborhoods got ample opportunity to weigh in. And they said no.

It paid off politically for Clarke. Welker endorsed him for reelection. The Councilman has coasted home in elections ever since.

“You will always have 15-20% of the people who do not agree with what you do,” commented Clarke. It is important, he said, to learn how to listen to them – while not letting them dissuade you from making decisions and taking actions.

5TH DIST.COUNCILMAN Darrell Clarke facilitated donation of bicycles to 25 children at Lenfest Center in Hunting Park before Christmas.

5TH DIST.COUNCILMAN Darrell Clarke facilitated donation of bicycles to 25 children at Lenfest Center in Hunting Park before Christmas.

Then came NTI.

The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative was Street’s distillation of his own lifetime of experience in the blighted inner-city world. It was an audacious effort, launched in 2001 after two years of planning, to bring to the table a host of partners – different City agencies, state and federal funds, private investors – to reimagine and rebuild the older neighborhoods of Philadelphia, those most hit by blight.

NTI invested $300 million to clear land and redevelop it, partly for the private sector and partly for the Philadelphia Housing Authority and other public projects. It was supposed to demolish 14,000 dilapidated structures and replace them with 16,000 housing units over time.

NTI has just about wrapped up and it did not achieve these goals. For this reason, some have called it a failure. It only tore down half the buildings it promised to; ditto with the new housing it introduced.

But overpromising is a venial sin, not a mortal one, among developers. There is no reason to hold John Street to a higher standard than, say, Donald Trump. Development is chancy by nature.

Yet NTI has supporters among contemporary urban planners. The City of Baltimore has just launched a program that overtly names Philadelphia’s NTI as a model.

Critics remarked the focus of NTI became diffuse over time. In order to pass the measure, Street had to promise District Council Members great say over its funds. This, charged skeptic, blurred its aim and turned it into just one more honeypot for local politicians to dole out local favors from, forsaking any grand vision.

But NTI gave Clarke a taste for Initiatives, as any Philadelphian can see this year. He did not conclude that complex, holistic, long-term plans are bad; he concluded that we need more of them, and better made.

During Clarke’s tenure, the City tapped a Housing & Urban Development Nehemiah grant to build 176 affordable new single-family units in West Poplar. It has anchored a working-class community close to desirable jobs in Center City and at Temple University, next to the subway.

Now, Clarke noted, the private sector is moving in on the other side of Broad Street in Francisville. Publicly and privately planned development need not be at war with each other; they can complement each other, he argues.

But affordable housing has become increasingly difficult, Clarke points out. Philadelphia is a city with a high share of poor residents … and the share of poor people’s income that goes into housing has increased to alarming proportions over the last 30 years. This crushes families and worsens a host of associated problems: high crime, poor education and low workforce participation. And there dwindling resources at all levels of government to cope with it.

Clarke is dogged when it comes to housing the unhoused. He has recently broken ground for 88 permanent homes for the formerly homeless, citing Sister Mary Scullion: “We cannot say we have a home until everybody has a home.”

“Somebody has to look out for people who are less privileged,” he insisted.

CLOSE relations between Council President Darrell Clarke and Penna. US Sen. Bob Casey are essential to ensuring our city gets proper consideration from federal agencies.

CLOSE relations between Council President Darrell Clarke and Penna. US Sen. Bob Casey are essential to ensuring our city gets proper consideration from federal agencies.

In City Council, Clarke became Majority Whip, Chair of the Fiscal Stability and Public Property Committees and Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee. These are root survival functions of Council; Members who can handle them are leaders among leaders.

In 2012, when 2nd Dist. Councilwoman Anna Cibotti Verna retired, Clarke ran for Council President and won, returning the second-most-powerful office in Philadelphia to the 5th Dist. from which Street led the city for 16 years.

How will Clarke’s new Initiatives fare compared to his mentor’s?

One key difference may be that Clarke did not, for once, imitate Street by becoming Mayor. Instead, he remained as Council President to oversee the unveiling of his dreams.

There is no question Clarke could have been elected Mayor in November had he chosen. But he did not so choose. He has spent his career serving the public in City Council and he likes his work more than he likes glory.

“I got pushed and cajoled,” he said. “But I’m feeling real good about not running for Mayor.

“Council is the first line of interaction between people and government. All our sessions are open and available to the public. Once, a Congressman could not believe we allowed the press into our caucus! But we don’t care. When citizens have needs, they deal first and foremost with City Council. We put into place the needs and resources to adequately address their issues. We are not in Council as a rubber stamp.”

No one, not even Clarke, disputes he has transformed City Council in the last four years. “As President, we’ve set the tone,” he admitted.

A key reason why Clarke is rolling out these bold new ventures right now is our new Mayor Jim Kenney.

During Clarke’s first term as Council President, he worked alongside another former colleague, Mayor Michael Nutter. While the two men respected each other, they never formed a legislative-executive partnership like the one Ed Rendell and John Street enjoyed.

Why this did not happen is unclear. But most observers don’t fault Clarke for it. In his final years, Nutter couldn’t get a Council hearing on a motion to praise sunlight.

Kenney, another Council veteran, takes an entirely different approach to the Council President and the Council President takes a different approach to the Mayor. The Public Record’s interview with Clarke was promptly terminated after its allotted hour, to the minute, because he had an appointment with the Mayor.

By staying on top of City Council, Clarke retains the power to see through the execution of his vast Initiatives. He doesn’t have to spend his days cutting ribbons. Maybe this is a better way to go about transforming a city. We’ll soon find out.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT Darrell Clarke has been working closely with Mayor Jim Kenney to develop and sell School Based Family Services Centers.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT Darrell Clarke has been working closely with Mayor Jim Kenney to develop and sell School Based Family Services Centers.

Clarke runs a tight ship at City Council, but not an abusive one. “You gotta listen, particularly to colleagues. Then you’ve got to trust them,” he said.

Clarke has witnessed “a significant transformation over three terms” in Council due to turnover of Members. “Only a few of us have been around for a while,” he said.

So expect a powerful City Council for the next four years. The Mayor proposes, but the Council disposes.

“It’s my role as Council President to make sure there aren’t a lot of close votes. That’s a result of having a very close process with thoughtful dialog among all parties,” he went on. This backroom consultation makes Council decisions smooth and consensual when ideas are finally put forth for a vote. It’s Clarke’s way of getting legislative results.

“From Street I learned the key to success is hard work. He had an interesting style: four meetings a night, out on the street, flyers up everywhere, ‘Come out! Come out!’” It forced you to listen to the public, Clarke said; and it trained him to be on the job around the clock as needed.

But hard work always suited Clarke. His parents insisted he work summer jobs growing up. He is not an idle man by nature.

He is not an easy-going man by nature either. But age and experience has tempered him. On his predecessor as Council President, he said, “From Anna Verna I learned patience. I wasn’t always too calm.”

At 64 years of age, Clarke is probably as mellow as he’s going to get. He remains a man of fierce opinions and will flatter no man or no power if he thinks it’s time for an accounting.

SALUTING our nation’s warriors at Veterans Day parade, Darrell Clarke stood among city’s leaders.

SALUTING our nation’s warriors at Veterans Day parade, Darrell Clarke stood among city’s leaders.

On education, the issue of the year in Philadelphia 2016, he commented, “The State takeover was the first step toward ruining the School District of Philadelphia. My former boss parked himself in the School district when the School Reform Commission was being formed, to get at least two city-appointed seats on it. Originally it was supposed to have none. But we still lack a majority and that isn’t working for this city.”

Don’t interpret this as a free pass for the School District, though. Clarke is dubious about its own self-accounting and would welcome a harder look at its numbers.

“If you make a mistake, the first thing you must do is admit it” is his hard-nosed motto.

Clarke’s policy productivity is staggering. No City government leader since the 1950s has unleashed such an onslaught of major proposals. They may or may not work. But they have all been meticulously studied, and honed by many decades of experience.

Everyone is talking about the new Kenney administration, as well they should. But wise heads should pay equal heed to the “new Clarke administration” of City Council under the Kenney administration. Darrell Clarke plans to transform the power of a large City government to zoom in on the biggest challenges its people face, or die trying. For the next four years, look to City Council as well as the Mayor’s Office to rock the arena.

Darrell Clarke is 2016 Public Servant of the Year because he has arrived at the cusp of power and has shown he will use it in ways that are vitally important to all Philadelphians – and instructive, whatever the outcome, for big-city leaders across America.

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