POLS ON THE STREET: Tax Abatements Pop as an Issue in Philly Primary Race

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RENOVATIONS to Capitolo Playground in the Italian Market area were celebrated Monday. Standing tall behind the neighborhood children were, L-R, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Katherine Ott Lovell, Mayor Jim Kenney, Councilman Mark Squilla and Acting Managing Director Tumar Alexander. The work was funded by the City’s Rebuild program. Photo by Wendell Douglas

The 2019 municipal primary campaign has been a sea of candidates searching for an island of issues.

Everybody wants to run for every office. The question is: What would anyone do differently if elected?

A debate over the fate of Philadelphia’s two-decades-old tax abatements for real-estate development or improvement seems to be catching the public eye. No one disputes that it coincides with a boost in city development and growth. But many ask if it is still the best way forward – if it is maximizing public revenue from that growth, or if it should be tweaked, or if it leads to malign gentrification (as opposed to good gentrification, whatever that might be).

THE NAACP Philadelphia Chapter held a well-attended candidates night at Bright Hope Church. Minister Rodney Muhammad, NAACP president, R, emceed the meeting. Muhammad is seen introducing Omar Sabir, candidate for City Commissioner. Photo by Joe Stivala

The answers may not be forthcoming in 2019 but the politics definitely are. In numerous races around the city, debates about the tax abatement are becoming common currency.

One example: Councilman Allan Domb (at Large), a successful real-estate developer, has started to be hammered by some activists because of his major investments. The progressive 215 People’s Alliances want him to be defeated for re-election; others merely want him to recuse himself from any decisions affecting the tax abatement, because they charge he profits from it. The group charged Domb’s firm took in $12.3 million in abatements.

Domb has rebutted these accusations, saying tax-abated properties are a small part of his holdings and contracts. Of his critics, Domb said, “I’m not sure they understand how the abatement works.”

Erika Almirón, an immigration activist who is now running for an at-large Council seat like Domb, went right after Domb. “We have to stop giving handouts to some of these luxury real estate developers in this city,” she said. “Instead, we must call on those who are benefiting from the tax abatement — the wealthy and politically connected – to join the rest of us and pay their fair share.”

COUNCILWOMAN Jannie Blackwell, C, summoned a solid lineup of local and citywide Democratic Party stalwarts to the opening of her campaign office on Westminster Avenue in Haddington. A fish fry for supporters followed. Photo by Wendell Douglas

City Council is stewing over five bills to jigger abatements.

Four were introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym (at large), who would alter its implementation and revenue flow. One, by Councilwoman Cindy Bass (8th District), would end the abatement.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said that the union supports Gym’s bill to eliminate the portion of the abatement that would otherwise go to public schools.

Voter Registration Continues to Swell

3RD DISTRICT councilmanic challenger Jamie Gauthier, 3rd from R, had opened her campaign office a week earlier on Baltimore Avenue in Cedar Park. At the end of the Apr. 5 cycle, Gauthier was slightly ahead of Blackwell in fundraising. Photo by Wendell Douglas

Initial reports from City and State voting agencies are that voter registration for the May 21 primary, which closed Monday, is up. Philadelphia has gained about 13,000 voters since the 2019 primary. That’s quite a bit more than the 3,000 new residents the U.S. Census Bureau estimates Philadelphia has gained in the last year.

Voter registration doesn’t always translate to voter turnout. That’s particularly true in municipal elections, which aren’t covered by the national news media that dominate popular attention these days.

But the 2017 Philadelphia municipal election delivered a strong turnout and major upsets in the district attorney and City controller races – victories observers attributed in part to heightened turnout among newer voters. So all the pros are trying to adapt to that enthusiasm in 2019, expecting that wave may still be powerful this year.

Maintenance Contract Sets Street vs. Kenney

PETER McDERMOTT, educator and 64th Ward Democratic leader, C, held a successful candidates night in the Mayfair Recreation Center. Candidates streamed in to speak their views. Councilman Robert Henon, L, candidate for re-election to City Council’s 6th District and Ronald Donatucci, candidate for re-election as Register of Wills, addressed all issues. Photo by Joe Stivala

The Kenney administration’s revocation of the $14 million private PRWT contract for City building maintenance, awarding it instead to an out-of-state company, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for former Mayor John Street, who endorsed John Kenney’s opponent State Sen. Anthony Williams as a result.

Kenney based his decision on PRWT’s failure to report certain campaign contributions, which he alleged violated the law.

But the hiring of janitors may depend as much on local connections in many cities – especially those that are trying to reduce high poverty numbers.

Kenney’s decision may have been economically thrifty but politically costly.

Ballot Questions Face All Philadelphia Voters

REGISTER OF WILLS challenger Tracey Gordon, C, held a fish-fry fundraiser in her Southwest neighborhood. Photo by Wendell Douglas

All Philadelphian voters, no matter their party affiliation, should speak their mind on four proposed City Charter amendments on the May 21 ballot.

One would change the charter’s gender-specific references from councilman and councilwoman to councilperson.

One would make the City’s Office of Immigrant Affairs permanent. It was created under an executive order by Mayor Jim Kenney in 2016.

One would ask the State legislature to increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $15 by 2025, or to allow Philadelphia to increase the city’s minimum wage before that.

CERTAIN CANDIDATES drew a warm response at the 42nd Ward’s candidates night. L-R were Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, at-large councilmanic hopeful Isaiah Thomas, Ward Leader Sharon Vaughn and City Commissioner Lisa Deeley. Photo by Wendell Douglas

One would institute a new class of public-safety officers to monitor traffic and other minor code provisions.

Wolfe Slams Krasner for His Call on Mumia

Matt Wolfe, Republican candidate for City Council at large, condemned DA Larry Krasner’s decision to withdraw his opposition to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s attempt argue for a new trial before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

“Mumia Abu-Jamal savagely murdered Philadelphia Police Officer Danny Faulkner in 1981. The evidence is clear and the trial has been reviewed time and time again in the almost 40 years since the murder. No court has ever given any credence to the arguments that he was innocent or did not have a fair trial. Larry Krasner owes Danny Faulkner and his family better treatment,” said Wolfe.

VESPER CLUB hosted an event for six South and West Philadelphia wards. L-R were Al Schmidt, Timmy O’Brien, businessman Dom Aspite and Ward Leader Bill Heeney, Sr., who is running for City Council at large. Photo by Wendell Douglas

Wolfe noted that the decision came on the heels of Krasner’s being disinvited to a conference at Yale Law School, where he had been expected to speak about “progressive approaches to law.”

Meanwhile, Krasner endorsed Mayor Jim Kenney for re-election, saying he “has been a leader in the movement for progressive criminal-justice reform. He dramatically reduced our local jail population and led the effort to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in our city.”

2 Council at-Large Challengers Reap Endorsements

Two councilmanic at-large challengers racked up endorsements in the last week.

Sunrise Movement Philadelphia endorsed Adrián Rivera-Reyes for City Council at Large in the Democratic primary.

GOV. ED RENDELL, R, put in a celebrity appearance for judicial candidate Anthony Kyriakakis at a fundraiser at 1518 Bar & Grill in Center City. Photo by Wendell Douglas

“We only have one planet and Earth Day highlights the urgent need to protect it,” said Rivera-Reyes. “As a scientist who relies on data, I cannot ignore climate change or the devastating impact it’s having on our most vulnerable communities. That’s why a municipal Green New Deal is the cornerstone of my campaign.”

Rivera-Reyes also won the nod from Run for Something, a nationwide progressive group.

Sandra Dungee Glenn, an advocate for children and education, was endorsed by the Laborers International Union of North America, Local 332, adding to her impressive support of public endorsements. In addition, Dungee Glenn has received a cross-section of elected-official support from former Mayor of Philadelphia, John F. Street, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, Councilwoman Cindy Bass and Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. (4th District).

“I am humbled by the support and confidence that Local 332 has given me with their endorsement,” said Dungee Glenn.

Sheriff’s Competitors Tout Endorsements

Sheriff Jewell Williams’ two opponents are boasting endorsements this week.

Malika Rahman, a former deputy sheriff, cites the backing of Run for Something, a national organization boosting younger progressive candidates.

Rochelle Bilal, head of the police Guardian Civic League, picked up the support of the influential Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club.

While short on formal endorsements at this hour, incumbent Williams is showing strong grassroots support in many Democratic ward committees, a world he belongs to and is well known in.

Bah’s Appeal Dies in Appellate Court

8th Councilmanic District challenger Tonya Bah lost her appeal to Commonwealth Court to reinstate her ballot status after her petitions were attacked by incumbent Councilwoman Cindy Bass for technical violations.

Bah, who started her campaign early and turned in more than 3,000 petitions, charged that the technicalities for which her petitions were ruled out were identical to those Bass got a pass on in court in 2015. But Bah was not so lucky this time.

Bass is a shrewd hardball player and incumbents always have the edge when it comes to hiring top election lawyers.

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