Greenlee Bids Farewell to City Council Life

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COUNCILMAN Bill Greenlee at the desk he has occupied for 15 years – deploying a lifetime of experience.

Councilman Bill Greenlee is stepping out of City Council this month after 40 years inside it, one way or another.

The 66-year-old councilmember apprenticed in City government under the tutelage of one of Philadelphia’s most-colorful leaders, Councilman David Cohen.

An old-school liberal with a keen sense of working-class concerns, Cohen started out representing the 8th Council District. In the tumultuous 1970s, he resigned to run for mayor – ultimately beaten out by Frank Rizzo, whom he detested and launched a recall campaign against. After a couple of unsuccessful campaigns, Cohen the reformer clawed his way back onto City Council in 1980, buoyed by the Abscam scandal, this time at large.

For the next 26 years, until his death in 2005, Cohen was a dogged gadfly, unafraid to take on anybody as he fought for the little people.

Greenlee fell in with Cohen early in life. A fourth-generation Fairmounter (he still lives around the corner from where he was born in Brewerytown), Greenlee attended St. Francis Xavier Church. He graduated from St. Leonard’s Academy, St. Joseph’s Pre and Temple University with an ambition to become a sportswriter.

But politics was another contest that intrigued him. An uncle had been a State representative. He became active in Cohen’s campaigns during the ’70s; when Greenlee won back a seat on Council, Greenlee came with him, handling pretty much anything that lands on an at-large councilmember’s desk – and that can be pretty much anything.

While much of a district councilmember’s focus is on the people and issues of their part of town, at-large members go anywhere and talk to everyone. This enables them to focus on larger systemic challenges.

But that doesn’t mean individuals are beyond their scope. “Cohen believed government was there to help people,” Greenlee recounted. “There was nothing government couldn’t do.” Cohen was a glutton for constituent service and he knew the city inside out. As the decades passed, Greenlee wound up as his chief of staff and learned everything Cohen knew.

“Constituent service leads to legislation,” Greenlee insisted.

On his boss’s death, Greenlee ran to take his place in a special election in 2005. He survived three of Philly’s demanding at-large re-election races before deciding to sit out 2019’s.

He is the chair of the Rules and Law & Government Committees – key positions through which much important City business that originates in other committees must ultimately pass through. He is the vice-chair of the Public Property Committees. Greenlee serves on the Finance, Streets & Services, Licenses and Inspections, Public Health & Human Services, and Public Safety Committees. The councilman was elected by his colleagues to serve as Majority Deputy Whip in 2012 and 2016.

Greenlee’s proudest accomplishment in Council was the passage of a bill requiring employers to offer paid sick leave to a large class of workers, as many as 200,000. This measure, which passed in 2015 was the kind of achievement that David Cohen would have been proud of.

Greenlee also sponsored legislation to overhaul the Fair Practices ordinance, which is the City’s basic civil-rights code. The ordinance prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. His update of the law expanded protection to include domestic violence victims, the disabled and the LGBT community.

The councilman was the prime sponsor of legislation to protect domestic-violence victims from losing their jobs or homes due to their status as a domestic violence victim; he has also sponsored legislation protecting property owners from thieves looking to steal property through filing false deeds.

But if he shares Cohen’s causes, Greenlee is known for a different style. “Dave was a maverick. He had no problem burning down bridges,” Greenlee said. “He could very critical of other people on the floor. Of course, he had a way of going back to these same people for other things later. But I try to work things out first.”

Amiable, even-tempered and unpretentious, Greenlee is effective at steering the Rules Committee, where everyone trusts his fairness.

City Council is made up of many more people than just the Sweet 17 at its top. Greenlee’s human touch has helped him maneuver their staffs as well – and an at-large councilmember must work smoothly on occasion with the staffs of all 10 district councilmembers as well as his own. “Having been a staff member really helped me keep learning when I became a councilmember,” he said. “It is important to approach everyone with respect.”

Greenlee took over his over under Council President Anna Verna. He has now served two terms under Council President Darrell Clarke – who happens to be his district councilmember. It’s been a happy relationship.

“Clarke and I stand for pretty much the same things and we have shared interests,” Greenlee said. “He’s my brother from another mother.” Greenlee praised Clarke’s passion for a consensus that on problems actually gets things done.

Every career leaves important work undone at its conclusion. For Greenlee, there is no doubt about what constitutes the big one that got away.

“My colleague Cindy Bass and I sponsored a bill to restrict gifts by pharmaceutical representatives to doctors,” he related. “This has been a major factor in driving up drug costs and in over-prescribing medication. It was one of the factors that led to the legal-opioid addiction crisis. But the pharmaceutical industry fought us really hard and I didn’t get it. I hope the next Council will take up this cause again.”

How will they fare in general without mild-mannered Bill to grease their wheels? He counsels patience.

“People need to realize they’re not going to change the world,” he advised. “Compromise is not a dirty word. You need nine votes to get anything done in Council. I walked very softly at times so that I could get what I felt was important at other times.” He frets that some cutting-edge progressives come on too hard, pleasing their constituents at the risk of missing a chance to enact substantive practical change.

Greenlee looks back on his tour of duty without regrets. “It was a grand ride,” he said. “I liked what I did.”

But there is one aspect of the councilmember’s trade that he won’t miss: fundraising. “I hate asking people for money!” he said.

Greenlee will continue in politics as 30th Ward Democratic leader, a post he has held since 1994. He knows how to knock on doors in Fairmount and after all these years, he faces a friendly reception when he does so.

But his first priority is Phillies spring training. A team aficionado since the days of Connie Mack Stadium, his proudest possession is a Mike Schmidt #20 jersey. It’ll be somebody else’s turn to shepherd the budget though the Rules Committee this year.

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