Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s soda tax will likely pass a City Council vote next week, following a critical committee vote this week. While the mayor celebrates a big legislative victory, Council President Darrell Clarke has since tried to paint the historic vote as a deal brokered by his office – his spokesperson Jane Roh recently tweeted a line from a New York Times article to that effect.
But sources from fellow council staffers to labor leader John Dougherty – who heavily supported Kenney and the soda tax – took issue with that narrative.
“Darrell did not want any form of soda tax, all the way up until this most recent vote,” Dougherty said. “But he got caught someplace he’s not accustomed to being.”
That place was potentially being on the losing side of a major legislative battle for the first time in years.
Council sources said Kenney had long had seven votes in favor. But the day of the vote, Clarke apparently tried to delay a consensus vote. Later, his office suggested resurrecting an alternative plan briefly floated by Councilwoman Cindy Bass to increase property taxes, even making a failed bid to recruit Republicans to that end.
Clarke made no secret in the past that he opposed the tax. But on Wednesday it eventually became clear that Jannie Blackwell, long a strong opponent of the tax had jumped on board. Allan Domb, considered a crucial swing vote, and Blondell Reynolds Brown later joined the “yes” votes, and Clarke relented in the face of an unbeatable majority.
The next day Clarke and Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez expressed outrage over the late revelation that portions of the tax revenue would be used to potentially bolster the city’s fund balance. But Dougherty (and some council staffers) characterized this as cover for Clarke’s last-minute rout.
“For someone who has made a career of being a policy wonk and who has 30 full time technical staff to say they didn’t know about the fund balance is totally disingenuous and it casts a shadow across this whole tax policy discussion,” he said in a phone interview. “This mayor is going to be a little different than most. He’s consistently going to have nine friends on city council...and I don’t think Darrell is comfortable with that.”
In the end, councilmembers Bass, Blackwell, Brown, Derek Green, Bill Greenlee, Gym, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, Cherelle Parker, and Mark Squilla joined Clarke and Domb in supporting the bill during a voice vote, according to staffer present at the time.
The Council President’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Political observer G. Terry Madonna stopped short of characterizing this a big loss for Clarke, still one of the most powerful figures on council. But he agreed that the dynamic of endless feuds between the mayor’s office and council that characterized the Nutter administration, with Darrell acting as a unifying opposition leader, were ending.
“It does provide a precedent in the future for the mayor maneuvering to get what he wants, whether it’s something Clarke or somebody else on council opposes,” Madonna said. “He’s proven that can he be effective even in the face of the concerns raised by the council president.”