Out from Street's shadow: Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke's journey
There was a time when Philadelphia's City Council President didn’t even want to be an elected official.
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The year was 1980, and a young Darrell Clarke was the new rep for the 21st division of the 32nd ward in Strawberry Mansion. An activist, Clarke got the position thanks to the work he did helping neighbors on the block - and the responsibility wasn’t one he was about to take lightly.
At least, that’s what John Street learned when he came to Clarke’s block for community outreach.
Street, like Clarke, was a new rep, but for all of Councilmanic District 5, which encompasses a small part of Center City along with large swaths of North Philadelphia, including all of Strawberry Mansion and parts of Kensington, Port Richmond and Hunting Park.
They didn’t know it at the time, but both had more in common than each others’ political status. It was on display when they met in 1980.
From Clarke’s perspective, Street “made the mistake” of not telling him, or getting his permission to do outreach on his block.
“Well Mr. Street, I want to know how come you didn’t notify me?” was Clarke’s first question to Street when he came.
Street responded that he didn’t think he had to. Clarke took issue and a shouting match ensued.
“We kind of got into it,” said Clarke, who remembers only relenting once members of the community intervened.
This kind of squabble tends to lead to a political face-off that is lifelong. Both Street and Clarke were firebrands in their own right: Clarke, the young activist willing and ready to stand up against whatever power structure for his block, and Street, the young councilmember trying to fill the shoes of Cecil B. Moore.
However, their meeting in 1980 is one that’s gone down in Philly lore not for the rivalry, but rather the friendship it created.
Clarke and Street’s next meeting lacked any of the previous fireworks, as the latter offered the young division leader a position on his staff.
“I think he probably saw something in me,” said Clarke.
He accepted the position and dove head-first into the world of Philly politics.
The introduction came fast working for someone like John Street.
“I think he was on some sort of a learning curve,” said Clarke of his then-boss. “He was a person that made a lot of news.”
On Clarke’s first day in the Council chambers, Street got into his infamous fight with Fran Rafferty.
It started, according to Philly Mag, when Street was angered by something said during an emergency session on schools, and took out his frustrations on the stenographer’s equipment.
Councilmembers Jimmy Tayoun and Rafferty then ganged up on him.
“I was like: ‘What in the world is going on here?” remembers Clarke.
After some forceful encouragement from his new colleagues, Clarke found himself in the center of the scuffle. Before he knew it, he was on the front page of the newspaper the next day.
“Lo and behold, they had this big picture, and I think I was probably the tallest person in the crowd,” said Clarke.
Not long after, he got a call from his mother, who was livid.
“She laid me out,” said Clarke. “What was I doing in the middle of a fight? ‘You just got this job. You’re going to lose your job.’”
He didn’t get fired, and even though it was “an interesting beginning,” as Clarke put it, he also said it gave him a sense of engagement he was looking for.
Clarke stayed on Street’s staff throughout the latter’s 18 years as District 5’s Council rep, eventually becoming chief of staff.
“It was a great ride, a great learning experience. I consider him to be a very, very significant mentor, but more importantly, kind of like my big brother,” he said.
Some of the things Street instilled in a young Clarke were a strong work ethic, and the importance of honesty with one’s constituency.
Regarding work ethic, he said Street’s approach mirrored that of his father.“He didn’t believe in you being able to take off sick time,” said Clarke. “If you couldn’t make it to the office, he wanted to know why.”
Street also taught Clarke the importance of honesty and transparency and the long-term impact it has on a politician’s relationship with their constituency.
“In the long run, they will appreciate that you were straight up with them,” he said.
When Street became City Council President in 1992, Clarke essentially ran District 5. This set up a natural succession: when Street ran for mayor in 1999, Clarke would vie for his empty seat.
But the chief of staff initially didn’t want to take center stage.
“I did not want to be an elected official,” said Clarke.
He was “perfectly fine” running the district behind the scenes as Street chased the spotlight.
“I liked the work I was doing,” said Clarke. “I didn’t need all the accolades, the public notoriety.”
But at Street’s prodding, Clarke finally “stepped to the plate” and ran for his open seat.
Much like his former boss’s historically close mayoral election victory over Republican challenger Sam Katz that year, Clarke narrowly won District 5’s race, eeking out a victory by just 144 votes.
“I was very fortunate,” he said.
Even though he came from working under one of Philly’s most outspoken political leaders, Clarke has been quoted on more than one occasion saying that Street’s approach “isn’t his style.”
In the 20 years since taking over District 5, he has charted his own path, pushing a progressive agenda that has both stood firm on principle, yet been adaptable policy-wise to the changing city.
Clarke’s principles have always been equality and fairness. They’ve led to support for policies across two decades that have created affordable housing, funded education, increased public safety, boosted job creation and fought discrimination.
Quietly, Clarke has cemented his place as a mainstay at City Hall and one of Philly’s most influential political figures.
In 2012, much like his jump to District 5’s seat, the Council presidency laid vacant, along with the majority leader and majority whip positions.
This time, though, Clarke didn’t hesitate to throw his hat into the ring.
At that point, 13 years into his City Council tenure, Clarke was looking for the next step up.
“If you’re in a particular body, you would like to be as impactful as possible,” said Clarke.
The next step for him was as majority whip.
“It was kind of like the guy sitting on the bus with nobody at the wheel,” said Clarke. “I ran to the front of the bus, jumped, and grabbed the wheel.”
Not long after, he put his name in for Council President and was selected by his colleagues as their new leader in another tightly-contested process.
“Again, it was down to the wire, but I was able to get the necessary support and we put together a really good team,” said Clarke.
He admits he is biased, but believes the team he’s had while at the helm has been the “most significant” at developing policies based on data to confront the city’s evolving issues.
The two current, pressing issues Clarke discussed on his visit to AL DÍA were poverty and gun violence.
On Oct.10, Clarke announced the creation of a Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention.
The initiative is the first of its kind in Philadelphia, and pulls together individuals across the spectrum in the city to create short and long-term goals for combating poverty.
In Clarke’s opinion, there are many community organizations that have been doing the work “for a long, long time,” but the government hasn’t had a unified approach until now.
“We need to pull together and set a goal,” he said.
That goal is to reduce the city’s poverty rate to below 20% by the next election cycle. Clarke admits it’s ambitious, but not impossible.
“This is our moonshot,” he said.
Clarke’s battle with gun violence has admittedly been a frustrating one.
As a lifelong Philadelphian, he’s seen the different reasons, whether they be drugs, or turf, or both. But there is only one factor that has been constant in contributing to the devastating gun violence Philadelphia has suffered for decades: the availability of guns.
His frustration comes at the state level, where Pennsylvania regulations have limited the city’s ability to legislate effectively on the issue.Rather than give up, Clarke has gone to Harrisburg with the support of fellow councilmembers and state senators.
He is planning to introduce a “Safe Havens” legislation, banning firearms at parks and rec centers across the state, where mass shootings have been increasingly common — especially in Philadelphia.
“If you can make it safe at a courthouse for lawyers and judges and defendants and plaintiffs, then you should be able to do the same thing for rec centers and playgrounds where we have children,” said Clarke. “It’s a real simple message.”