Four way fight to take 1st unfolds on Tuesday

With Frank Di­Cicco step­ping down from City Coun­cil, four Demo­crats are vy­ing to take over the wa­ter­front dis­trict in the May 17 primary.

(From left) 1st Dis­trict can­did­ates Vern Ana­sta­s­io, Joe Grace, Mark Squilla and Jeff Horn­stein de­bated is­sues fa­cing the dis­trict last week at the Vet­er­an Box­ers As­so­ci­ation in Port Rich­mond.

With its ex­pans­ive foot­print in South Phil­adelphia, siz­able chunk of Cen­ter City’s east­ern flank and a crooked hook that reaches up through the river wards and all the way in­to the Lower North­east, the 1st Coun­cil­man­ic Dis­trict has long been a coveted piece of polit­ic­al geo­graphy.

In the 16 years that South Philly’s Frank Di­Cicco has ruled here, that has only be­come more true.

The pop­u­la­tion has bal­looned so much that the fattened dis­trict will have shed some 14,000 con­stitu­ents when re­dis­trict­ing comes around next year to bal­ance out the scales and put the pop­u­la­tion back to about 150,000. Much of that growth has come to places like North­ern Liber­ties — a neigh­bor­hood that ad­ded 5,000 res­id­ents, doub­ling the pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the 2010 Census — where the dis­trict goes as far west from the Delaware River as Fourth Street.

Like­wise, in­comes have ris­en, mak­ing the dis­trict the city’s wealth­i­est, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is by the Phil­adelphia In­quirer. In the south, neigh­bor­hoods like Queen Vil­lage, So­ci­ety Hill, Old City, Bella Vista and East Passy­unk have all seen steady gentri­fic­a­tion, and Fishtown and parts of Kens­ing­ton are fol­low­ing close be­hind.

Adding to the busy port com­plex along the lower reaches of the dis­trict, the cent­ral Delaware River wa­ter­front has been the fo­cus of in­tense city plan­ning in re­cent years and could see ma­jor re­birth un­der the ten­ure of the next coun­cil­man.

And, with Di­Cicco an­noun­cing his re­tire­ment in March, there will be new lead­er­ship here.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the com­pet­i­tion to re­place Di­Cicco has been in­tense, with four Demo­crats step­ping in­to the fray head­ing in­to next Tues­day’s primary elec­tion. The lone Re­pub­lic­an, Lou Lanni, bowed out of the race early on after the Star un­covered an in­sur­ance fraud con­vic­tion.

Even be­fore Di­Cicco stepped down, pos­sible con­tenders had been sniff­ing around the savvy politi­cian, a deft nav­ig­at­or of the city’s ma­chinery who could shake off close ties to his fraud-con­victed ment­or, ex-state Sen. Vince Fumo, but not his en­roll­ment in the tox­ic De­ferred Re­tire­ment Op­tion Plan.

The pro­gram, com­monly known as DROP — an ac­ronym that has played nicely in­to the hands of crit­ics — was de­signed to save the city money by get­ting well-paid seni­or em­ploy­ees to re­tire early with the prom­ise of a lump-sum pen­sion pay­ment. The un­in­ten­ded ef­fect was a loop­hole that al­lowed elec­ted of­fi­cials to en­roll in DROP, re­tire for a day, and col­lect the pay­out be­fore be­ing sworn in and col­lect­ing a salary.

Beat­ing the DROP drum from the start was Joe Grace, 52, a Port Rich­mond res­id­ent and former spokes­man for May­or John Street whose most re­cent po­s­i­tion was head of Cease­Fire PA, a tough gun law ad­vocacy group.

Join­ing Grace in the call for Di­Cicco to “hon­or his com­mit­ment” and step down was a chor­us of angry voters who even­tu­ally per­suaded four oth­er Coun­cil mem­bers to re­tire.  Coun­cil­man Frank Rizzo (R-at-large) and Mari­an B. Tasco (D-9th dist.) are the only DROP en­rollees re­main­ing on the May 17 bal­lot for City Coun­cil.

With the DROP is­sue fad­ing with Di­Cicco’s exit, Grace has turned his at­ten­tion to pub­lic safety via tough gun con­trol meas­ures and City Coun­cil re­form that in­cludes set­ting term lim­its and ex­tend­ing Coun­cil ses­sions to span the en­tire year. 

While Vern Ana­sta­s­io, a Bella Vista civic lead­er and two-time Di­Cicco chal­lenger, also waded in­to the race early on, the de­part­ing coun­cil­man was quick to an­nounce a favored suc­cessor in Mark Squilla.

A state gov­ern­ment sys­tems ana­lyst who chal­lenged state Rep. Bill Keller in 2004 and has been act­ive in South Philly’s 39th Ward, Squilla was able to pick up Di­Cicco’s en­dorse­ment while also grabbing that of U.S. Rep. and Demo­crat­ic City Com­mit­tee chair­man Bob Brady and John Dougherty, the in­flu­en­tial pres­id­ent of In­ter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tric Work­ers Loc­al 98.

That gave Squilla, 48, pres­id­ent of his loc­al civic as­so­ci­ation, the Whit­man Coun­cil, a strong edge with­in the city’s tra­di­tion­al Demo­crat­ic and uni­on voter base. In re­cent weeks, he also picked up sup­port from May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter and state Sen. Larry Farnese (D-1st dist.).

Among loc­al Demo­crat­ic ward lead­ers, Squilla has the back­ing of Tom John­son, of Port Rich­mond’s 25th Ward, and former City Coun­cil­man Dan Sav­age, head of Frank­ford’s 23rd Ward. Sav­age is on the primary bal­lot in the 7th Coun­cil­man­ic Dis­trict, where he hopes to re­cap­ture the seat from Coun­cil­wo­man Maria Quinones-Sanc­hez, who un­seated Sav­age four years ago.

Squilla’s cam­paign has fo­cused on job cre­ation, civic in­volve­ment and City Coun­cil re­forms that would end perks such as city-owned cars for Coun­cil mem­bers. 

But an un­likely spoil­er emerged in Jeff Horn­stein, a uni­on or­gan­izer on leave from the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on. He has a doc­tor­al de­gree in his­tory and strong in­terest in de­vel­op­ing the dis­trict’s ex­tens­ive stretch of Delaware River wa­ter­front.

Horn­stein, 44, a Queen Vil­lage res­id­ent best known for his work in or­gan­iz­ing Cen­ter City jan­it­ors, was able to get the en­dorse­ment of sev­er­al key uni­ons in the ser­vice trades — along with the back­ing of sev­er­al Demo­crat­ic ward lead­ers, in­clud­ing Mike Boyle of North­ern Liber­ties’ 5th Ward, which denied Squilla a full-on en­dorse­ment by the city’s Demo­crat­ic Party.

Oth­er Horn­stein back­ers in­clude state Rep. Mike O’Bri­en (D- 175th dist.) and the Fraternal Or­der of Po­lice Lodge 5.

For Grace — the only can­did­ate who can claim res­id­ency in the river wards — a big en­dorse­ment came in late April in the form of former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Ana­sta­s­io, 41, tried to take the First Dis­trict seat from Di­Cicco in the 2007 Demo­crat­ic primary, run­ning as a re­form can­did­ate in a head-to-head race against the long­time in­cum­bent. He took just over 30 per­cent of the vote.

Ana­sta­s­io also tried to chal­lenge Di­Cicco in 2003 but was knocked off the bal­lot by a Pennsylvania Su­preme Court rul­ing due to an er­ror on his fin­an­cial dis­clos­ure forms.

While cen­ter­ing much of his cur­rent cam­paign around tack­ling va­cant land and blighted prop­er­ties, Ana­sta­s­io failed to pick up any not­able en­dorse­ments as of last week, and said early in the race that he was not in­ter­ested in seek­ing the sup­port of ward lead­ers. ••

Re­port­er Bri­an Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or at 

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