Four years ago, Republican City Councilman Brian O’Neill faced a fairly stiff challenge from Democrat Sean McAleer, but the incumbent rolled to re-election with 58 percent of the vote despite Michael Nutter’s strength at the top of the ticket.
Today, while enthusiasm for Mayor Nutter doesn’t appear to be as strong as it was in 2007, O’Neill will still need the votes of Democrats and ticket-splitters to fend off what most onlookers see as an even stronger challenge from Bill Rubin.
The 10th Councilmanic District electorate consists of 58 percent Democrats, 33 percent Republicans and 9 percent independents and third-party members. The district generally stretches from Burholme to Somerton and includes most of the Far Northeast.
Voters everywhere seemed to be ticked off four years ago because of the Iraq War, and some took it out on Republicans because George W. Bush was in the White House. O’Neill survived the anger and might benefit a little this year because voters are sour on the poor economy under President Barack Obama.
O’Neill, 61, was elected in 1979, edging Democratic Councilman Melvin Greenberg. In the victory over McAleer, the incumbent racked up huge margins in Fox Chase and Pine Valley, but Rubin has ties to those areas — he’s coached at St. Albert the Great Parish and Fox Rok Athletic Association — and knows he must perform well there.
Rubin, 44, worked in the city commissioners’ office for almost 25 years. He was supervisor of elections and also vice chairman and trustee of the Philadelphia Board of Pensions and Retirement.
The challenger is looking forward to joining an energized Council that will have at least six new members.
“I expect to be seven,” he said.
The challenger has tried to link his opponent to the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan, which allows city workers to set retirement dates up to four years in advance and collect lump sum payments when they retire. The city solicitor’s office has ruled that elected officials are allowed to join, and several have taken advantage. O’Neill has not, although he has refused to sign a waiver form presented to him by Rubin.
“I’m not enrolled in DROP. I’ll never enroll in DROP,” O’Neill told a crowd at a recent candidates’ forum at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim.
Rubin points out that Council has not voted to prohibit current members from joining DROP. He believes O’Neill will enroll if he wins another term, figuring that a Republican will not be able to win in four years with the new Democratic territory added to the 10th district following redistricting.
The challenger said O’Neill started talking tough about DROP once Councilman at-large Frank Rizzo, who is enrolled in the program, was defeated in the Republican primary.
“It’s easy to do now,” he said.
The O’Neill campaign has pointed to a video of a February 2010 meeting of the Bustleton Civic League. Rubin, the guest speaker, seemed to indicate that DROP would be less costly if an elected official remained in office after enrolling because the city wouldn’t be paying the salary and benefits of a replacement.
Rubin made a pledge in May not to support Councilwoman Marian Tasco for Council president because she is enrolled in DROP. Tasco will collect $478,057 in retirement money in January but remain on the job and continue to collect her full salary.
O’Neill has not said whom he’ll support. Councilman Darrell Clarke is expected to oppose Tasco for the top spot.
Interestingly, Rizzo donated $1,000 to Rubin’s campaign.
O’Neill and fellow Republican Councilman Jack Kelly voted to remove Rizzo as minority-party whip and replace him with Kelly. The move was made after Rizzo sided with Democrats to pass a redistricting bill that inserted all of the heavily Democratic 56th Ward into the 10th district and removed some GOP-friendly territory. The change takes effect in 2015. Rizzo has since become an independent.
Other big donations to the challenger came from AFSCME and the local ironworkers, sprinkler fitters and electricians unions.
Rubin has pushed for Council reforms including a limit of three four-year terms, an end to outside employment and a ban on the use of city-owned cars. He’s criticized O’Neill as a part-time councilman who maintains a lucrative law practice.
O’Neill has been endorsed by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22. He has campaigned on the fact that he has never voted to raise property taxes and his use of zoning to prevent unwanted development. He also believes his district office at Bustleton Avenue and Bowler Street has been helpful for constituents who do not want to travel to City Hall.
Rubin, who’d also open a district office, scoffs at O’Neill’s claim about the property tax issue.
“That’s not an answer,” he said, arguing that O’Neill doesn’t offer any ideas about balancing the budget.
Both candidates have been running commercials on cable television. Rubin’s spot tries to tie O’Neill to DROP. O’Neill has one positive commercial that features people saying nice things about him and a negative commercial pointing to Rubin’s work for City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione, a DROP enrollee defeated in the primary.
“His own boss took the double-dip, Marge Tartaglione,” O’Neill said during a recent debate at Klein JCC. “He never said a word about it.”
The candidates have clashed over the city’s chronically underfunded pension system, with Rubin blaming O’Neill and Council for shortchanging it and noting the stock market crash of 2008. O’Neill points to Rubin’s service on the pension board.
“The pension fund is run by the pension board,” he said.
Joe McGarrity, O’Neill’s campaign manager, wrote letters in the last week to Tartaglione and the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, complaining about a mailing that, among other things, incorrectly listed poll hours as being from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The correct hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The pro-Rubin piece has a return address of the Washington, D.C.-based AFSCME People.
“Since Republican voters received this mailer, we believe this was an intentional effort to confuse and mislead voters likely to support Councilman Brian O’Neill,” the letter read, in part. ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org