Four way fight to take 1st unfolds on Tuesday

(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 brademaekers@bsmphilly.com