Artwork by WRIGHT SENARES
BY CHRIS MCCARRY With a field of candidates seeking to succeed a term-limited mayor, the Democratic National Convention on it’s way here in 2016, and the ongoing slugfest over our city’s school system, political reporters are going to be wind-sprinting from river to river to cover it all—and Phawker’s throwing its hat into the ring as well.
For the next three months we’ll be covering what is sure to be the most entertaining City Council race of the year: the 2nd District contest between incumbent Kenyatta Johnson and real-estate developer Ori Feibush. We’ll start today with a little background and then pick up the beat going forward so keep an eye out for forthcoming coverage.
Feibush is a 30-year-old Temple Grad who has been buying land and building homes and businesses in Point Breeze for nearly 10 years — you may have been to one of his OCF Coffee Shops. He’s a political novice, the focus of fawning magazine profiles, and he’s willing to bring his bulging bank account to bear in a big way — he’s already invested enough of his own money to double the fundraising limits for all 2nd District candidates, allowing direct donations of up $23,000 from PACs. But wading into a city council race with a wad of cash is a risky endeavor.
Making things even more interesting is Feibush’s willingness to call out anyone at anytime in the pursuit of bringing down the established political machine by any means necessary. In the above-linked Philadelphia Magazine profile he said Mayor Michael Nutter looked like The Shredder of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame and should have been appointed President Obama’s “Chief Retard.” This is probably why Nutter called Feibush “a little jerk with a big checkbook” at Johnson’s campaign kick-off event in January.
But beyond the name-calling, Feibush has also levied some serious allegations against Johnson including filing a lawsuit claiming that the Councilman blocked him from developing land in the district as political retribution. This is in addition to another lawsuit, that Feibush is not a party to, claiming that Johnson abused what’s called “councilmanic prerogative” by steering city-owned lots into the hands of political contributors.
Feibush is a confident guy who not only defends his new-construction development that many believe will price long time residents out of the neighborhood while aggressively selling himself as a community leader to those very residents he would displace. Whether that claim gains traction remains to be seen, but if nothing else he’s running an interesting and controversial campaign. In this video he all but takes credit for the arrest of the man responsible for the brutal murder of Melissa Ketunuti.
Johnson, on the other hand, is a new-comer to council chambers finishing up his first term in that august body. However, he is a graduate of Penn, a former State Representative and political affiliate of mayoral candidate Anthony Hardy Williams — though that affiliation could prove a double-edged sword. Williams has direct support from a number of pro-charter organizations and should the public debate on education not go his way, Johnson could find himself buried in the rubble of political fallout.
Johnson also faces trouble in the form of the aforementioned allegations of impropriety and nepotism when it comes to real estate development in his council district. City Council members are afforded the privilege of councilmanic prerogative, which gives them almost total control over land use projects in their districts. And ‘total control’ in this town almost always leads to ‘total corruption.’
Still, Johnson’s chances are very good. Incumbency and race are, more often than not, the two most important factors in councilmanic elections, and as an African American incumbent he checks both boxes. He’s also got the ward leaders in his corner plugging him into the Democratic street machine that, on a good day, can turn out an overwhelming wave of voters on Election Day. The only real advantage Feibush has is money, but council races are won on the street, not with TV ads, so it is paramount that he spends it wisely.
While the mayor’s race and at-large council races will likely hinge on the debate surrounding the public school system, the race in the 2nd could serve as a referendum on increasing gentrification. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely Feibush will be the victor, if for no other reason than there just aren’t enough of his people in the neighborhood yet. Maybe in ten years, maybe not, but in 2015, there’s still too much old Point Breeze in new Point Breeze for Feibush to rely on voter turnout to carry him over.
Either way, Feibush is clearly in this to win it so buckle your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Hopefully, we’ll also all be treated to a vigorous and enthusiastic debate between two candidates that will serve to push the city forward regardless of the victor. Speaking of debates, Feibush has challenged Johnson to an absurd ten debates before election day on May 19. It’s unlikely all of that will happen but there will be at least one – March 5 at Greenwood Elementary on 22nd Street at 7pm. We’ll be there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris McCarry has been working as professional political consultant since Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He is a lifelong Philadelphia resident and is not affiliated with the Kenyatta Johnson or Ori Feibush campaigns.