An ultimate city insider looks for his next act

In their own way, all politicians are actors. But in Philadelphia, probably only one of them is a card-carrying member of Actors' Equity.

That would be David Glancey, 62, the former Democratic boss, mayoral campaign chief, congressional candidate, cast member in productions including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and, for his 17 years atop the Board of Revision of Taxes, the man responsible for determining your property taxes.

Glancey, whose run at the board - and long career on the Philadelphia payroll - ended yesterday, is the insider's insider: an adviser to mayors, a reliable quote for journalists, and one of the most influential people you've never heard of.

In an interview Thursday in his half-packed office, Glancey offered insights on the six mayors he's seen in action.

There were James H.J. Tate ("terrific tactician"), Frank L. Rizzo ("a bully," he "offered symbolic tough-guy leadership - but symbolism is important"), his old mentor William J. Green ("I'm biased, but he's my guy"), W. Wilson Goode (ran "a fits and starts administration" but "his heart was in the right place"), Ed Rendell ("gave us our pride back"), and John Street ("great potential" undercut by "leadership style").

As much as anyone, Glancey, son of a Germantown steelworker, ought to know.

He entered city government soon after graduating from St. Joseph's University, landing a job in Common Pleas Court. His brother became president judge of Municipal Court.

Glancey found a job working for Green, then a congressman. After stops at law school, the state Senate staff, and a powerhouse Philadelphia law firm, Glancey helped run Green's 1979 mayoral campaign.

When the congressman won, he installed his protégé, then 35, as chair of the Democratic City Committee.

"They understood at that point, frankly, where the power was," Green said of more wizened ward bosses he oversaw. "It always helps to be a good actor," he said of Glancey.

But it wasn't an easy post for anyone, particularly not a boy wonder associated with a mayor whose popularity waned. If the current chair, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, has proved a master at herding the ward leaders who make up the party hierarchy, Glancey - another twinkly-eyed Irishman - found it tougher.

Glancey was not able to use the patronage-rich party job to win a 1981 special congressional election. Voters rejected him, he said, in the name of sending a message to Green.

Glancey's day job seemed fun by comparison.

"If getting away meant going to Washington to take extraordinarily complex depositions on arcane matters of railroad law, so be it," he said.

As it turned out, that interest in the arcane helped Glancey in 1983 when his term as party chair ended and he wound up, like many insiders before him, with a job at the tax board, which assesses property values for tax purposes. He became chair in 1990.

In his first month, Glancey, then appearing in a production of 1984, sported a beard that was shaved on one side, stubble on the other.

"Because I was a method actor, I had to have this horrible sallow look for the play," Glancey said. "The people who worked there must have thought I was a bum."

The Orwellian motif - not to mention the sallow look - might have served him well during his final years on the board, which were focused on a complicated effort to move the city to "full-value taxation."

The idea was to replace the current property-tax system with one that taxes based on how much money a property could fetch on the open market.

Simple enough. But it scared the pols. Instead of being able to blame the board for tax hikes, Council would be required to tinker annually - thereby risking voters' wrath.

Glancey spoke to groups across town to sell the idea. But during the debate, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell called Glancey's idea a "back-door tax hike." Council approved a resolution denouncing the plan. The effort has been delayed until 2008.

Though he avoided echoing Green - who once called Council "the worst legislative body in the free world" - Glancey said he thought it could have done better.

"Today's folks are smarter," he said. "They have the potential to be better than they are. And that, to me, is sad. I know these folks. When I go see them, they get it. This is coming from the ultimate political insider, but everything is through a political prism with them now."

Blackwell said her opposition was never personal. She said she had gone to see Glancey in a play when she found out he was an actor.

Though he has stepped off the city payroll - he's considering work at a law firm or a consultancy - Glancey retains the insider's reluctance to publicly beat up on fellow pols. He had a hard time naming anyone in politics he hadn't liked.

"Even the rascals were great: Buddy Cianfrani was wonderful, Jimmy Tayoun was great," he said, referring to two local officials who served time for corruption. "As long as you never did anything that affected your own moral compass, you could appreciate them."


Contact staff writer Michael Currie Schaffer at 215-854-4565 or mcschaffer@phillynews.com.