Big bucks for a guy running unopposed

IN THE RUN-UP to the Nov. 3 general election, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. is pulling out all the stops in his bid for re-election.

The councilman, who represents parts of West and Northwest Philly, built a field team, set up phone banks, rented two campaign offices and even had a food truck wrapped with his likeness.

These are the kinds of expenses you'd expect from a candidate gearing up for a bloody political campaign. But Jones is running unopposed.

That hasn't deterred him from spending more than $415,000 since January 2014. The only unopposed Council members to spend more were the deep-pocketed Council President Darrell Clarke - who routinely doles out cash to help stay on top - and Bobby Henon, who hails from Northeast Philly.

That may not be a coincidence.

Council sources say Henon, Clarke and Jones are locked in a feud over Jones' failed coup for Council president.

Jones is Council majority leader, a leadership position that gets him an extra $9,000 a year in salary and procedural benefits, like helping appoint members to legislative committees and meeting with the mayor to discuss the legislative agenda. More important, it's a step below Council president - a more powerful position that Jones has eyed for some time.

"At one point, we thought President Clarke would seek higher office, and that did not happen," said Jones, referring to Clarke's fizzled interest in late 2014 and early 2015 in running for mayor. "So, now I'm in a fight for my leadership role."

According to Council sources, the political soap opera goes like this: In late 2014, Jones assumed, like many people, that Clarke would run for mayor, leaving his Council seat and the top leadership slot wide open.

“There were a lot of people who were 100 percent certain Darrell was going to run. ...There were lots of people looking at Darrell’s seat,” political consultant Larry Ceisler said. “Jimmy [Kenney] was doing the same thing late last year.”

But Clarke never threw his hat in the ring. Most of his colleagues dropped their ambitions of becoming Council president after Clarke announced in January that he would not be running.

Jones claims he, too, abandoned his bid in January. But sources said that the majority leader continued to court other members to support his bid for Council president well into May, to Clarke's chagrin. Another source said Clarke was already angry with Jones for leaking information to Nutter about Council's game plan for last year's scotched Philadelphia Gas Works sale.

Jones denied any friction. However, an individual close to Clarke said there was "absolutely a rift" between the two men and even Jones acknowledged that he's fighting to keep his spot as majority leader.

"Of course members, I won't point any of them out, are very interested in a leader being able to help them financially," he said. "So, that's important, they want a leader that is not a beggar. And some of the people in this body have big brothers and big sisters with deep pockets."

Jones was almost certainly talking about freshman Henon, well-known as a close ally of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 leader and major political contributor John Dougherty. Henon gunning for Jones' spot with Clarke's support could be a form of retribution.

Whatever the truth, there was broad consensus in Council that both camps were "trying to buy votes" by spreading campaign dollars around in the run-up to a Council leadership vote in January.

For his part, Henon said that he's always been a capable fundraiser, thanks to his Local 98 ties, and that he has always spent lots of money on "constituent service" through programs that support schools, rec centers and libraries in this district.

However, Henon said any increase in political spending this year was easy to explain.

"My 100 percent focus is increasing turnout in the city of Philadelphia and my district, so we can help the Democratic Supreme Court candidates, one being my friend Kevin Dougherty," he said, referring to John Dougherty's brother, who is seeking a spot on the state's highest court this year.

Henon said he wouldn't turn his eye back to Council politics until the end of that election. But would he take a shot at the majority leadership post after Nov. 3?

"I'm looking at it," he said.

Jones' chief of staff, Al Spivey, also downplayed his expenses, saying he, too, goes above and beyond on constituent service. He called Jones the "pied piper of the disenfranchised" and noted that their two district offices received 5,000 to 6,000 constituent-service calls so far this year and processed claims for low-income heating programs. He also said Jones organizes numerous community events with campaign cash.

But Spivey also acknowledged that spending big in ways that benefit other Council members is one way to continue to be a leader in the city's legislature.

"How this works is [Jones] is the majority leader and he has to show strength in his area. . . . He's responsible for Council members trying to get re-elected," Spivey said. "If he doesn't put anything on the street, turnout would be depressed. He has to act like he's running for re-election for the other incumbents that are running for Council."

On Twitter: @rw_briggs