Could Councilman Jim Kenney's attempt to erase campaign- contribution limits in the mayor's race become a progressive rallying cry in the May primary election?

It looked that way yesterday, with three mayoral candidates and a host of Council hopefuls calling the proposed legislation a blow to ethics reform.

"Some people are wondering if this issue could become Philadelphia's pay-raise scandal," said activist and at-large Council candidate Marc Stier, referring to the pay-raise issue that led to the ousting last year of dozens of state House and Senate members.

But Kenney said he would continue with the bill, which had 11 co-signers and the early support of Mayor Street.

"I am seriously concerned about the impact of 15 million dollars in a five-person race," Kenney said, referring to millionaire candidate Tom Knox, who has put $5 million in his campaign account so far and has rocketed to second in the polls.

Kenney's bill throws out the limits if a candidate spends more than $2 million.

He said the bill may be reviewed in committee as early as Feb. 14.

Currently, the limits are $5,000 from an individual and $20,000 from a political-action committee in a calendar year.

Some have accused Kenney of working on behalf of candidate U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who recently joined the race and has far less money than Knox. Kenney bristled at the suggestion.

"It's offensive to me that I don't have a brain," he said.

Candidate Michael Nutter has led the charge against the legislation, starting a petition drive to collect signatures opposing the bill. Fellow candidates state Rep. Dwight Evans and Knox are also against the measure.

"I think the people's voices have to be heard in this matter and that Council members have to know that Philadelphians don't want their elections stolen from them," Nutter said.

But the two other candidates - who also happen to have the smallest campaign accounts - did not side with the opposition. Brady supports the measure, and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was vague when asked his opinion.

"For right now I support the pursuit of some effort to level the playing field," Fattah said.

And while most Council members seemed inclined to support the bill, their primary challengers spoke out against it yesterday.

In the 4th Council District, incumbent Carol Ann Campbell, a close Brady political ally, came out strongly in favor of the Kenney bill on Thursday, saying the current contribution limits would enable millionaires like Knox to "steal the election."

But yesterday, two of her primary challengers, East Falls attorney Matt McClure and Curtis Jones, the former president of the Philadelphia Commercial Development Corp., said they opposed the Kenney bill.

"It is simply wrong to eliminate campaign-finance limits in order to protect the status quo," McClure said in a statement.

And Jones, through a spokesman, said, "Lifting the cap is a regressive idea that consolidates influence at a time when city leaders should be focused on restoring the public's trust."

In the 7th District, challenger Maria Quinones Sanchez said that Councilman Daniel Savage should vote against the Kenney bill, which "smacks of political cynicism at its worse ."

"The supposed negative effects of benefiting millionaire candidates are minimal compared to the advantages of working to eliminate pay-to-play," she said in a statement.

And in the 8th District, challenger Irv Ackelsberg said the Kenney bill "would destroy campaign-finance reform that the public has demanded." He said he plans to call Councilwoman Donna Miller to urge her to remove her name as a co-sponsor on the Kenney bill.

The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and civic group Philadelphia Forward spoke out against the bill yesterday. So did the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, which asked the Board of Ethics to join the opposition.

Ethics Board Executive Director Shane Creamer said he expected the group would take a position early next week. *