Philadelphia's Great Northeast can feel separate, apart from the bustle of Center City and the rowdy vibrancy of the traditional rowhouse neighborhoods.

Long a nearly exclusive bastion of the white middle class, with its suburban housing stock - the houses even have lawns - the area has more in common with the neighboring counties than the Philadelphia at the other end of I-95.

Safe to say, things in the Northeast are just different - and to those who live there, better.

"A great place to live, work, raise a family," is how Councilman Brian O'Neill describes the area he has represented for 32 years.

O'Neill is a symbol of the Northeast's otherness - one of just three Republicans on Council, he is the only one who has repeatedly thumped Democratic challengers to keep his job.

He sees his role on Council as protector of what makes the Northeast the Northeast, a job he says he has done exceptionally well for three decades.

"The area isn't that much better than areas around it by accident," he said. "It happened because of my vigilance, my visibility, my accessibility."

Although nine of his Democratic colleagues will coast through Election Day against nominal or no competition, O'Neill is putting his record on the line against Bill Rubin, an energetic and well-connected challenger.

Rubin, hoping to ride an anti-incumbency tide, has portrayed O'Neill's "outlier" status as an impediment to effective representation.

Though O'Neill has consistently voted against the tax increases reviled in the 10th District, Rubin said his voice of dissent had been a lonely one.

"Should I be happy if you're voting no, and I'm still paying higher taxes?" Rubin asked. "Find another solution. He's not a real player in the game."

In the primary election, when both men ran unopposed, Rubin garnered about 1,500 more votes than O'Neill, and the 10th District has about 20,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The demographics of the district have shifted in the last decade, with slight upticks in the immigrant and minority communities. About 12,000 white residents left the district, dropping their numbers below 80 percent, according to census figures.

"It's a new group of Democrats that have moved in," Rubin said. "I think there's a lot of fertile ground that we've been working."

The district has never been much more than one-third Republican, but that has not stopped O'Neill from winning reelection with ease.

In 2007, "when it was toxic to be a Republican," he received 58.5 percent of the vote - his lowest as an incumbent.

"I did a poll, and 40 percent of my district said they would vote for any Democrat," O'Neill said. "They were so mad at George Bush."

The truest measure of the competitiveness of the current race might be how hard the candidates have been fighting.

O'Neill has spent $165,110 since the primary and still had $185,034 as of Friday. Rubin has spent $117,353 since the primary, leaving him with $13,700 as of Friday. Both recently began airing hard-hitting commercials.

Rubin has teed off on the issue of the voter-hated DROP pension program, which has played a leading role in the historic turnover on Council. (Six members, all DROP participants, will leave at the end of the year; seven if O'Neill, who never joined DROP, loses.)

Rubin was vice chair of the city Board of Pensions and Retirement for six years and spent 15 years as treasurer of District Council 33, Local 696, the union that represents city finance and library workers.

He helped write the state legislation that barred future elected officials from participating in a pension program like DROP. Council members reaffirmed the state law but refused to apply the ban to themselves.

Rubin said O'Neill "lied point blank" when reporters asked whether he had applied for DROP. Rubin has since produced the application form that O'Neill signed.

By contrast, Rubin has pledged not to take a city car, not to enroll in the lucrative pension program available to elected officials, and to limit himself to three terms.

O'Neill said he did fill out an application form for DROP, but only in an effort to learn more about his benefits. In fact, he said, it was Rubin, then sitting on the pension board, who brought him the form in 2007.

O'Neill has pledged never to enroll in DROP.

"I can't go more public than I've gone," he said. "My career would be for nothing if I ever went back on that. You can't give more than your word in this job."

O'Neill has slammed Rubin for working 25 years in a city commissioner's office - the last four as supervisor of elections - run by Marge Tartaglione, one of the most prominent pols toppled by DROP.

Instead of leaving city employment after receiving their lump-sum payout, a number of politicians have retired - as required by the program - for one day, then continued in office. Tartaglione and Councilwoman Joan Krajewski were the first to exploit that loophole.

"His boss double-dipped on DROP and a couple of other people did," O'Neill said of Rubin. "He stayed quiet and even defended them."

He also has called Rubin a "patronage employee" and did not back down from that claim even though Rubin got his job through civil service.

"Everyone in politics knows there was never a job in that office that wasn't picked by Marge," O'Neill said. "To say he was a patronage employee of Marge Tartaglione is the easiest statement I've ever had to make."

Rubin said O'Neill was trying "to drag me through the mud" because his own record was thin.

"What are you known for? What is your signature?" he asked. "There's nothing there in 32 years."

Rubin says he is in a position to deal with the big issues facing the city, such as property taxes, the pension shortfall, and labor contracts for city workers. And, because of his union background, he says, he can get the services the district needs.

"Who provides the services to the city? District Council 33 members," he said. "When I call and need something, I would think they're going to pick up and take care of it."

O'Neill is an of-counsel lawyer at Fox Rothschild in Center City, one of a handful of Council members who hold an outside job. Rubin and O'Neill have jousted over whether O'Neill's outside work puts him at risk of a conflict of interest.

He often cites his work on zoning - he said he started the practice of Council members' going before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. He touted a nearly perfect record of fighting what the Northeast does not want, and also of improving the development that has come.

Developers at the Franklin Mills Mall, for instance, agreed to add a lane to I-95 at their expense and to pay for two gyms and a senior center.

But Rubin said the Northeast - and the city - need more from the 10th District Council member.

"He's holding on to the past," Rubin said, "and I'm looking toward the future."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730,, or @troyjgraham on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Miriam Hill contributed to this article.