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Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker became a Harrisburg lobbyist days after resigning from City Council

Philadelphia Inquirer 9/28/2022 Sean Collins Walsh, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Cherelle Parker resigned from her City Council seat on Sept. 7. Twelve days later, she became a lobbyist. © JESSICA GRIFFIN/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Cherelle Parker resigned from her City Council seat on Sept. 7. Twelve days later, she became a lobbyist.

Cherelle Parker resigned from her City Council seat to run in next year’s mayoral election in the first week of September.

Twelve days later, she became a Harrisburg lobbyist.

Parker initially listed three clients on her state lobbyist registration: the oil and gas pipeline firm Enbridge Inc., the Moore College of Art and Design, and Longwood Gardens.

But a Parker campaign spokesperson said Wednesday that she is not representing Enbridge, calling it a “clerical mistake.” Enbridge was removed from her client list Wednesday morning.

Parker served as a state representative before becoming a Council member in 2016, and has extensive relationships in Harrisburg, including with Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.

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Parker listed two related lobbying firms on her registration: the Rooney Novak Isenhour Group and Tri State Strategies PA. Both firms were cofounded by former State Rep. T.J. Rooney, who served on the Wolf campaign’s finance committee, and they both include former Wolf chief of staff Mary P. Isenhour.

Wolf last year appointed Parker to the board of the Delaware River Port Authority, and she was elected chair.

Aren Platt, a senior adviser to Parker’s campaign, said Parker is highly qualified for her new role, which he described as an advisory position in which she offers guidance to the lobbying firms’ leaders but does not directly lobby state officials.

He added that Parker, a single mother who has a 10-year-old son, needed income after resigning from Council to run in the mayor’s race.

“She is incredibly highly thought of in Harrisburg,” Platt said. “She is a single mother. She does need income. She started talking with old friends at Rooney Novak Isenhour who actually offered her a position.”

Parker will step down from her lobbying role if she is elected mayor, Platt said.

Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter requires city employees to resign from their jobs to run for an office other than the one they currently hold. The uncommon “resign to run” rule often puts Council members eyeing the mayor’s office in a difficult position because it means giving up their more than $130,000 salary — and an often easy path to reelection — to enter a high-profile race with no guarantee of winning.

For politicians like Allan Domb, a real estate magnate who resigned from Council in August and is still considering whether to run for mayor, the salary issue is of little concern. But for less wealthy members like Parker, entering the mayor’s race means losing a main source of income.

Parker’s choice of an alternative income is likely to raise eyebrows. Ethics experts have long criticized the so-called revolving door of former elected officials lobbying their former colleagues on behalf of corporate clients shortly after leaving government.

Khalif Ali, executive director of the left-leaning good government group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said that former elected officials have a right to earn a living and that Parker’s new role appears to be legal.

But Ali added that it is nonetheless “concerning” that she became a lobbyist while campaigning for mayor. Politicians should strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, he said, due to increasing public mistrust in government and the democratic process.

“It doesn’t look great because the bar is higher for candidates and elected officials based on voters’ perceptions,” Ali said. “Perception is everything, and it can’t always just be about, ‘Well, I’m not doing anything illegal, per se.’ We have to observe where we are as a democracy.”

Concerns about elected officials becoming lobbyists have led to the adoption of “cooling off” laws across the country, which prohibit former government officials from getting paid to influence their old legislative or agency coworkers for a designated period of time.

In Pennsylvania, the cooling-off period is one year. Because Parker left the state House in 2016, she is allowed to lobby the state government. She is not registered as a city government lobbyist in Philadelphia.

“As far as the people of Philadelphia are concerned, this is not ‘revolving door,’” Platt said. “Unlike the members of Congress — who leave Congress, wait for their probationary period to end, and then go right back into Congress to lobby their former colleagues — she will not be lobbying City Hall.”

Platt said Parker’s new role is “entirely aboveboard and completely in adherence to all the laws and regulations.”

“We’re not trying to obfuscate her role, and that’s why there’s a public filing,” Platt said. “But at a certain point, we’re fully confident that the voters of Philadelphia will see that for an incredibly qualified single mother, she needs to earn an income.”

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