(Congressman Bob Brady | Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer)
This week former Governor Ed Rendell gave Democratic City Committee chairman Bob Brady some unsolicited advice about cleaning up the city's party organization via an article at City & State--advice that didn't go over so well.
"Rendell proposed manifold reforms. He suggested that potential candidates should win party endorsements through a simple vote from committee people – the more numerous party foot soldiers underpinning the 66 political wards in Philadelphia – rather than leave the decision to the ward leader alone. He also suggested putting ward leaders back up for re-election every two years, instead of every four years, to help prevent entrenchment – some ward leaders have served for decades.
Rendell said the party should also abstain from doling out endorsements to candidates who have failed to win backing from outside groups – such as judicial candidates who haven’t secured a recommendation from the Philadelphia Bar Association."
Rendell's advice is framed in the article as a way to cut down on corruption, but that's just a small piece of what's wrong with the city's Democratic Party organization, and focusing on the corruption actually goes way too easy on the party.
The corruption is real enough, but it's a symptom of a larger issue, which is the closed and anti-competitive culture of the organization. What the DCC is really facing is a crisis of public legitimacy and relevance that's only going to get worse if they don't change course.
The purpose of many of the reforms Rendell proposes is to make the party more open to new participants, and create more room for small-d democratic decision-making that would make the party more responsive to the city's changing politics.
Currently, opportunities to hold ward leaders (or their allied committeepeople) accountable at the ballot box are few and far between, so bad-apple ward leaders like Carlos Matos and the others who presided over the raging tire fire that was the 197th District special election are able to defile the party's brand with no consequences from above or below.
As our Executive Director, Ali Perelman, says in the piece, “there’s a sense people are moving away from the party because of these actors. But it seems highly unlikely that in the absence of new actors that folks are going to start acting differently on their own."
Chairman Brady was none too pleased with these suggestions, entertainingly referring to our director (who earned a PhD from Penn) as "a rich girl with nothing better to do," pointing vaguely to the "skeletons in [Rendell's] closet," and generally pooh-poohing the idea that the party has any room for improvement on voter turnout, candidate recruitment, ethics, or anything else.
His message is clear: if you want different results from City Committee, you'll have to change the current leadership.
A Membership Organization with a People Problem
A supermajority of Philadelphians prefer Democrats to Republicans in national politics, so the national Democratic Party brand is spotting the local party organization any cache that it has.
The relationship between the national party and the local party is a lot like the relationship between international pop star Justin Bieber and local attorney Justin Bieber, who advertises on the subway. Justin Bieber, Esquire is getting a certain amount of business that has nothing to do with the reputation of his law practice, and so is Democratic City Committee.
Without any kind of external threat to the party's electoral viability, there's no incentive for the DCC to do any real party-building activity, and it's evident that they haven't in a long time. Go to any local ward event, and you'll see waves and waves of gray. The average age of the current crop of committeepeople keeps increasing each cycle, and the party is doing little to recruit the next wave of party activists. (To be fair, the DCC recently restarted Philly's Young Democrats chapter, which is being led by former Blondell Reynolds Brown staffer Kellan White, but it's still unclear how short of a leash Brady intends to keep that organization on. And there are some individual wards that do an amazing job of year-round community engagement, and perhaps unsurprisingly, have higher voter turnout rates.)
Historically, the DCC has had a strong culture of "who sent ya?" that treats any hint that somebody might want to join the organization in an official capacity as a threat, instead of an opportunity to build a farm team of future candidates, and connect with the next generation of voters. But like any membership organization it needs to keep pumping in new blood to stay healthy and relevant.
How does a political organization that's so conflicted about whether it wants anyone to join it, or vote in its primary elections, successfully motivate people to vote? The answer is clear: it doesn't.
Let Committeepeople Vote
Many of the reforms Ed Rendell suggested to the DCC were aimed at making it a more open and porous organization.
One way to accomplish this is to let the elected ward committeepeople vote on candidates. In many wards, the reality is that the ward leader tells committeepeople which candidates to vote for. Committeepeople are actually on the ballot; ward leaders aren't. The ward leaders are chosen by the committeepeople, but aren't directly accountable to the voters.
In any regular or special election, committeepeople should get to interview and vote on candidates. Brady says in the article that committeepeople would vote the same way as the ward leaders so voting is unnecessary, but if that's true, then why not take the votes? The real answer is that the party hates this idea because it would dilute ward leaders' power.
Letting committeepeople vote for candidates would also have the added bonus of making it easier for organized factions within wards to swing candidate endorsement votes more often. Suppose you were part of a group of people who challenged a ward leader and you only won 8 seats out of 20 in the ward. You don't have the votes to replace the ward leader, but if you get to vote on candidate endorsements, you still have a good opportunity to influence which candidates the ward chooses to endorse.
If these positions came with more opportunity for influence, more people would likely run for them, and you'd probably see a more lively political climate at the ward level.
Every 2 Year Elections
Just like how members of the House of Representatives are up for election every two years because the Constitution's framers wanted them to really keep their finger on the political pulse, the ward system should be similarly responsive.
There are some good reasons why we might want elected legislators to serve terms longer than two years, but it's hard to see why that would apply to committeeperson seats (other than that Brady says this would be a headache for him.)
A committeeperson's job is to get their neighbors out to vote, and an election is a straightforward test of who is best at running a get-out-the-vote operation.
The DCC should want to populate all the committeeperson seats with the people who are best at this, since that improves the party's chances of winning statewide contests for President, Governor, Senate, Supreme Court, and other row offices.
Holding the elections every four years really takes the wind out of the sails of groups who want to challenge ward leaders, since it's hard to keep the momentum up over four years. Reducing it to two years would likely result in more vigorous competition for ward leader seats, which is exactly what Brady doesn't like about it.
Regular meetings and Community Presence
Activity is a magnet for more activity. When you look at the ward organizations that are doing a great job at turning out their voters, particularly in Northwest Philly, the ward organizations are a relevant part of the community. They have a year-round schedule of meetings, community events, and other activities.
At their best, ward organizations can be like a civic association but for politics. They can facilitate frequent opportunities for voters to meet current and aspiring elected officials both at election time and between elections, and help hold them accountable for getting the neighborhood's business done at the local, state, and federal level.
Some wards only meet a couple times a year around election time, or only do the candidate endorsement and GOTV part of the job, and they're less effective because of it.
While the other recommendations deal more with openness and competition, this gets more into the lingering corruption problem in some wards. The whole business model of the ward system is based around pay-to-play, with the ward's turnout operation often pledged to the candidate who can write them the biggest check, so there's a certain degree of corruption baked into its DNA, but there's more that can be done to prevent outright fraud, theft, and other illegal use of money.
At a minimum, committeepeople should be allowed to review the ward's finances at any time. Committeepeople are on the ballot and accountable to the voters. Ward leaders aren't. For ward organizations to be even minimally accountable to voters, the democratically-elected representatives need to have some basic oversight powers. This is a right that an elected board member can expect to have in almost any organization, and the wards shouldn't be any different.
If more people in the ward organization have oversight of the financials and the budget, there's less room for fraud and shenanigans.
Don't endorse any judicial candidates not recommended by the Bar Association
We're working on an explainer about the Bar Association's process for rating judicial candidates, because this is a really important process that voters are almost certainly under-valuing. Even as a local politics junkie, I didn't even really understand how thorough it was until I met a few people who went through it running for judge this year.
The Bar Association doesn't just review your application and interview you like a regular PAC or issue advocacy group does with candidate questionnaires. They interview all your colleagues, plus attorneys who have represented opposing clients. They comb through your whole career history as an attorney. We'll tell you more about it soon, but it's extreme vetting.
Unfortunately, voters don't currently value the Bar Association's ratings very highly, according to Econsult's analysis of the various factors that influence judicial elections. Ballot position is the dominant influencer, followed by the DCC's endorsement, followed by the Inquirer's endorsement. In recent years, the Inquirer has been endorsing the Bar's recommended and highly-recommended candidates, increasing their influence.
But the DCC doesn't care at all about the Bar Association's process, and they have no problem endorsing mediocre-to-bad lawyers who couldn't hack it in the legal field, but can write big checks to ward organizations.
City Committee should pledge to stop endorsing anybody who makes it onto the Bar Association's Not Recommended list. The Bar's process may not be 100% perfect, but it's much less likely to advance unqualified or unscrupulous lawyers to Pennsylvania's courts. (See: DiClaudio, Scott)
Ultimately this is about whether our judges are fully-equipped to protect the rights and liberties of Pennsylvanians, so having some minimal system for quality control is paramount.