Rep. Chris Rabb Wants to Fix the Nomination Process for Special Elections

(State Rep. Chris Rabb | Photo: Kentucky Educational Television)

Special elections are one of the areas of Philadelphia politics most ripe for undemocratic shenanigans since city Democratic Party ward leaders are empowered to choose a nominee through a closed-door process. 

Special elections are one of the areas of Philadelphia politics most ripe for undemocratic shenanigans since city Democratic Party ward leaders are empowered to choose a nominee through a closed-door process. 

When a seat opens mid-term for whatever reason, the process of choosing a special election nominee typically happens pretty quickly, with no clear sense of who is under consideration, or how voters can even indirectly try to influence who is selected. 

Under the circumstances, the choices often seem to have more to do with relationships to elected officials or party grandees or other power players than the kinds of criteria voters might use to decide on a nominee in an open seat primary. 

In the special election last month to replace indicted Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, Democratic nominee Movita Johnson-Harrell prevailed easily over independent and Working Families Party candidates Amen Brown and Pamela Williams, but recall that she was actually the third candidate the 190th District the area ward leaders had decided on. 

The first pick was Sonte Reavis, an attorney and one-time aide to Congressman Chaka Fattah, who withdrew his name after it was discovered through—what else?—his water bills that he did not meet residency requirements to run. Then, the ward leaders chose Darryl Murphy, a prior candidate for the seat and the owner of Philly Cuts barber shop, as their next choice—only to then discover that he too had a residency issue, and possibly a more serious voter fraud issue, as the Inquirer reported.

"Darryl Thomas, a barbershop owner selected Jan. 19 to be the party’s nominee, withdrew from the race Saturday after a Clout column on Friday in the Inquirer and Daily News noted he had been registered to vote for more than a decade in both Pennsylvania and Delaware. Records from those states suggest he voted in both during the 2010 general election, something Thomas denied.

Now, the party is hoping its third try will get the job done. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who serves as supervisor of the Victim Services unit at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, is expected to be selected as a replacement by the Democratic leaders of the seven wards included in the district."

Movita Johnson-Harrell is, by all accounts, a well-qualified nominee, arguably the most qualified of the three. But when the seat first became available, the open secret was that it wasn't necessarily legislative chops or specific issue stances the ward leaders were looking for, but rather who could write the biggest checks. 

That probably isn't what voters would use to decide on an elected representative, but because of how few people are involved—7 ward leaders in this case—and because both the city and the state party will usually give their blessing to whoever the ward leaders choose, it doesn't really matter. So it's great to see Rep. Chris Rabb trying to open things up a little bit more with a new bill in Harrisburg that he previews in the following cosponsorship memo:

Representative democracy is based on the idea that citizens elect individuals to represent them in government; unfortunately, the process for nominating candidates in special elections fails to meet this standard. Current law establishes an inconsistent process where party leaders nominate candidates outside of the public eye.

Certainly, the process for nominating candidates in special elections is time-sensitive and requires different parameters than a normal election, but there is no reason that this process cannot encourage broader participation. To correct this problem, I will be introducing legislation that will establish consistency, transparency, and integrity in the special election process.

My proposal will require potential candidates to file their candidacy with a political party in each county of the legislative district, pay a filing fee, and prepare an announcement video. Further, my bill provides that political parties must advertise and hold a public meeting, with the majority of its members present, to consider candidates.

I believe that special elections have left habitual voters out of the process. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we address the injustice in this process.

Note that this wouldn't require a vote of the elected committee people in the affected wards, only a public meeting. But it would still be a major step forward from the current process, where committee people don't necessarily get to hear from the candidates before the fix is in, and there's no way to know from the outside who the potential candidates are.

Under Rabb's plan, candidates would pay a modest filing fee to declare their candidacy, prepare an announcement bill, and speak at a meeting with a majority of members—presumably meaning committee people—present. Ward leaders would still make the final call on the nominee, per the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee bylaws, and Rabb's legislation wouldn't try to override county party procedures. But there's no reason why ward leaders couldn't choose to abide by the outcome of a vote of all the committee people in the district, and then cast a perfunctory vote for the nominee with the most support.

In his article on Rabb's bill, Stephen Caruso reports that the Pennsylvania Democratic Party is also looking to standardize the process for special election nominations. However, it sounds like they still aren't necessarily interested in changing the operations of County parties, such as Philadelphia's Democratic City Committee, in special elections where the district is contained fully within one County.

"For races in districts that contain multiple counties, that could get complicated. If they vote separately, party leaders from neighboring counties could each recommend a different candidate.

That’s why the state Democratic Party is pushing to standardize the process, Harris said, to always have a single, public vote by county committee people.

The process was used to nominate now U.S. Rep Conor Lamb for a special election in 2017. Fellow Democrat Pam Iovino, who is running to represent the 37th state Senate district, was nominated that way, too.

Nominations for districts entirely within one county are a different story. According to Harris, local parties play by their own rules."

Standardizing the process to require a vote of all the district's committee people—and letting 100 or more people vote on the decision, rather than just 6 or 7—is a great policy that the PA Democrats should also extend to the districts fully contained by one county and include all Philadelphia district seats. 

Taking it a step further, the state Party should also require County parties to use this process for their regular endorsements as well, even outside the context of special elections.

After all, this is the same process that works in Montgomery County and Delaware County for voting on primary endorsements, where hundreds of County committee people gather to cast their votes convention-style. Philadelphia's process is too ward leader-centric and has only gotten more so in recent years, although the pendulum began to swing toward more open wards in 2018. 

Some Philadelphia ward leaders not-so-secretly believe most committee people aren't smart enough to vote, but that's not a yardstick we use in any other kind of election, and it seems more like a cynical and self-serving rationale for the 69 ward leaders to preserve their own influence. Given Philadelphia's importance to statewide Democratic campaigns in 2020, State party leaders have a direct interest in encouraging more party-building activity here, and arguably, there are few better ways to stimulate that than introducing an annual 3,000-person primary voting convention. 

The state legislature should take up Rep. Rabb's special election reform bill, but the work of democratizing our local party endorsements won't be complete without complementary action by the state Party to open up Philadelphia City Committee's regular endorsement process too.

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