In a very unfavorable midterm year for Democrats, with historically low approval numbers for President Biden, you might think Democratic Party organizations in Pennsylvania would be welcoming new energy from politically-engaged newcomers, but at the lowest levels the opposite is unfortunately more typically the case.
Billy Penn’s Lizzy McLellan Ravitch reports on some of the clashes from this year’s ward elections where Philadelphia’s Democratic Party went so far as to block people from being seated for committee person positions who want to serve, and where there was no alternative person who’d stepped up to fill the role.
While the City Commissioners have in the past certified committee people who won with fewer than 10 votes, Bob Brady, the chair of Philadelphia's Democratic City Committee, worked to block people who didn’t meet the 10-vote threshold from participating in ward reorganization meetings where the 2022 cohort of ward leaders were elected.
The party likely preferred this because they thought on balance it would help incumbent ward leaders beat back challengers in the very few places where ward leaders faced any competition at all. This was done in a haphazard and unfair way though, where ward leaders in those same places were the ones empowered to pick and choose which under-10-vote write-in winners to challenge, and they didn’t challenge every single person who’d gotten fewer than 10.
Heading into the reorganization meetings after the primary election, there already were 478 open committee person positions (out of just over 3,600) where there is not yet an officially-designated Get Out the Vote representative for the Party going into the fall general election.
And then after the reorganization challenges, the Party chose to increase the number of unrepresented divisions over and above that—all in the service of helping a few buddies hang onto ward leader seats. In the process, they ended up putting off a lot of people who were newly engaged this election season, and pointlessly tarnished the Party’s image with its activists in a key election year. Billy Penn’s Ravitch writes:
Some of the new people elected to committees this year weren’t actually on the ballot. They were the write-in candidates who got the most votes — even if it was just a handful, or just one. But some Democratic ward leaders declined to recognize the write-in winners.
That happened in the 21st ward, where some write-in committeepeople were barred from the June reorganization meeting where ward leaders are elected.
“Everyone says get involved… but absolutely, positively I am not welcome there,” said Sean Swanwick, who got three 21st ward write-in votes but said he wasn’t allowed into the meeting.
Ward Leader Lou Agre told Billy Penn it’s because Swarnwick didn’t get at least 10 write-in votes — which is the minimum for getting on the ballot in advance of the election. “We obeyed every bit of the law,” Agre said. “I’m tired of these left-wing, do-gooder, everyone-gets-a-trophy types,” he added.
That last quote from Agre really gives away the game as to what this is really about. The current Party leadership has a hyperactive gag reflex about unapproved people trying to get involved, and it doesn’t much matter what type of approach someone takes.
Ravitch’s piece also includes some interesting data analysis and tables showing the amount of turnover in the different wards between 2018 and 2022, and finds that the “open wards” with more empowered committees also saw some of the highest turnover, but also saw higher turnout than the average ward.
“Across the city, the average ward saw 37% of committeeperson seats change hands in 2022, and 40% in 2018.
The wards where party establishment have a firm hold on leadership have seen the least amount of new blood in committeepeople elections since 2014, data analysis by Billy Penn shows. Six of the eight wards led by party leaders saw lower than average turnover in 2022 and 2018.
Open wards — where ward leaders give committeepeople a voice in endorsements and other decision making — have seen committeepeople seats change hands the most since 2014. Of the 15 known open wards in the city, 13 had above-average turnover in 2022.”
That’s an interesting finding and it seems to go hand-in-hand with the trend where most of these same wards tend to have more change-supportive voters in general, and are usually the ones most hospitable to candidates with a party-outsider profile.
On balance, the more change-oriented wards tend to have higher education levels and incomes on average, though that story has been changing since the 2018 and 2022 election cycles as wards like the 24th (Mantua), 48th (Point Breeze/West Passyunk), and 51st (Southwest) have joined the ranks of the open wards.
A question worthy of further analysis is about the relationship between open wards’ candidate endorsements and the likelihood of the endorsed candidates carrying those wards in primaries.
There seems to be some cursory early evidence that open ward status doesn’t have a cost in terms of endorsed candidate performance, but how impactful are those endorsements compared to closed wards’ endorsements? There were a lot of bald assertions made about this topic in defense of closed wards during the lead-up to the ward reorganization meetings this year, but with little evidence presented to back it up.
The more intuitive story—which, again, needs more research—may be that more party competition leads to higher voter engagement, and even though this may mean the Party will cycle through committee people at a somewhat faster rate, all this activity will translate into higher levels of Party voter participation and turnout all year round, which should really be the end goal of all this party organizing work.
Instead, most of the city Democratic Party’s structure and positioning seems pointed at self-preservation of both incumbent elected officials, and even moreso, Party officials, with extremely dubious connections to anything that could be said to practically advance the Party’s interests in winning statewide elections or delivering on shared legislative goals.
The good news is that, despite the party machine's best efforts, a lot of smart, motivated, and capable people won committee seats in 2022, and there are still opportunities to embrace this and leverage all this new energy for the fall campaign season.