Democrats have dominated Philadelphia politics ever since Joe Clark’s election as mayor in 1952. Before that watershed contest, a Republican machine controlled every election for nearly a century.
Coincidentally, if you average the birth years of all the ward leaders available on Philly Ward Leaders, you also get 1952.
So, in more ways than one, Philadelphia’s political machine is 63 years old.
And boy does it show.
Maybe it’s the ward leaders’ inability to connect with their (almost always) younger neighbors—according to Pew, only 23% of Philadelphians are over 55—but the City Committee isn’t what it once was.
At 63, it’s time to retire. Not just the ward leaders: the entire machine needs to call it quits. And because it would be ridiculous to expect the Democratic City Committee to voluntarily walk away, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party should show the machine the door, and shove them out if necessary.
Political machines once rewarded their cogs based on performance. In his Philadelphia: a Brief History, Lehigh University historian Roger Simon succinctly explained how a well-oiled machine worked: “At the local level, ward leaders received patronage in direct proportion to the number of votes they delivered.” Admittedly, Simon was writing about the Republican machine that dominated for a century before Philadelphia’s big switch in 1952, but the point remains: machines work when they reward performance.
Besides the endemic corruption it tolerates and the voter cynicism it breeds, this is the machine’s largest failing, and undoubtedly its largest purely political failing: many of Philly’s ward leaders suck at their primary job—getting out the vote—but the machine still rewards them with patronage jobs and electoral backing for cushy political offices.
Besides the endemic corruption it tolerates and the voter cynicism it breeds, this is the machine’s largest failing: many of Philly’s ward leaders suck at their primary job—getting out the vote—but the machine still rewards them with patronage jobs and electoral backing for cushy political offices.
Consider Anthony Clark, leader of the 28th Ward and a City Commissioner. Famously, while serving as chair of the Commissioners, which oversee elections and voter registrations, Clark failed to vote for five elections in a row. That’s not Commissioner Clark’s only failing as an election official—he’s also a notorious no-show at the office, which pays him $134,000 a year, and was recently fined $4,000 by the Philadelphia Ethics Board for improperly securing a raise for his brother, who just so happens to work for the City Commissioners.
Up for reelection this year, Clark faced a handful of primary opponents. But he still secured the machine’s endorsement and won easily.
Now, the party rewarding Clark with a six-figure salary for a job he doesn’t bother to do would at least be defendable— still reprehensible, but defendable— if he was an inspiring ward leader, the kind of guy who could counted on to turn out voters by the thousands.
But, as you might expect of a guy who can’t even get out his own vote, Anthony Clark is no Boss Tweed. Out of 66 wards, his 28th Ward ranks 40th in voter turnout according to Philly Ward Leaders, with just 39.06 percent of registered Democrats making it to the polls in 2014.
The Daily News’ Wendy Ruderman recently wrote a story entirely about her efforts to simply see Clark at his office. He never showed or returned her calls. When asked why the machine would support such a derelict for reelection, Bob Brady responded, “He’s a Democrat.”
“Every time I call him for information, he always provides it right away. Whenever I need information about voting status, voting information, he’s 100 percent responsive to me.”
That suggests that loyalty to the machine, more than such naïve things like doing your job, is what really matters.
It’s also indicative of a machine that’s been broken for a long time. “The Democratic Machine” is a bit of a misnomer: there are really a handful of smaller machines that occasionally work together but frequently split apart. The Philadelphia Democratic Machine is really a feudal system, with Bob Brady and his City Committee the titular head of the kingdom. But Brady relies on a number of vassal lords leading smaller fiefdoms throughout: the unions (really, John Dougherty’s IBEW 98); a coalition of ward leaders in the Northeast led by John Sabatina; another alliance of Northwest Philly pols like Marian Tasco and Dwight Evans, who were instrumental in electing Jim Kenney.
That splintering help explains why loyalty to your political duke or duchess is more important than performance. It’s like a far less violent and sexy version of Game of Thrones.
Of the 69 ward leaders listed on Philly Ward Leaders (the 39th, 40th and 66th Wards each have two leaders), 29 are elected officials or work for elected officials. That number excludes former politicians like Harold James, who recently pled guilty to corruption charges, or Marge Tartgalione – who made the City Commissioner’s office her power roost for decades – and her son-in-law Carlos Matos, who was once ordered by a federal judge to surrender his ward leader seat but has since regained it. Turn out in Matos’ 19th Ward was an anemic 25 percent, by the way.
Now, some caveats are in order. Not all wards are created equal: Older and wealthier residents, concentrated in neighborhoods like Chestnut Hill and Society Hill, vote more than younger and poorer residents. Anthony Clark’s ward outvoted that of one of his challengers, Carol Jenkins, who represents the 27th in University City, where college kids register for Presidential elections and then move, but remain on the registration rolls.
It’s also worth noting that Open Data Philly’s information is slightly out-of-date and incomplete. Not that you could blame them. The city party doesn’t keep track of who is and isn’t a ward leader. When asked for an official list of ward leaders, city committee officials directed me to the Committee of 70, which admittedly cobbles its list together.
The existence of an undemocratic, politically powerful machine is only justified by its ability to consistently win important political offices. If you want to secure a municipal judgeship or a row office, the only vote that matters is Democratic City Committee’s. But as you move up the ballot, the machine’s ability to deliver wanes—it’s a 50’s era Ford Thunderbird more frequently finding itself racing against Teslas driven by well-funded, modern campaigns.
The machine will never replace itself. And it’ll fight attempts by would-be reformers to infiltrate its ranks. But the Pennsylvania Democratic Party can completely dismantle the machine by overhauling the state party rules that county committees like Philadelphia must follow.
The city machine probably first started showing its rust during the 2007 mayoral election, when relative outsider Michael Nutter defeated the party’s chairman, Rep. Bob Brady. Barack Obama further exposed the city machine’s frailty in 2008 when, still locked in a tight primary against Hillary Clinton, he refused its demand for “walking around” money. Six years later, Tom Wolf would echo the President’s repudiation of the Philly machine on his way to the Governor’s mansion.
The city’s Democratic politicians all crowed about Philadelphia’s turnout during the 2008 and 2012 elections, claiming credit for giving Obama a margin of victory in Philadelphia of 487,000 and 460,000 respectively. But the Obama campaign itself received a ton of credit for its massive ground operations: in 2012, Obama for America had five field directors and twelve offices in Philly alone.
And as Helen Gym and Allan Domb showed this May, not even incumbent city councilmen like Ed Neilson and Wilson Goode Jr. can rely just on the machine’s endorsement—at least not when their opponents have Domb’s money or Gym’s grassroots support.
If Philly Dems turn out huge in presidential years, but then disappear in off year elections, it seems like a machine more focused on ensuring local power over row office elections and judicial elections is to blame. But Aren Platt, a Philly-based political consultant, sees demographics at work.
“It’s not the city committee, not the presidential campaign,” he says. Rather, Philadelphia has large numbers of “the urban, poorer, guaranteed democrats that are guaranteed votes once every four years.”
Platt noted that some people just never vote, and that all campaigns tend to ignore them. For the rest, “the older, more income, higher education level [someone has] is the best indicator for how frequently you’ll vote [in non-presidential elections],” Platt said. Philadelphia has relatively few older, wealthier, more educated residents. Rather, of those who do vote, they fit the demographic of the Presidential-race-only voter. It’s a pattern that plays out in other cities like Chicago, Cleveland and New York City.
While the slow deterioration of the Philadelphia Democratic machine should be cheered by proponents of good governance everywhere, the statewide Democratic party is collateral damage.
Consider 2010, when Pat Toomey narrowly edged out Joe Sestak to take Arlen Specter’s old Senate seat. Sestak lost by just 80,229 votes: 51.01 to 48.99 percent. In that election, 43 percent of Philadelphia’s registered Democrats voted. If Democratic turnout increased to just 53 percent, then it would be Sestak preparing to fend off Toomey again in 2016, rather than the other way around.
The machine’s shortcomings also hurt local Democrats seeking higher office, which can have terrible consequences.
In 2012’s primary, Kathleen Kane edged out Philadelphia’s preferred candidate for Attorney General, Patrick Murphy, by just 40,062. If the machine actually worked and increased the primary’s anemic 18 percent turnout of registered Democrats to a still-modest 38 percent, Murphy would have won— that math is based on Murphy still getting just 6 out of every 10 votes and Kane 3.5 out of 10 (5 percent of Philadelphia’s 2012 primary voters voted for neither candidate).
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how disastrous the machine has been for the Commonwealth. Ultimately, it has also hurt the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Kane will likely face a bruising primary challenge this year. Even if Kane wins, she’ll face an energized GOP challenger. Losing one office – especially one that should be professionalized enough and devoid of politics as the Attorney General – isn’t itself a devastating political loss. But that office has been a staging platform for higher office: before her collapse, Kane was considered a likely candidate for Senate or Governor.
This city committee is content to maintain control over its ever-shrinking fiefdom of Philadelphia politics, and it has cost the Democratic Party in 2010 and 2012. And the consequences of that myopic focus, and the attenuate failure to grow the party in Philadelphia, might strike again in 2016. Only, this time, it could cost a Presidency if Pennsylvania is once again a swing state.
The machine will never replace itself. And it’ll fight attempts by would-be reformers to infiltrate its ranks, and dismantle it from within. But the Pennsylvania Democratic Party can completely dismantle the machine by overhauling the state party rules that county committees like Philadelphia must follow.
The state party rules set out some broad provisions. Amendments to promote more open elections of ward leaders and supporting voter turnout performance in off-year elections could go a long way towards revitalizing a musty party.
With the resignation of Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn, there’s an opportunity to give not just Philly’s, but the entire Commonwealth’s, party machinery an overhaul.
But Brady’s no fool, and has already started drumming up support for Governor Wolf’s favored replacement, Montgomery County chairman Marcel Groen.
It’s up to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to save itself from the Philadelphia Democratic Party.