We ran for committee person to prompt reform in the Democratic party from the inside. We ran to stop Philadelphia politics as usual—like the situation currently playing out in Philadelphia’s 175th state house district. That’s why we’re calling for a democratic process to replace our democratically elected State Representative.
On Wednesday, we learned that Representative Michael O’Brien, the six-term incumbent in the 175th State House district, who just won a contested primary in May, withdrew his name from the November ballot citing health reasons. The Democratic City Committee bylaws state that when a candidate withdraws between the primary and general election, Ward leaders in the affected districts come together within 30 days to vote on a replacement. The Ward leaders’ nomination must then ratified by the Democratic State Committee before that candidate is slotted on the ballot. State Committee is typically deferential to the ward leaders’ pick.
We’re asking for an open nomination process, with time for candidates to throw their names in the ring, and an opportunity for committee people to vote on their ward’s endorsement.
As reported in the media, the 5th Ward Leader, Michael Boyle, immediately announced his intention to nominate Rep. O’Brien’s long-time Chief of Staff. The vote on her nomination has been called for this Monday, just five days after O’Brien’s announcement, leaving no time for other nominees to surface and no time for committee people in the affected wards to come together or have a voice in the process.
The 175th encompasses five wards—the 2nd, 5th, 18th, 25th, and 31st—and includes Old City, parts of Washington Square West and Queen Village, Society Hill, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington. These were some of the wards that saw the biggest increases of new, reform-minded committee people in the recent primary.
We, along with other committee people from these wards who ran on a reform platform, have signed our names to a letter addressed to the leaders of the 5th, 18th, 25th, and 31st wards asking for them to delay Monday’s unnecessarily rushed vote. (Nikil Saval, leader of the 2nd Ward, already supports delaying the vote.) Under the Democratic Party Bylaws, the Ward leaders have 30 days to come up with a replacement candidate for the ballot. Why the five-day turnaround?
Helpfully, there’s a direct parallel in neighboring Montgomery County. Madeleine Dean, an incumbent in the 153rd District who won the nomination to run for U.S. Congress in PA’s new 4th District, withdrew her name from November’s ballot. Notably, Dean withdrew her name on July 12th, which is nearly a week earlier than O’Brien withdrew his, yet her replacement won’t be decided until July 31st . Additionally, the committee people in her district will be voting on her replacement. The process from that point on is exactly the same as ours—their vote goes to the Democratic State Committee to be ratified, where it is expected to be approved.
We’re asking for this same open nomination process, with time for candidates to throw their names in the ring, and an opportunity for committee people to vote on their ward’s endorsement. At its very core, democracy runs on electoral processes where officials are duly elected by the people they represent. In the absence of this, they should be elected by those peoples’ representatives.
Until recently, the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee worked this same way—convening the affected committee people to determine the replacement candidate when a candidate withdrew. That section of the bylaws, unfortunately, was amended in 2014 to disempower elected committee people by leaving the decision entirely in the hands of ward leaders.
Our desire to serve as committee people is rooted in the belief that our local Democratic party can be—and must be—a more democratic institution. The situation in the 175th is the first test of the Democratic party since roughly half of all committee people seats were won by new candidates. It is also the first test in a midterm year that has been defined nationally by political newcomers running for office, in part, to reconstitute their party from within. So the biggest question now is, Does our local Democratic party want to keep pace with its most energized members, or risk alienating the future of the party?
Vanessa Snyder and Caroline Tiger are elected Democratic committee people in the 2nd and 5th wards.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect Nikil Saval’s support for delaying the vote.