Imagine a post-2020 Philadelphia in which voter turnout consistently equals or exceeds the record-high 66-percent level that was achieved in the November election; in which large numbers of citizens are actively working to support government reform policies; and in which members of a new generation of candidates for state and local elections are competing successfully against establishment-supported incumbents one year after another.
Could this happen in Philadelphia? It happened twice during the late-20th century. A wave of political activism began after the end of World War II, when liberal elites joined forces with local labor unions to elect Joseph Clark as mayor and Richardson Dilworth as district attorney in 1951, launching what some called a “golden age” of government reform and public-sector initiatives that lasted for more than a decade.
A second wave of Philadelphia activism began in 1968, when Hardy Williams, a leader of Philadelphia’s emerging Black Power movement, won election to the Pennsylvania House, after which other energetic and well-prepared young Black candidates began displacing older white officeholders in elections for state and local seats. One of those candidates was now-Congressperson Dwight Evans, who, at 26, defeated an incumbent nearly twice his age in order to win a seat in the Pennsylvania House in 1980.
Are we now at the beginning of a third wave of widespread political activism in Philadelphia? Donald Trump’s election and the subsequent political backlash against Trump administration policies were the catalyst for increased citizen participation in local campaigns and elections that produced victories for several first-time candidates who defeated party-endorsed opponents.
Three of these successes were especially noteworthy: Elizabeth Fiedler won South Philadelphia’s 184th Pennsylvania House District in 2018; Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks won a City Council-at-large seat in 2019; and, in 2020, Nikil Saval won election to the 1st Pennsylvania Senate District seat that incumbent Lawrence Farnese had held for 12 years.
All three of their campaigns were endorsed by Reclaim Philadelphia, an organization formed in 2016 by staff and volunteers from the Bernie Sanders campaign. Nikil Saval was a Reclaim founder; so was Amanda McIllmurray, Elizabeth Fielder’s campaign manager.
None of these elections were close calls. Fiedler beat her party-endorsed competitor by about 1,300 votes in the 2018 Democratic primary, Brooks came out 6,500 votes ahead of the leading GOP candidate in the 2019 general election, and Saval defeated Farnese by more than 8,000 votes in the 2020 Democratic primary.
More is needed—more than lingering anti-Trump sentiment, more than Black Lives Matter signs in front yards, and more than expectations about progressive new federal policies that might emerge out of the Biden administration.
Although antagonism toward Donald Trump and his administration helped inspire the political activism that produced these and other upset elections, more than anti-Trump fervor is going to be needed in order to bring about a wave of positive new leadership and transformative political change in the years ahead.
The decade-long reform wave that began with the Clark and Dilworth elections was sustained by a coalition of business, labor, and civic leaders who wanted to take advantage of new opportunities to revitalize Philadelphia in the postwar period.
The Black Power wave was led and facilitated by a well-organized group of civic, political, and faith-congregation leaders who were determined to make use of every opportunity to bring Black leadership to local and state elective offices previously dominated by whites.
As of January 2021, there does not appear to be a comparable level of widespread enthusiasm and organizational capacity that could lead to years of transformative change in Philadelphia. More is needed—more than lingering anti-Trump sentiment, more than Black Lives Matter signs in front yards, and more than expectations about progressive new federal policies that might emerge out of the Biden administration.
The past few years have given us new insights into the ways in which governance and civic engagement can succeed or fail. We’ve learned that the actions of bad leaders at the executive-office and cabinet-office levels can have more devastating consequences than we ever thought possible; that responsible actions on the part of a municipal government officeholder (one such as Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt) can have game-changing impacts at a national level; and that grossly irresponsible behavior in the public arena is not a problem for other officeholders, as demonstrated most recently by the eight Pennsylvania congressmen who participated in the attempt to block Congress from accepting the results of the November election.
What is needed in order to start generating a critical mass of citizen engagement that can move Philadelphia in the right direction during the coming years? No one has a master plan, but some of the next steps are obvious. Here are four of them.
1. Create a winning VBM strategy. The biggest successes will come to those who discover how best to structure a campaign around the still-new vote by mail (VBM) process in order to generate the most votes at the earliest time.
Because a voter can now obtain and submit a mail-in ballot up to 50 days before neighborhood polling places open up for traditional machine voting, Election Day for this year’s spring primary begins, in effect, at the end of March and lasts until 8pm on May 18, when the polling places close.
A 50-day election—the longest vote-by-mail period in the country! In this new environment, promoting “turnout” means working hard every day for nearly two months, up to and including machine-voting day, to deliver a campaign message, encourage voting by mail, and, as the election date draws closer, convince those who haven’t voted yet to follow up, either by mail or in-person at the polls.
2. Retire the street lists. To make VBM strategies as effective as they need to be, free public access to digitized voter information is essential. Political parties and campaigns with funding have been able to buy detailed voter data in digitized form for years. The rest of us have had to go downtown to get printed “street lists” containing voter names and addresses, a relic of the past century. As paper documents in a city where new voters are registered every day and many currently registered voters move to new addresses, street lists are never up to date. No one should have to pay for accurate voter data; it should be posted online and made accessible to everyone.
3. End the city commissioners. In 2009, the Committee of Seventy published a report calling for a city charter amendment that would eliminate the three city commissioners, as well as Philadelphia’s other so-called “row offices”: Clerk of Quarter Sessions, Register of Wills, and Sheriff.
The publication identified Philadelphia as the only one of the 10 largest U.S. cities in which elected officials run local elections; and they still do. As Jon Geeting of Philadelphia 3.0 noted in The Citizen last week, with the election of Republican Al Schmidt as a city commissioner, Philadelphia got a lucky break; but we’re not likely to be that fortunate in the future. So how soon can we place that charter amendment on the ballot?
4. Get serious about May 18. In the upcoming primary election, more voters need to make intelligent decisions about choosing the best candidates for the judiciary, rather than just voting for the names that happen to be listed at the top of the ballot without knowing anything about the candidates.
A higher turnout of voters guided by the Philadelphia Bar Association’s comprehensive judicial-candidate vetting process could bring substantial new talent to the judiciary and help voters avoid mistakes like the election of Judge Scott DiClaudio, whose favorable ballot position had enabled him to win election in 2015 despite having been censured for poor performance as an attorney.
Of greatest concern is the possibility that the May ballot will include a referendum question seeking approval of a Republican-sponsored amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that proposes ending the system of electing appellate court judges by statewide vote. Instead, candidates for judge in the appellate courts (the Commonwealth, Superior, Supreme courts) would be elected from legislatively-designated regions, “a move opponents say would ‘gerrymander the court.’”
If this question is placed on the ballot, then a high turnout of “no” votes will be needed to reject the proposal—an especially difficult challenge in light of the fact that voters, as a general rule, are inclined to vote “yes” on referendum questions.
Is Philadelphia ready for a third wave of political activism—or was the upsurge of activity in 2020 a one-time phenomenon? The choices we make, beginning this month, will determine the answer.
John Kromer, Philadelphia housing director during the Rendell administration, is the author of Philadelphia Battlefields: Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City.Header photo by Jason Murphy / Flickr