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Sizing Up Philly’s Special Elections

Philly 3.0’s engagement director on the political chess match playing out in order to fill empty At-Large seats on Philadelphia City Council

Sizing Up Philly’s Special Elections

Philly 3.0’s engagement director on the political chess match playing out in order to fill empty At-Large seats on Philadelphia City Council

Ever since Council President Darrell Clarke did an about-face on the question of whether to hold an At-Large election, we’ve been waiting for the official announcement of Philadelphia Democratic City Committee’s selections. Now, the ward leaders’ votes are in, and the rumor mill got this one right: Sharon Vaughn and Jimmy Harrity will be the official Democratic nominees in the November 8 special election.

For the Democrats …

Vaughn, who worked for Councilmember Derek Green and is the 42nd Democratic Ward leader, and Harrity, who is the Executive Director of Democratic City Committee, had been rumored for a couple of months to be the favored picks if there were to be a special election for At-Large seats. Harrity plans to run for a full term in the May primary, while Vaughn has said she will not.

Vaughn’s position became a little squishier after she was voted in, however, according to Sean Collins Walsh at the Inquirer.

“Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady said Tuesday that Vaughn had previously indicated she would not run for a full four-year term in the 2023 elections if she is nominated for the special election.

But Vaughn said Wednesday night that she evaluated her options after the special election.

“I’m focusing on this one right now. We’ll see where that takes me,” she said.”

After CP Clarke called the election, there was some pretense that other names were under consideration, including 35th ward leader Bill Dolbow of Northeast Philly. In the end, though, there were no surprises.

This was an interesting exercise, however, for learning about who may be City Committee’s first or second-string picks for the Party’s primary endorsements next year. Walsh got the scoop on who all interviewed for the special election.

“Brady said that others who are slated to be interviewed include Nina Ahmad, who served in Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and ran for state auditor general; Sherrie Cohen, a lawyer and longtime LGBTQ activist; South Philadelphia community organizer Anton Moore; former Domb chief of staff Eryn Santamoor; public interest attorney Rue Landau; former city commissioners candidate Marwan Kreidie; and Gary Masino, president and business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 […]

Brady and other party leaders typically reward candidates with endorsements or nominations if they help the party by waiting their turn to run for office or doing volunteer legal or election work. They often craft the party’s roster of endorsed candidates with a blunt and transactional approach to diversity — setting aside specific slots for Black candidates, women, and representatives from other committees — and they rarely, if ever, nominate candidates from the left wing of the party.”

Also now in the mix for the At-Large primary in 2023 is Amanda McIllmurray, the ex-Reclaim Philadelphia political director who was recently standing up a primary campaign in the 1st Council District against Mark Squilla. It’s as yet unknown why McIllmurray decided to flip to the At-Large race, but sources who received fundraising calls from her this week have confirmed this is her intent.

Councilmembers Isaiah Thomas and Kathy Gilmore-Richardson are expected to be running again in 2023, and at some point Councilmember Helen Gym is expected to resign, creating three open seats where the Party will be making endorsements. City Committee can be expected to endorse Thomas and Gilmore-Richardson, and it seems likely with this move that likely-incumbent Jimmy Harrity will be endorsed again as he campaigns for a full term.

Democratic City Committee has made some ruthless moves in the past though, like when they endorsed and then un-endorsed Sandra Dungee Glenn in 2019, so it’s not a certainty that Harrity will be a shoe-in for the Party’s endorsement in May. But it’s also a little hard to imagine them cutting somebody who was the party’s own director and a close friend of Bob Brady and other DCC bigs. So it may be the case that there are realistically only two endorsement slots open next year, not three.

Because of the “blunt and transactional approach to diversity” Walsh mentions, the main upshot of having Harrity on the May ticket may be that other White candidates running next year will have a much harder time getting a City Committee endorsement because Harrity is taking up that space in the quadrant. That doesn’t mean City Committee’s endorsements will be determinative of who is elected in the primary, of course, but it’ll have an impact on the campaign strategies of different candidates if their odds of getting the party nod become less likely.

It’s possible too that we may see candidates who are considering running for At-Large in the primary next May get into the fall 2022 special election as “independent” candidates as a way of boosting their name recognition for next year.

What are Open Wards?

In a sign of the growing influence of the Open Wards movement in the Party, last Thursday’s endorsement meeting featured an interesting moment where Chairman Bob Brady gave the ward leaders of open wards — where committee people vote on endorsements and other business — the option to vote “present” on the special election endorsements, out of recognition that they had not been given enough time to hold ward committee votes on the candidates first.

Overall, that is probably for the best, since it would have taken longer to make the endorsements, and would have delayed the printing of mail ballots for even longer. That’s ultimately CP Clarke who is to blame for the too-tight timing, not Brady, but it’s an interesting moment because it seems to be one of the first times where the open wards’ processes got a little respect and acknowledgment from Brady, as opposed to open derision.

There are now 15 open wards, out of the 69 total (including the A-B wards), which is still clearly a minority, but that’s about three times as many as there were prior to 2018, so it makes sense why the Party might want to start dialing back on the contempt for the movement’s goals.

Open wards like the 18th Ward have been making moves and swaying other endorsements too, like the nomination of Quetcy Lozada in the 7th Council District special election — a fascinating break from the many cycles of official party opposition to Maria Quinones-Sanchez and her camp. The various shake-ups that happened in this spring’s ward elections could continue to make ripples and perhaps some unexpected outcomes in the 2023 endorsements for Mayor and City Council.

For the Republicans …

On the Republican side, this week Republican ward leaders nominated two candidates, Drew Murray and Jim Hasher, for the two positions in the At-Large special election. Drew Murray is a former president of the Logan Square Civic Association, and Hasher is a real estate agent and bar owner from Northeast Philly.

Due to the overwhelming Democratic voter identification in the city, Republicans are very unlikely to win any seats in this special election, but it is an interesting test of the Republican Party’s ability to field some appealing candidates for the 2023 general election.

The lone At-Large Republican Councilmember, David Oh, is rumored to be eyeing a run for Mayor, which would leave the Republicans without any incumbent At-large candidates. The Philadelphia City Charter reserves two of the At-Large seats for non-majority-party candidates, which had always been held by Republicans in recent history.

And, in the other corners …

In 2019, however, Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks won one of the non-majority seats, with David Oh — who has proven himself to be uniquely electable with an odd map of Democratic constituencies in different areas of the city — holding onto the other seat. Northeast perennial candidate Al Taubenberger lost, as did WFP’s Nic O’Rourke. In 2023, O’Rourke will once again be the second WFP nominee, according to sources, while the GOP will be lacking an appealing incumbent.

Murray, as leader of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition of neighborhood civic organizations, has a unique profile that could be appealing to some Democrats as he is well-networked with a lot of neighborhood leaders from across the city through that organization. Whether those connections could translate into votes is an open question. Hasher has had less of a public profile, but it’s also unclear what other Republican candidate would.

The place-based dynamics of party affiliation and participation make it very likely that Northeast Philly Republicans will want one of their own on the ticket, regardless of whether that person has an appealing political persona outside the region. There’s a lot of risk to Republicans in nominating two White candidates next year, and the fall 2022 ticket selection displays some lack of urgency around that risk.

It’s possible too that we may see candidates who are considering running for At-Large in the primary next May get into the fall 2022 special election as “independent” candidates as a way of boosting their name recognition for next year. Northeast-based activist Melissa Robbins is rumored to be considering such a bid, and others may as well.

If you care about the future of Philadelphia, it’s a good idea to stay tuned in for more information about who is running, and background on some of the rumored and likely candidates.



Photo via Philadelphia 3.0

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