March 2- 8, 2006
city beatWard Cleaving
So you want to shake up the city's power structure? You're not alone.
: Michael T. Regan
The efforts to get people like you to run are really part of an initiative to transform the city's political landscape. And it's not entirely a pipe dream. To get on the ballot for the May primary, all you need to do is turn in a petition with 10 signatures before Tuesday. Interested? Well, Mr. Candidate, here are the answers to all your questions:
What do committeepeople do, and do they matter?
Committeepeople elect and communicate with ward leaders, who form the political parties' City Committees. The committees endorse candidates and, in the case of the Democratic City Committee, effectively decide who will serve as judges and councilmembers in Philadelphia. (They're also indispensable when it comes to getting out the vote when the mayoral elections roll around.) This makes committeepeople a little bit like ants: One of them can't do much, but as a group, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Who is trying to get people to run, and why do they care?
The recruiters fall into two categories. There are nonpartisan, civic engagement groups, like the Committee of Seventy and Young Involved Philadelphia, who believe competition is good and discourages corruption. Then there are partisan groups like the AFL-CIO or Philly for Change (PFC), which are trying to get their own people to run, either to increase the party ranks or to expand their own influence within them.
Doesn't this happen every four years when committee seats are up for grabs?
Not to this extent. If you look at a group like PFC, which grew out of the Howard Dean movement, you'll find mostly young, progressive people who did a lot of organizing during the 2004 presidential election, then didn't know what to do with their enormous e-mail lists once it was over. Their decision to get involved in local ward politics is really a sort of residual activism.
How could it affect Philly's political scene?
Let's say a ward leader has 10 committee seats in his ward, but only five are filled, and four of those five voted him into office. Some new group could come along, fill the other five seats, and take over the ward. If that happened in a number of places, the Democratic Party would have to adjust to the new balance of power, and might start fielding different candidates with different priorities.
So this is just like the Dean candidacya bunch of young idealists trying to take over the Democratic Party?
According to Hannah Miller, the 29-year-old who heads up PFC's recruiting efforts, that's not what's going on. Her group wants its members to join the party, not beat it. "The last two elections you had this shadow Democratic Party, setting up these parallel structures" to get out the vote, she says. "It makes no sense at all to duplicate resources. ... If you're in [a liberal interest group], you should also be a part of the Democratic Party."
She maintains that PFC has no agenda beyond strengthening the Democratic Party.
Are ward leaders nervous?
Nervous is too strong a word. Marc Stier of Neighborhood Networks, a group that is not recruiting people to run for committee seats, has gotten calls from "six or seven" Ward leaders who were concerned that Neighborhood Networks was gunning for them. But less than a week before the petition deadline, PFC only had about 60 members running for seats citywide. The AFL-CIO reportedly had several hundred. But even if they put new fannies in that many seats, it's probably not enough for a shake-up, and the party knows it.
"If they're running for 60 seats [in my ward]," said the leader of one large ward, "then I'm anxious. If they're running for two or three seats, I'll welcome them."
Does that mean there's no animosity?
Of course there isthis is Philly politics. Some current ward leaders think the outside groups should show more respect for the existing leadership, and communicate with them about their plans. "I don't know why anybody thinks they can just come and do it better," says Vernon Price, leader of the 22nd Ward in Mt. Airy. "We need to work it out together."
Meanwhile, some activists feel that certain ward leaders put self-preservation ahead of the party's interest. Don Engel, a PFC member who blazed a trail by becoming a committeeman in West Philly's 27th Ward, says that there are leaders who will only recruit people who support them. "There's a vested interest for them not to go around advertising that [committee seats] are open," Engel says.
Wasn't there a ward leader who disappeared with a bunch of money recently?
Back in May, and again in November, Kevin Fassett of the 27th Ward failed to distribute thousands of dollars donated by the Democratic City Committee for Election Day activities. He was recalled by his committeepeople. No charges were filed, and the money was lost. While Fassett's was an extreme case, it's a good example of why this stuff matters. A lot of "street money" is passed from committees to ward leaders, and once the ward leaders have it, "there's no control," says a Democratic Committee staffer. The money is used at the leader's discretion; he could, for instance, only distribute funds to people who will "get out the vote" for certain candidates. So the potential for corruption at that level is very high.
Why is it so hard to get people to run for these seats?
Well, there's disillusionment with government, and the simple fact that once you become part of the process, you can't complain about it anymore. But the biggest obstacle is awareness.
Miller has called hundreds of people for PFC in the past month. When she asked each of them, "Who is your committeeperson?" two knew. And when she asked, "Who's your ward leader?" several said, "What's a ward leader?" Even people who knew about the positions, she found, thought they had to get permission to run.
"They want to know whose brass ring they have to kiss," Miller says.
Does the author of this article know who his ward leader is?
Not a clue. We're talking trees and trash pickup hereboring stuff. Even Deaniacs, who tend to like politics, prefer to discuss issues like Iraq, gay marriage and health care. One ward leader says that he's not sure that newcomers will like ward politics.
"One of 'em asked me what our foreign policy is," he says, laughing. "I told him, 'Peace with East Falls.'"