There exists, in Philly, something called "The Machine." It is not, in the technical sense, a machine. It doesn't have springs or print receipts or open cans. It does, however, dominate political power, and that's what it was built to do.
Yet the cracks may be starting to show. There was the election last November of City Commissioners Al Schmidt and Stephanie Singer, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, who ran against machine-backed incumbents. There was the vote just last week to oust longtime Philadelphia Republican City Committee chairman Vito Canuso by a group of insurgent Philly Republicans.
And then there's the peculiar case of Tracey Gordon v. the Democratic City Committee — about as literal a challenge to The Machine as it gets. The story goes back to 2010, when Gordon, a community activist who ran an unsuccessful campaign last May for City Council's 2nd District, ran for committeeperson without party backing. She won — but was ousted by party bosses, who cited an obscure bylaw allowing them to throw out "disloyal" members.
Gordon sued the Democratic City Committee (DCC), supported by a group called the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus (PDPC), whose mission is, essentially, to open up the city's murky political process (including, in some cases, to themselves — Singer was a founding member). The suit, filed by attorney and PDPC member Irv Acklesberg, argues that the DCC had no right to oust a duly elected committeeperson.
Last week, the story took a turn when Gordon received an invitation, via her attorney, to a ward meeting where she'd be re-elected to her position. Now a Deputy City Commissioner in Singer's office, Gordon cannot engage in political activity; being a sitting committeeperson would violate that rule.
DCC attorney Dan McCaffery says the reasoning was simple. "The relief she was requesting was to be reinstated," he says. "So we reinstated her."
Acklesberg disagrees. "It was a trap," he says, a ruse to get Gordon caught politicking. On her behalf, he declined the invitation. When, on May 18, Gordon was re-elected anyway, in absentia, Acklesberg immediately submitted Gordon's resignation. The lawsuit, however, continues. "The case was never just about [Gordon]," Acklesberg says. The DCC's bosses "want to retain the power to nullify elections, and the purpose of this lawsuit is to make sure that there is no such legal power." PDCP wants more Democrats to "stand up for office and stand up to this dictatorial party."