Despite advisers’ convictions, Bob Brady retains grip on Philly Democratic Party
He announced his retirement from Congress this year as an FBI investigation swirled into his campaign activities. Two of his key aides may be heading to prison for crimes they committed to help keep him in office. But Bob Brady has no plans to shrink from the political spotlight.
He announced his retirement from Congress this year as an FBI investigation swirled into his campaign activities. Two of his key aides may be heading to prison for crimes they committed to help keep him in office.
But Bob Brady has no plans to shrink from the political spotlight.
“I’m going to do what I always do: keep the party together, which I have for 32 years,” Brady, 73, said.
He spoke barely a week after his top political adviser, Ken Smukler, was convicted of nine criminal counts, including conspiring to violate campaign laws by hiding a payoff to induce Brady’s 2012 primary challenger to drop out of the race. Three others, including Brady strategist Donald “D.A.” Jones, have pleaded guilty to charges related to the probe.
Despite being implicated in court documents that became public during the investigation, and relinquishing the U.S. House seat he held for two decades, the “Goliath” of Philadelphia politics, as a defense attorney called him, will keep running the city’s Democratic committee. There haven’t even been rumblings that the local party might want a change, insiders say.
“Not a whisper; not anything,"said Lou Agre, a Democratic ward leader. “Brady’s 100 percent strong.”
It’s not that progressives — newly empowered with wins in races for the Pennsylvania legislature and even ward leader — have suddenly embraced Brady. But they don’t think they could oust him, and see any such fight as a waste of energy.
“There’s some futility to it,” said Jon Geeting, director of engagement for the political group Philadelphia 3.0 and former chair of the Philly Progressive Caucus. “The ward leaders are not going to push him out over this.”
With Brady at the helm, the party is likely to play an active role in municipal elections next year, screening candidates in low-information races for judgeships, where a spot on the party’s sample ballot helps determine who gets on the bench. Mayor Kenney will also be seeking reelection, and all 17 Council seats are on the ballot.
Brady has declined to comment on the Smukler verdict, citing a possible appeal, but noted that he had cooperated with the government by signing several agreements extending the period of time in which he could be charged — while his lawyers attempted to persuade prosecutors that they should not indict him.
“You know why?” Brady said of his decision to sign those agreements. “‘Cause I did nothing wrong. And they found out I did nothing wrong.”
Even as Brady came under greater scrutiny from authorities late last year — prosecutors revealed the FBI had searched his emails and in court documents identified him as a participant in the criminal scheme — no one emerged to challenge him as chairman of Philadelphia Democrats. In a unanimous vote, he was reelected to another four-year term as chairman in June by the committee’s 69 ward leaders.
“He keeps all factions happy,” Agre said. “He’s personally likable. He cares about everybody. Doesn’t hold grudges. Does everything a leader should do.”
Alan Butkovitz, a ward leader and former city controller, said the government’s decision not to charge Brady was taken as a “clearance” by “everybody in Philadelphia politics.”
Brady has been credited with helping to save a Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia, resolving labor disputes, and helping bring the Democratic National Convention to the city in 2016.
At the same time, scores of Democratic officials have gone to prison on his watch, staining the party’s image and amplifying a lack of trust in the political process. But groups like Geeting’s and Reclaim Philadelphia, founded by supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, are instead focused on winning City Council races and other initiatives.
There may also be less incentive to change a party that, like others around the country, has at least in part been supplanted by outside money and new political movements.
Butkovitz and others pointed to Larry Krasner’s win in the 2017 district attorney’s race. The party has typically tried to flex its muscle in off-year municipal races, but it stayed neutral in the crowded Democratic primary that year, and the liberal Krasner won with the help of outside spending by the billionaire investor George Soros.
“The structure of what everybody considered to be foundations of organized politics are just — they’re kind of a nostalgic memory,” Butkovitz said. “They’re not the reality of what’s going on.”
“Why would it be worth anybody's while to challenge Brady?” he added. “If they want to be mayor or they want to be congressman, they go out and be mayor or congressman.”
Butkovitz would know. Despite having the party’s support in 2017, he lost the Democratic primary election for city controller to Rebecca Rhynhart, a first-time candidate. Now running against Kenney, Butkovitz is betting that he will get financial support from the beverage industry, which opposes Kenney’s soda tax.
For his part, Brady says he’s taking an inclusive approach. Progressives are “great Democrats,” he said.
“I have great relations with them. They do a great job," he said. "I’m going to continue to include them. Our party is a big tent and everybody’s welcome.”
Staff writer Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.