The questions are specific — very specific. From nurse-staffing levels to whether the city should create a publicly owned bank à la North Dakota.
When various interest groups live and breathe particular issues, that’s the nature of the endorsement questionnaires they submit to candidates.
Here’s a sample of what they’re asking those running for City Council:
Council candidates have been pondering these and scores of other questions in the battle for endorsements in a field of 55 people vying for at-large and district seats in the May 21 primary. Some questions are yes-no; others, essay.
Larry Ceisler, a former longtime political consultant, said he’s seen dramatic changes in the evolution of campaigning over the decades.
“But, man, those questionnaires don’t change,” he said. "It is the constant.”
Sometimes, he said, inquiries are “important questions to the organization, obviously, but bizarre to the rest of the world.” When he used to advise candidates, he told them not to fill them out; only a few endorsements are worth the trouble.
Several incumbents said the questionnaires have become even more specific this election cycle, and that is due to the large candidate field, the increase in first-time candidates, and the ease with which new groups can form and ask questions in pursuit of their agendas. More groups are sending the surveys.
First-time candidates sometimes see their first questionnaire or two as validation: I’m a contender.
“By the time you get questionnaire number 20, 21, you don’t want to open your mail unless you know it’s a check,” Ceisler joked.
Irina Goldstein, a Republican and first-time candidate running at-large, estimates she’s gotten close to 40 questionnaires. At first, she responded to them all, sending on average three pages of answers. But as she began receiving four or five questionnaires a week, she started to pick and choose. She and other candidates told The Inquirer that if they weren’t selective, they wouldn’t have time for much else.
"Some groups, I don’t think they give a lot of thought to who they send these to,” Goldstein said. "There’s no way I should be getting the socialist questionnaire, ever.”
When groups don’t get responses, they follow up with phone calls, to which Goldstein says: “Sorry, but we’re not a good match. It’s not you, it’s me.”
Candidates expressed a few reservations about questionnaires: Issues rarely are black or white, and in some cases the forms don’t give an opportunity for elaboration. Sometimes opinions change during a campaign as candidates talk to residents.
But they also said questionnaires can be helpful in learning what people are talking about and in drawing their attention to issues they hadn’t considered.
Some questionnaires ask about matters of questionable relevance to City Council, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. (The minimum wage is set by the state, and whether a local law could override it has been a subject of debate.)
Often, the filling out of questionnaires comes early in the endorsement process. Organizations monitor what candidates say and don’t say on the campaign trail and question them further in interviews and forums to “try to test their sincerity,” said Stan Shapiro, vice chair of Neighborhood Networks. His group wants all large nonprofits to make payments to the city in lieu of taxes, and the city to transition off of fossil fuels and invest in neighborhoods.
Four environmental activist groups collaborated to send candidates a joint questionnaire, which asks about fighting climate change, preserving community gardens, and banning plastic checkout bags. This was the biggest push they’ve made to endorse City Council candidates; they usually focus on statewide races, said Josh McNeil, founder and executive director of Conservation Voters, one of the groups.
Thirty-nine candidates completed the questionnaire, “certainly what we hoped for,” McNeil said.
"The main thing a questionnaire shows you is how seriously someone is taking your issue,” he said. “Sometimes we’d rather get an answer we disagree with that shows a lot of engagement than someone telling us what we want to hear.”
Said Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., a Democrat, “Some of them, I flat out refuse to respond to, because fundamentally I don’t think I represent anything close to their point of view." He said he’s gotten close to two dozen questionnaires, some of which “are designed to pigeonhole you into what they believe, not necessarily what you believe.”
Neil Oxman, president of the Campaign Group, said answering questionnaires for statewide or federal races or in a swing state is more of a minefield than in Philadelphia, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans nearly 7-1 and Democratic candidates for City Council align on many issues.
“You don’t really care if you answer a question that the Republicans don’t like,” said Oxman, who from his days working on Philadelphia mayoral campaigns remembers candidates getting 25 or 30 questionnaires.
“You fill those out and generally tailor your answers, not in a pandering way, but knowing what the group is and what you want to say," he said.
Fareed Abdullah, a Democrat running at-large, received 30 or 35 questionnaires but didn’t answer a lot of them, he said.