Every four years, thousands of Philadelphians win a job you’ve likely never heard of but their party chair calls “the backbone” of democracy.
They get elected as Democratic committeepeople.
These little-known elected officials serve as their party’s foot soldiers and as political block captains, volunteers trusted to keep neighbors informed about elections and candidates, and to get out the vote.
But of the 3,000 Democratic committeepeople elected in 2018, at least 10% haven’t themselves voted since the 2020 general election — or even longer, according to an Inquirer analysis of committeeperson data and voter records.
Some had moved or died.
Others simply sat out the last two, or more, elections.
Derek Benz, a committeeperson in the 66th Ward in the Northeast, hasn’t voted since 2019.
“I mean, I don’t have to vote really,” the 26-year-old told The Inquirer.
But isn’t the whole point of the position to get people to cast a ballot for party candidates?
“Yeah,” he replied. “I get people to come out and vote for things that I support. Doesn’t mean I have to vote.”
Benz, whose mother is a committeeperson, too, said he ran for the position as a favor for someone who helped him get into the Glaziers union. He said he wasn’t sure if he was going to run again.
During the primaries in May, Philadelphians will once again get to elect their neighborhood committeepeople. But voters often know little about these positions — which party chair Bob Brady has called “the backbone of our democratic process” — or about those who hold them, if they know the positions exist at all.
The Inquirer’s analysis, which matched committeeperson data with state voting records, offers a window into the very bones of the city Democratic Party, showing how party leaders are able to hold on to power and resist change.
Our analysis found that 20% of committeepeople are registered to the same address as the other committeeperson in their division, suggesting they are related; about 400 have held the job for at least two decades; some don’t live where they say they live; and several have been convicted of bribery and fraud.
In each of the city’s 1,703 voting divisions, there can be as many as two committeepeople, but vacancies persist. In 2018, there were 400 empty seats.
There’s a wide spectrum of committeepeople, who generally get $100 of “street money” on election day. Some win with just one vote as a write-in candidate, while others rack up hundreds on the ballot. Some are unemployed; some are members of City Council. Asked why they ran, some say they care deeply about democracy and making a difference in people’s lives. Others simply say, “Someone asked me to.”
Though their turf is small — usually just a few blocks — committeepeople can have lasting influence: They can build relationships with neighbors and register new voters. They can research candidates in races such as judicial elections where it’s not easy to learn about who’s running. They can help voters with mail-in ballots, connect them to city services, and host events to give people face time with their elected representatives.
They’re also — crucially — the only ones who can elect ward leaders, the powerful party officials who pick the party chair and essentially anoint winners in special elections.
Karen Bojar, a former committeeperson for 30 years in East Mt. Airy, has criticized the Philadelphia Democratic Party for caring more about holding onto its power than improving the lives of Philadelphians.
“They aren’t really interested in revitalization, they’re interested in self perpetuation,” she said. “It’s just so disgusting.”
Her 2016 book “Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party” chronicles activists’ efforts to shake up the Democratic establishment — and everything the party did to stop them, including refusing to seat an elected committeeperson.
Some ward leaders don’t mind whether or not committeepeople are doing their jobs, Bojar said, so long as they can be relied on to vote for them for ward leader.
Steve Paul, a former committeeperson in Olney, said the opaqueness of the role of committeeperson seems intentional.
“If a ward leader knows you’re not going to support them, they’ll make it hard for you [to run],” said Paul, 36, Pennsylvania director at State Innovation Exchange, a progressive-policy organization.
Brady, a former congressman who has headed the Democratic City Committee since 1986, said it wasn’t true that ward leaders care more about staying in power than having engaged committeepeople. A ward leader himself, the 76-year-old said it was difficult to recruit committeepeople — “We’re lucky to have any of them” — which is why so many rely on relatives to fill the positions.
It’s not inherently problematic if committeepeople are related, Bojar said, if both are committed to the work. But if they’re doing it just so they can have two votes for ward leader or two checks on election day, that’s an issue.
Upon learning that hundreds of committeepeople hadn’t voted since 2020, Brady said, “That’s crazy. … They’re asking everybody else to vote, they should vote.”
In a later interview, he said he didn’t think it was indicative of a larger problem that committeepeople hadn’t voted.
“It was probably because of the COVID,” he said. “Mail-in ballots were a little hard to do.”
Told that 10 of his own ward’s listed committeepeople hadn’t voted since 2020, Brady said eight had died.
Ultimately, Brady said, “I believe committeepeople take their jobs very seriously. That’s why we’re so successful as a party.”
In Philadelphia, Democrats enjoy a registration advantage of nearly 7 to 1. But that hasn’t translated to voter turnout. In the 2017 primary, when there was a contested election for District Attorney, 22% of registered Democrats voted.
Sergio Cea, a committeeperson in West Philadelphia, says those numbers are a direct result of the party’s failure to engage committeepeople. Most ward leaders don’t train them how to canvass their neighbors or use technology to send voters texts.
“If you talk to your average voter, they don’t know who their committeepeople are or what the role is,” said Cea, 36. “I always tell people that that is not their fault. This is a disinvestment in voters from the local Democratic Party.”
Some committeepeople don’t live where voter records say they do
Stephen Ditomo has been a committeeperson in Overbrook since at least 2014, but he lives in South Philly, according to public records. His voter registration puts him at 6400 Vine Street, a bar called Red Sea.
“No one lives here,” the bartender on duty said this month. Ditomo voted in that division as recently as November.
Democratic committeepeople must live in the division they are elected to represent, according to party bylaws.
Ditomo did not respond to phone calls and a letter left at his South Philly home with a woman who identified herself as his wife. Shortly after a reporter left Ditomo’s home, Brady — the ward leader in Overbrook — called to say that Ditomo was no longer a committeeperson because he had moved out of the ward.
But why was he registered at a bar?
“I thought he lived there,” Brady said, adding that another of his committeepeople used to own that bar and that he and Ditomo got mail there.
It’s known some committeepeople don’t live in the neighborhood they’re elected to serve, Bojar said, though it was more prevalent in the past: “There was a time when nobody paid much attention,” she said.
Hundreds of committeepeople have held seats for decades
Paul Manns has been a committeeperson in Overbrook for 50-some years, even though he’s lived in Lansdowne for years. He hasn’t voted in Philadelphia since 2016.
“I’m resigning this year,” said Manns, 91.
Manns is one of about 400 committeepeople who have held their seat for at least two decades, according to a list of committeepeople elected in 2002.
“It’s just incredible how people can hang on,” Bojar said. “That’s encouraged.”
Bojar, who’s in her 70s, stepped down in 2018 after 30 years because mobility issues made it hard for her to do the physically strenuous work of a committeeperson, such as knocking on doors. She recruited a younger woman to run and showed her the ropes, hoping to bring new energy and ideas to the position.
Brady said door-knocking was not a problem for older committeepeople, since they can use their Election Day check to hire people to do it for them. And Manns, he said, was no longer a committeeperson in his ward.
Committeepeople have been convicted of corruption
But that didn’t mean he resigned as a West Philadelphia committeeperson — a position he’s held since the late ‘90s — or as ward leader.
No one asked him to, he said.
Three other public officials who were convicted in that same sting case were also then elected as committeepeople in 2018: Former State Reps. Michelle Brownlee and Harold James, and former Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes.
And in 2020, Dominick Demuro pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to inflate vote counts for certain candidates in his role as judge of elections. Demuro was elected as a committeeperson in 2018 but hasn’t filed a petition to run this year.
Waters, who said his 93-year-old mother is resigning from her committeeperson seat this year, explained why he held onto his local position: “If [I] can still be helpful, then why not still be helpful?”
Staff writers Dylan Purcell and Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.