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The machine age of politics should be over in N.J., Philadelphia | Editorial

One-party rule by the Democrats has long been the rule in Camden County, as in Philadelphia. But younger, more progressive voters on both sides of the Delaware River are chafing at old-school political norms.

George Norcross prepares to address the annual meeting of the Cooper's Ferry Partnership on March 5 in Camden.
George Norcross prepares to address the annual meeting of the Cooper's Ferry Partnership on March 5 in Camden.Read more / File Photograph

If the mighty Democratic Party organization in Camden County were a garden, it would be a lushly financed, meticulously managed, carefully curated landscape — an impressive sight, at least from afar.

But a closer look would reveal an entrenched political monoculture with a single crop: victory, at all costs and by any means necessary. Not all that dissimilar to its counterpart in Philadelphia, except that the city’s Home Rule charter ensures that a minority party has at least two at-large seats on City Council.

No quaint niceties like that stand in the way of one-party rule in South Jersey, where the Democratic organization under the command of George E. Norcross 3d has evolved into a regional powerhouse in the last three decades. In the process, it has masterfully vanquished not only the local Republican Party, but efforts by independent Democrats as well. Upstart weeds like those are mercilessly uprooted on election day, or co-opted by employment or other opportunities, a powerful political operation can, and does, make possible.

But things are changing — on both sides of the river.

Democratic primary challengers for county committee seats or local offices in Camden and several suburban towns, including Cherry Hill, signal strong grassroots, generational, and ideological dissatisfaction with the status quo. That’s also playing out in Philadelphia, where the largest number of Democratic City Council candidates in decades is on May 21 ballot.

In Philadelphia, there’s a palpable sense of disenfranchisement from the decisions being made about development, criminal justice, the impact of gentrification, pedestrian and bicycle safety, and other issues — including party endorsements of candidates with a history of sexual harassment accusations. This is particularly true among millennials, newcomers, and others who are unenthralled by quirky traditions, such as drawing ballot positions from a Horn and Hardart coffee can, or are appalled by undemocratic if not dictatorial practices, such as councilmanic prerogative.

In Philly as well as South Jersey, there’s more going on politically than merely what entrenched and insulated party leaders tend to dismiss as static emanating from the usual losers. A top-down, if not authoritarian, party apparatus that demands/enforces loyalty and marginalizes newcomers belongs to another time. Party officials everywhere should take note of the national political upheavals and local demographic changes of the last few years that have inspired citizens new to politics to seek — and win — public office, despite the fact they often encounter an insular process unwelcoming or even hostile to them.

The galvanizing effect of Donald Trump’s election on progressive Democrats, and the ease with which like-minded people can build coalitions via social media — South Jersey Progressive Women for Change and Cooper River Indivisible come to mind — has helped seed a new political landscape that is more aware of nuance and inclusion than old-school top-down power playing.

Facebook fluency may be no immediate match for professional messaging or the deepest voter data money can crunch. But machines tend to be inflexible. If they can’t adapt or grow, they become obsolete and will be replaced with something better.