Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

After 70 years under the regime of the Democratic Machine, Philly can finally elect some newcomers on Tuesday | Will Bunch

In a “cradle of liberty” rocked by decades of one-party rule, political newcomers try to bring democracy back to Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The free grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches were piled high and the (not free) craft beer was flowing freely. The airy new Dock Street Brewery on Washington Avenue’s industrial fringe of Point Breeze has risen from a former auto garage and warehouse with exposed brick and weathered wood beams. But the room was definitely not packed to those rafters with voters — not on a Monday night when the main attraction was Philadelphia’s GOP, third-party, and independent candidates for City Council at-large seats.

OK, the room was a tad crowded, but mostly with candidates and their posses, and some of the Point Breeze locals who did show up confessed the IPA-fueled lure of a brand-new brew pub was as much a draw as these candidates in an election that was just eight days away. Among those who turned out was a nearby Democratic committee leader named Richard Gliniak from Ward 30, District 10, up on Kimball Street — one small cog in a political machine that’s run Philadelphia since 1949 — and a couple of his neighbors.

“Shockingly, I think there are very few people who are even aware there’s an election,” Maureen McGinty, who usually works the polls for Gliniak on Election Day, told me — even among her politically aware neighbors who obsessively follow national politics in the Trump era. Even Gliniak, who usually distributes political flyers on their block in Southwest Center City, conceded that he hasn’t bothered in 2019.

“We have five Democrats [for City Council at-large],” he said in a kind of verbal shrug. “They’re all heavily endorsed.”

In fact, victory for the Democratic slate in the five of seven Council at-large seat that are all but guaranteed to the majority party — which in Philadelphia has been the Democrats since Harry Truman was president and the A’s were still playing baseball at 21st and Lehigh — is such a foregone conclusion that none of them took part in this candidate forum, sponsored by two neighborhood groups and the good-government Committee of Seventy.

That sense of lethargy has spread to the mayor’s race — yes, Philadelphia, your next mayor is on the ballot this Tuesday — in which incumbent Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney hasn’t even debated his Republican foe, lawyer Billy Ciancaglini, over the GOPer’s alleged extremist ties and in which The Inquirer had to publish an article just two weeks before Election Day headlined “Who Is Billy Ciancaglini?”

Did I mention this is happening in a city that calls itself the Cradle of Liberty, where America’s Founders gathered in 1776 and again in 1787 to create an experiment in democracy. This isn’t how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote it up — with a kind of one-party rule that would draw nods of recognition in Moscow or Beijing, and with voter turnout in 2015′s last mayoral general election just a paltry 25.5 percent.

» READ MORE: Billy Ciancaglini wants to be Philadelphia’s first Republican mayor in decades. The problem? Many voters ‘have never heard of me.’

Given the lack of TV ads or even the litter of stray flyers in the run-up to Election Day, you might assume that the City of Brotherly Love has somehow become the Happiest Place on Earth, where a dearth of civic problems has brought a kind of municipal end of history. To the contrary, Philadelphia has more problems than the Democrats have 2020 presidential candidates. The list includes persistent gun violence that spiked with last weekend’s shooting of a baby and a toddler, a plethora of drug overdoses, America’s highest big-city rate of deep poverty, underfunded and unequal schools, political corruption involving Council members and union bosses, and an oil refinery that blew up and nearly killed us all.

The fact that Mayor Kenney and most of the Democratic slate aren’t being challenged this fall — to either explain how they’ll fix this, or to defend controversial but arguably good parts of their record, such as funding prekindergarten through a soda tax — is unconscionable. And yet, dig deeper and you see the glass of democracy, in the city that claims to have invented it, is only about two-thirds empty. There are a few drops of hope.

In a weird way, Philadelphia reminds me of some of the places around the world that I’ve been writing about this autumn where everyday people have been rising up and taking to the streets. Places like Santiago, Chile, or Beirut, Lebanon, where folks are tired of both economic unfairness and political corruption. The difference here is that so many of Philadelphia’s problems have been around so long to engender deep cynicism, rather than activism.

Every voter or candidate I spoke to for this column gave the same answer as the city’s No. 1 problem: gun violence. Yet most were also quick to recognize that the gun lobby in Harrisburg has so far strangled most efforts by City Hall to impose any solutions that make sense on the local level. Said Southwest Center City voter McGinty: “It’s frustrating.”

In the age of Donald Trump, two-party politics cannot offer salvation. There was a time 20 years ago when it seemed a moderate brand of urban Republicanism — epitomized by mayoral candidate Sam Katz, who came close to winning in 1999 — might matter in Philadelphia. Instead, the local party has shrunk to its roots on the far right.

Mayoral candidate Ciancaglini, while denying links between his campaign and the far right, has been spotted at the same rally as the notorious Proud Boys, has fan boys in extremist chat rooms, and lashed out on Facebook against a pro-immigrant restaurateur at the same time the owner of Le Virtù was being targeted for harassment. It’s a bad-enough look that it gave Kenney a rationale for not debating this fall, in a mayoral race that hasn’t really happened.

This Trumpy turn of the Philly GOP is also a window into how America’s obsession with national politics can all but drown out serious discussion of local issues. The flip side of that is that — with the president hugely unpopular in Philadelphia and on the brink of impeachment — the GOP downfall has created a potential opening for the left-wing Working Families Party to replace two of the three Republicans currently on Council.

» READ MORE: Could progressives capture two Philly City Council seats long held by GOP?

Indeed, pastor Nicolas O’Rourke — who with veteran community organizer Kendra Brooks is one of the Working Families Party’s two Council at-large candidates — says that voters’ ears perk up when they learn there’s a way to convert their anger over Trump into action at a Philadelphia ballot box, by ousting two GOPers from Council.

A quick poli-sci lesson: Philadelphia’s 17-member City Council is 10 geographic district seats (currently nine Democrats and one Republican) and seven at-large seats. But under the 1949 City Charter, parties can only run five at-large candidates and voters select only five, meaning two of the seven seats can’t go to the majority party. For seven decades, that’s always meant five Dems and two GOPers.

That the WFP is pushing to blow up that tired formula — with a background built on community organizing, an emphasis on issues that matter to the city’s underprivileged, and with powerhouses like presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Democratic Council member Helen Gym backing Brooks — can make you believe the glass of democracy is at least one-third full this time around.

Both Brooks and O’Rourke seem to understand that democracy in Philadelphia isn’t a system but another issue that’s on the ballot. During a joint interview from a spartan loft on North Broad Street that — with a peace sign, “SAVE OUR SCHOOLS,” and other graffiti scrawled upon its walls — O’Rourke said challenging the tired two-party orthodoxy could help “to bring a progressive platform and to allow people to choose, to make it a real election. That could help with democracy at a time when I think it’s really corroding.”

Brooks started the interview by apologizing for being “exhausted” by the long campaign. which included an 8 a.m. stop that day at a North Philadelphia school where parents have organized protests in response to an Inquirer report of asbestos problems. She cited the parent uprising as an example of what can come from an emphasis on organizing and listening to citizens who usually feel unheard by City Hall.

Both Brooks and O’Rourke told me they realize the daunting math that, for those 70 long years, has prevented any previous independents or minor-party candidates from grabbing the two Council seats. They said it will be a victory if they can just get more folks involved in the political process, and — looking at what a mess the process has become — it’s hard to quarrel with that.

After all, it’s been 243-plus years since Jefferson sat at Seventh and Market and wrote those stirring words about our unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Today, people all over the world are alienated — by corruption and political inertia. Democracy needs an adrenaline shot, and is there a better place than Philadelphia to administer a tiny dose on Tuesday?