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Progressives hoping to shake up Philly's Democratic Party get good, and bad, news | Clout

Contrary to what many expected, there hasn't been a citywide surge in the number of candidates running for a key, street-level role in the city's Democratic machine. But some gentrifying neighborhoods saw a boost.

Ali Perelman (right) is the executive director of Philadelphia 3.0, a reform group that held workshops over the past year to teach newcomers to run for committee person. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (left) leads the Democratic Party.
Ali Perelman (right) is the executive director of Philadelphia 3.0, a reform group that held workshops over the past year to teach newcomers to run for committee person. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (left) leads the Democratic Party.Read moreSTAFF AND COURTESY OF ALI PERELMAN

Are anti-establishment progressives and reformers on the verge of taking over Philadelphia's Democratic Party in some neighborhoods? Or were they just handed a major defeat?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Insurgents were dealt a blow when they learned last week that, contrary to what many expected, there hasn't been a surge in candidates running for a key role in the city's Democratic machine.

At the same time, there are signs that newcomers may be chipping away at the old guard in certain areas. New figures also suggest that some veterans are stepping down as beginners enter the ring.

Hundreds of residents, including many millennials, attended workshops this year to learn how to run for committee person. The low-level post sounds unsexy but packs a big punch: Committee people elect the city's powerful ward leaders, who in turn select the party chairman and hold sway over many local elections. They also work to generate voter turnout.

The 3,300-plus committee seats don't normally attract much attention, but interest in them surged after the 2016 election. A high school senior even decided to campaign for one of the spots. Some political insiders wondered whether a groundswell of newcomers could oust longtime ward leaders, and perhaps even threaten U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's decades-long grip on the local party.

But only 3,267 Democrats are running for committee person this year — just five more than in 2014, according to preliminary data from the City Commissioners' Office. No, a zero isn't missing in that number.

Many longtime Democrats see the flat trend line as proof that Philadelphia 3.0, a dark-money nonprofit that was the brainchild of business leaders and whose goal is to help create a "more competitive city and a local government," failed in its campaign to encourage first-time candidates to campaign for committee person. Other groups, such as Reclaim Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus, also supported new candidates.

Louis Agre, Democratic leader of Northwest Philly's 21st Ward, said Philadelphia 3.0 acted as if "there would be an onslaught."

"They must have spent all of this money, and it doesn't seem like they did anything," he said. "They fell short of their goals. … You can call them Philly 0.3."

Some organizations that pushed outsiders to run for the spots were underwhelmed. Joe Driscoll, an activist in the city's Democratic Progressive Caucus, said he is "shocked" more aren't campaigning.

"It's disappointing," he said. "We've been working on this for well over a year."

So what happened? Is the Democratic machine stronger than some thought? Has the grassroots enthusiasm among Democrats been over-hyped? Or is it more complicated than that?

Though there hasn't been a citywide boost in the number of candidates running for committee person, there have been spikes in several individual neighborhoods: Thirty-three of the city's 66 wards experienced an increase. Many are located in gentrifying areas in South Philadelphia and the river wards.

Jon Geeting, director of engagement for Philadelphia 3.0, also said the citywide data are misleading because several longtime committee people are retiring at the same time that newcomers are running.

Only 47 percent of the people campaigning for committee posts are incumbents who won in 2014, according to an unofficial analysis by the City Commissioners' office.

"We're extremely excited that this movement has empowered so many new candidates to run," said Geeting. "The candidate mix is almost exactly split 50-50 between challengers and incumbents."

However, these figures do not take into account the number of incumbents appointed by ward leaders since 2014, or how many of the new candidates were recruited by ward leaders.

Still, the data beg the question: Are the city's wards following the nationwide trend of decades-long politicians calling it quits? Though he said he will remain leader of Philadelphia's Democratic Party, Brady is not campaigning again for Congress. Democratic State Reps. Curtis Thomas and Bill Keller are also retiring at the end of this year.

Driscoll said some old-guard committee people may have bowed out after they learned they were being challenged by newbies. Often, there is no competition in these races. "I think we discouraged folks who have been committee people for a long time and don't do anything and don't want to do anything," he said.

Agre disagreed that the retirements are unusual: "There is always turnover."

Brady did not respond to a request for comment.

One of the neighborhoods that saw a boost is South Philly's Second Ward, where Philadelphia 3.0 leader Ali Perelman lives. She was in charge of the group's efforts there to recruit candidates for committee person, which led some political insiders to speculate that she might be running for ward leader. (She has denied those rumors.)

"We're feeling good," said Geeting. "In all the wards we were most interested in, incumbents make up between 30 and 40 percent of the total candidates."

Ed Nesmith, Democratic leader of the Second Ward, said he has not decided whether he is running for reelection. His family is urging him to step down after many years of service, he said.

"If I decide to run, I will win," he added.

Geeting would not identify the other wards targeted by Philadelphia 3.0. He and Perelman filed only about 40 petitions for committee candidates, but said about 220 others trained by 3.0 submitted their paperwork themselves.

Reclaim Philadelphia, a left-wing organization founded by former staffers for Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, also handed in several petitions in the Second Ward. It would not disclose the number of members who are campaigning.

Agre speculated that "Reclaim has a better shot at being a player at the table than 3.0."

He also pointed out that the city's wards that underwent the biggest increase in committee candidates are located in the Northeast, where groups such as 3.0 don't appear to have centered their operations. Political insiders said the swell there is likely due to disagreements among different factions within the Democratic establishment.

A field director for Elizabeth Fiedler, a former WHYY reporter campaigning to succeed Keller, filed a number of committee petitions in South Philly as well.

Larry Ceisler, a longtime political observer working in public relations, suggested that the spike in committee candidates in some neighborhoods may have little to do with the battle between "Old Philly" and "New Philly."

"We're in a politically charged environment right now," he said, "because of Trump, because of Black Lives Matter, because of #MeToo, because of a number of movements."

Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based political consultant, said that even in an era of increased activism, many voters still don't understand what committee people do or why they're important.

"A lot of work still needs to be done to educate people," he said.

Driscoll agreed: "It's a difficult thing to promote and explain why you should run for these seats." But, he added, about 800 people told his group they would run for committee person — and at least 200 did.

"That's an incredible feat," he said, even though "the numbers overall are disappointing."