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Party Replanners

Can a new group revolutionize the city's Democratic Party from within?

Gloria Gilman always knew the city's Democratic Party had problems. But it wasn't until last June, she says, that she realized the trouble "ran so deep." Now she's trying to fix it.

Gilman, a 62-year-old lawyer, had just become a Democratic committee person — an elected official and party soldier whose job impacts just about everyone in Philadelphia, though its exact nature remains largely unknown outside of political circles. When Gilman went to her first 22nd Ward meeting, a gathering of committee people in Mount Airy, what she saw there was "disturbing," "total chaos" and "undemocratic" — and, if her accusations are true, sheds light on the inner machinations of the city's Democratic Party.

This is how it works here: Democratic machine leaders decide who becomes your next mayor, councilperson and so on. How? Because the primary duty of the more than 3,000 committee people is to persuade voters to support the party's chosen candidates — by knocking on doors and passing out "sample ballots." That's why, out of all the big primary races this May, only two Democratic candidates — city com­missioner hopeful Stephanie Singer and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez — were not endorsed by the party but managed to win anyway. It's worth noting: Quinoñes-Sánchez was an incumbent.

Gilman had been troubled by the fact that voters often don't have a real say in their city leadership, but she thought that at least committee people would. She was wrong. Gilman says that during election season, 22nd Ward leader Rondal Couser didn't hold a vote to determine who the ward would endorse. Instead, he made that decision unilaterally. She believes Couser likely had marching orders from local Democratic Party head, Congressman Bob Brady.

Gilman found that this was hardly an anomaly. She discovered that of the 66 wards, only four or five let committee people vote for who they're supporting — a fact that party leaders conceded to City Paper.

Fed up, Gilman helped conceive the Democratic Progressive Caucus, in hopes of reforming the party from within. A number of big-name Democrats have signed on: councilperson at-large candidates Andy Toy and Sherrie Cohen, former Philadelphia NOW president Karen Bojar, politician and lawyer Irv Ackelsberg, longtime rabble-rouser Pedro Rodriguez, to name a few.

The problems they claim plague the party are many: Gilman says her ward leader wouldn't let committee people examine the ward's finances, rendering them clueless about how "street money" is spent. Candidates Toy and Cohen say many ward leaders — some of whom were also at-large Council candidates — wouldn't let them into meetings to make their pitches. (Toy and Cohen lost in May's election.) Southwest Philly ward leaders even unseated committee person Tracey Gordon partly because she wanted to bring in new blood.

Party leaders "don't care about rank-and-file Democrats," says Anthony Ingargiola, a caucus member who ran for state representative last year.

Worst of all, group members say critics are silenced, sometimes because they fear losing their party-provided patronage jobs. Bojar claims that when she circulated a petition demanding that party leaders seat Gordon, some of her fellow committee people expressed support at first, but later declined to sign after being persuaded not to by their ward leader John O'Connell.

Democratic Progressive Caucus members aspire to force party leaders to act more "democratically," in hopes of electing candidates who aren't beholden to the machine. They plan on recruiting party outsiders to run for committee persons in 2014, and until then, will train "alternative" committee people to get out the vote for candidates they agree on.

The new group has already claimed its first victory. In South Philly, 2nd Ward leader Ed Nesmith decided himself who to endorse this past May — which group members see as a conflict of interest, since he was running for counclman at-large. So Democratic Progressive Caucus members got half the ward committee people to split off and hold their own election, where they voted to work not for their ward leader, but Andy Toy.

On Election Day, these insurgents worked to get out the vote for Toy — and delivered. In the 2nd Ward, Toy was the top vote-getter in the at-large race (Nesmith came in sixth). Compare that to where Toy ended up in the race overall: seventh.

Ann Brown, a high-level staff member within the local Democratic Party, argues that committee people have to take orders at times: "If we don't stick together," she says, "we can't run a party." Charlie Benard, another staffer, calls the Democratic Progressive Caucus "sore losers." Nesmith says he didn't hold a vote because many committee people aren't that active.

But Gilman argues that if the party continues to do business as usual, the city will continue to suffer: "What's good for the city and the people of this city is electing people because they care about the community, not because they made a deal with someone."