Some of the traditional Powers That Be in Philadelphia politics had a rough Tuesday.
The Democratic Party machine could not bring victory to its longtime chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, in the mayoral primary. Neither could the dozens of labor unions that backed him.
Also striking out: the nationally acclaimed turnout organization of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, with its precinct "walk" lists of likely supporters, PDAs stuffed with data, and army of workers pounding the pavement.
With nearly all of the votes counted yesterday, Brady and Fattah were neck-and-neck for third place (out of five). Each had about 15 percent of the vote, though Fattah said he had edged slightly ahead in late vote counting.
The winner, with 37 percent, was maverick former City Councilman Michael Nutter, pledging reform and a tough approach to crime. Millionaire Tom Knox, who vowed to sweep the corrupt insiders from City Hall, had 25 percent.
Both men pushed a message of change, spent the most money and aired the most TV ads. Their success, without appreciable street organizations, challenges some of the long-held assumptions in Philadelphia politics - for instance, that a ground game beats an air barrage.
"In an odd way, it's the Philadelphia version of the Berlin Wall coming down," said Republican media consultant Chris Mottola. "Everybody thought machine politics was so daunting in this city, and two machines failed."
Brady was considered such a strong contender that former Controller Jonathan Saidel left the race when he joined it. Brady got the party endorsement, naturally, and the active help of all but a handful of ward leaders. State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a formidable powerbroker, was on his side.
Team Brady believes the machine did a good job Tuesday in the face of Knox's millions and Nutter's surge. In fact, the congressman did several points better than the last polls of the campaign would indicate. He had a strong showing in South Philadelphia, and in Northeast Philadelphia he likely held down Knox's margins, helping Nutter win.
"There was too much TV, saturation for weeks from Knox," Brady said yesterday. "I was outspent 10 to 1. . . . I had the organization out there, but people made up their minds before they went to vote."
For his part, Fattah refused to blame his defeat on a weakened street organization.
"If I had lost by 1 percentage point, I would have said my organization cost me the election," Fattah said. "But in an election where Nutter got 37 percent and I got 15 percent, there's no field operation in the world that can make up more than 5, to a maximum of 9, points in an election."
As he saw it, voters turned away from him for various reasons, from their support of Nutter's "stop-and-frisk" plan to take illegal guns off the street, to the general appeal of the reform message from both Nutter and Knox.
"There was every attempt to paint me as Street III," Fattah also said, referring to Mayor Street, who is near the end of his second term.
Further down the ballot, machine-backed candidates had more success. Maria Quinones Sanchez was the only independent Democrat to win an at-large seat on City Council, although Fattah also backed her. Other reformist contenders such as Marc Stier finished out of the money.
In the Fourth Council District, Curtis Jones, a candidate of Fattah's organization, won the nomination, narrowly defeating incumbent Carol Campbell, a ward leader.
"A machine doesn't work so much for mayoral candidates. It works for Council candidates, it works for judges," said political consultant Larry Ceisler, who was not working in the mayoral race. "You can't tell a person how to vote for mayor anyway, they have so much information."
Knox fielded a large street organization of volunteers and paid poll workers Tuesday, augmented by a couple of traditional power brokers.
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, also a ward leader, could not deliver her 46th Ward to Knox despite an alliance. Nutter won that West Philadelphia ward.
And powerful electricians union leader John J. Dougherty, famous for fielding street workers around election time, joined the Knox effort in recent weeks. He went down with the ship, but probably was not a factor in the Knox loss.
Dougherty got involved only in a few targeted races, and he had success with them. His Local 98 helped to victory Council candidate Bill Green IV, Common Pleas Judge candidate Ellen Green-Ceisler, and Traffic Court candidate Bob Mulgrew. (All three were also supported by Fattah.)
Fattah's organization was in full swing Tuesday. In an office just south of City Hall known as the "boiler room," scads of young Fattah aides manned phones and computers as they got field reports of ward-by-ward turnout every hour or so. That information was compiled and made visible via a projector on a giant city map showing current voter turnout - and the additional turnout Fattah estimated he needed to win. It was also here that Fattah supporters in need of rides to the polls called for help; as they called, cabs were sent, an in-kind contribution to the campaign from the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania.
Any ward falling behind in votes got the quick attention of Fattah staff in a separate office, on Marshall Street, farther north in the city. There, aides directing the field organization quickly dispatched Fattah workers to knock on targeted doors.
Fattah is not about to stop trying to hone his organization despite the setback.
"This [organization] was not something that was created overnight," he said.