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What it means to be a committee person in Philadelphia | Perspective

It is a distinctly American bit of optimism to think that a series of one-on-one conversations can have a transformative effect on our society.

Election Day 2016 in Fishtown, along Richmond Street.
Election Day 2016 in Fishtown, along Richmond Street.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff

On May 15, my name will appear on a ballot for the first time since a fifth-grade bid for student council. I'm running to become a Democratic committee person in Philadelphia's Ward 2, Division 3.

I'm a lifelong registered Democrat and a dependable voter, and I've canvassed for the Democratic nominee during every presidential election in my adult life. While my allegiance to the Democratic Party is steadfast, it is rarely enthusiastic. My loyalty has never been more tested than in our present moment of political crisis. I believe the national Democratic Party has been unable to offer a vision for our country that is centered on racial and economic justice.

This failure is even more confounding when you consider it alongside the extraordinary levels of energy and organizing happening around the country. Like many people, I was roused into political action by the shock of the 2016 presidential election.

Committee person is a hyper-local elected position within the Democratic Party where your chief responsibility is to communicate with your neighbors, to do the actual work of understanding what is or is not working for them in our city, to relay that information to their elected officials, and to inform and motivate their participation in elections. It is a distinctly American bit of optimism to think that a series of one-on-one conversations can have a transformative effect on our society.

We saw this work last spring in the Democratic primary for district attorney, when hundreds of volunteers knocked on doors to deliver a landslide victory for Larry Krasner, an electoral win that has reshaped the conversation around criminal justice reform in Philadelphia and nationwide.

In some Democratic wards, committee people have the opportunity to vote on endorsements. If elected, I intend to put pressure on my ward leader to democratize the endorsement process in Ward 2 and to support candidates who put progressive values at the center of their campaigns.

In addition to door-to-door canvassing, a committee person has other responsibilities. As a committee person, I expect to have many conversations about the increasing difficulty of parking in my neighborhood and the perpetual problem of litter on our streets. I expect to recruit poll watchers to help ensure fair and open voting access on Election Day.

Some of our elected officials understate these aspects of the role, and instead mention duties that have nothing to with being committee person. In a recent Inquirer commentary, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of  the City Democratic Committee, described the role of committee people as having to "sign you in to vote" and "set up machines." These are actually the duties of the Election Board, which is composed of five or more elected and appointed nonpartisan officials who receive a modest stipend for their service.

Operating a polling place is a long, hard day of work, and we should all be grateful to the people who do it. I am grateful, especially so because it is not a job that I am inclined to sign up for, and it isn't what committee people are supposed to do.

Committee people can and often do serve in these positions on Election Day, but in doing so they are required to suspend their partisan political activities on the most consequential day of their service, which is when they should be out in the neighborhood encouraging voters to get to the polls and promoting their endorsed candidates.

Taking on the role of committee person will require using two of my five allotted sick days each year to miss work on  the primary and general election days. It's worth it. Last spring, the city celebrated a 5 percent increase in voter turnout in the primary, which pushed our total turnout to a whopping 18 percent. I think we can do better.

I hope our Democratic Party leaders think so, too, but if they are unable or unwilling to tap into the surge of grassroots activism in our city, they will be replaced as a consequence of it.

All things are possible in this off-kilter political era, especially at the local level, and this is our moment to make Philadelphia's Democratic Party more democratic. For me, that starts by running for committee person.

Lizzie Rothwell is an architect who lives in South Philadelphia with her husband and two young children. She is a member of Reclaim Philadelphia, a grassroots organization focused on racial, economic, and gender justice.