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Editorial | Primary 2007

Mixed results for reformers

Incumbency is a hard habit to break.

So it's no small thing that three sitting members of Philadelphia City Council lost their jobs Tuesday night in the Democratic primary.

Two of those who lost, Carol Ann Campbell and Daniel Savage, gained their seats through typical Democratic Party machinations last year. So their losses could be read as a repudiation of machine politics (though, to be fair, Savage was an innocent victim).

Sure, Michael Nutter's victory in the mayoral primary was huge news for advocates of reforming City Hall.

Truth be told, though, the reform movement hoped to do more to change the makeup of Council. Fourteen of 17 incumbents winning primaries is hardly a wholesale shakeup.

At-large seats proved the hardest lift for reform-minded challengers. The only challenger to win in that race, Bill Green, certainly advocates new approaches. But it likely was his familiar name, not his message, that earned him enough votes to become one of three sons of former mayors to win. Some fresh, progressive voices, such as Andy Toy, Marc Stier, Derek Green and Matt Ruben, fell short.

Many of the incumbents who beat back challenges did deserve to win. An exception was the inert Donna Reed Miller in the Eighth District. Two clearly superior challengers, Cindy Bass and Irv Ackelsberg, have the whimsical state Supreme Court to thank for their loss. The court let perennial challenger Greg Paulmier back onto the ballot despite flaws in his election paperwork. Paulmier siphoned off enough votes to cost the two others a shot at winning.

Of course, the court also dealt city residents a rude blow with the back of its hand by blocking the casino referendum from appearing on the ballot.

So that leads naturally to the question of how statewide elections to the court went. One Philadelphian, the always-lively Seamus McCaffery, won a Democratic nomination, but a supremely qualified city Common Pleas judge, C. Darnell Jones II, did not. Still, the other Democratic nominee, Debra Todd of Butler County, is well qualified.

City Democratic voters did well in their picks for Common Pleas judgeships, which isn't always the case. The four winners, Linda Carpenter, Alice Beck Dubow, Michael Erdos and Ellen Green-Ceisler, are standouts.

Out in the suburbs, school district referendums on switching part of the burden of paying for education from the property tax to a local income tax crashed and burned. The switch was a better idea than most voters, ever suspicious of the word tax, thought. But these ballot questions are no substitute for true statewide school funding reform. How long will the General Assembly keep trotting out these half-measures?