A battle for leadership of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party roiling for months in private went public Thursday when state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the party’s nominee for governor, endorsed a candidate.
And it wasn’t State Sen. Sharif Street, the party’s vice chair from Philly, who has been campaigning for the top spot.
Shapiro, in an email to the party’s State Committee members elected in the May 17 primary, urged them to vote at their June 18 meeting for Gerald Lawrence, who chairs the party’s seven-county Southeast Caucus.
Shapiro, calling this a “critical time” with elections for governor and the U.S. Senate on November’s ballot, cast Lawrence as “the strongest candidate” and lobbed some shots clearly meant for Street.
“We believe that the leadership required now must come from someone who can focus entirely on the task at hand,” said Shapiro’s email, cosigned by State Rep. Austin Davis, the nominee for lieutenant governor. “For that reason, we’ve made it clear for months that our state party should not be led by an elected official who must juggle competing priorities in facing re-election, serving their constituents, maintaining their own political relationships, and putting their own ambition ahead of what our party needs.”
Sharp stuff. But Shapiro wasn’t done. He also called Lawrence the only candidate “putting our party’s success ahead of self-interest, and putting in the hard work.” There are only two candidates.
Street, now in his second term and up for reelection in 2024, has been casting about for his next campaign. He dabbled last year with a U.S. Senate run and worked with Republican colleagues on a new congressional district map while mulling a run for the U.S. House, a move that rankled some in his party.
Street ducked Clout’s invitation to talk and issued a statement touting his travels around the state.
“I am pleased to enjoy broad-based support not only amongst the State Committee people in every county, but also the vast majority of my colleagues in the State Senate,” Street said.
The party fight echoes back to a leadership controversy eight years ago. By tradition, the Democratic nominee for governor has great sway in naming the next party chair. But Jim Burn ran for a second term as party chair in 2014 while then-nominee Tom Wolf pushed for Katie McGinty.
McGinty dropped her bid and instead led an independent campaign committee that took over functions normally run by the party. She became Wolf’s chief of staff when he was elected governor.
The controversy lingered, and Burn resigned a year later, saying it was “the first question” he was always asked while traveling across the state.
Lawrence told Clout he asked for and received Shapiro’s backing last month. He has been a State Committee member for 25 years and serves as chair of the Delaware County Board of Elections.
“My conversations with Democrats across the state convinced me to run for chair, and their widespread and overwhelming support has been inspiring,” he said.
Street was elected vice chair in 2018 with current chair Nancy Patton Mills, who is not seeking another term and declined to comment on the Lawrence-Street strife.
Philly Democrats brace for ward leader fights
Philadelphia’s Democratic committee people elected in last month’s primary will meet Monday in the city’s wards — there are 66 of them, but three are so large they’re split into two — to elect new leaders.
Clout hears plenty of fights are brewing. And a few may have serious implications in local races next year.
In South Philly, the 1st and 2nd Wards are getting new leaders, and a challenge is shaping up for Ward 39A leader Jonathan “JR” Rowan from supporters of State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler. That would give Fiedler, who has sparred with the Democratic City Committee, a healthy base if she goes ahead with a primary challenge next year to City Councilmember Mark Squilla.
Fiedler’s husband, 1st Ward leader Adams Rackes, is stepping down but backing Kathleen Melville, who volunteered for Fiedler’s campaign this year. Clout hears Maureen Brown, a committee member in Ward 39A who also volunteered for Fiedler, will challenge Rowan. She did not respond to Clout’s hails.
Colleen Puckett, the 2nd Ward leader, is not seeking another term. Julia Tackett, a state Senate staffer and Fiedler ally, is running against Will Gross, who lost a bid last month for the state House.
In Franklinville and Hunting Park, a fight for the 43rd Ward could factor into control for the local Council district if Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez resigns as expected to run for mayor.
State Rep. Danilo Burgos, a former Quiñones-Sánchez staffer, defeated Emilio Vazquez for the 197th District seat in 2018. Now he’s trying to unseat Vazquez as 43rd Ward leader. Ward leaders in Quiñones-Sánchez’s district will select a candidate if she resigns early enough to prompt a special election
Former City Councilmembers Jannie Blackwell in West Philly’s 46th Ward and Bill Greenlee in Fairmount’s 15th Ward are facing challenges. Both told Clout they’re not sure of the outcome.
Clout also hears several ward leaders are stepping down due to age or health issues. One is West Philly’s 4th Ward leader, Edgar “Sonny” Campbell Jr. City Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. said Campbell asked him to take over the ward, with Democratic City Committee chair Bob Brady’s blessing.
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