A reckoning is rumbling in Philadelphia’s Democratic machine, as party enforcers look to drive out defectors who support non-Democrats in Tuesday’s election.
There is concern judicial candidates could take a hit if Democratic voters don’t cast straight-ticket ballots — on top of the inevitable stumbles from the city’s using new voting machines in this election.
At issue is the long-brewing clash of old-school Democrats allied with city Republicans vs. progressives who want to drive the city’s politics and policy.
Among those expected to be called to account: City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a committee member in the 8th Ward; 2nd Ward leader Nikil Saval; and State Rep. Chris Rabb, leader of the 9th Ward.
Democratic Chairman Bob Brady, furious about endorsements for Working Families Party candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke, vowed the party will act after the election.
“We have to follow our party rules,” he said. “Why do you want to join our club if you don’t want to follow our rules?”
Gym, who has been front and center in the WFP effort, said her actions are about “making politics bold and exciting.” Rabb has already clashed with Brady about the Council races. And Saval went public with his support for Brooks and O’Rourke in a Philadelphia Magazine essay Thursday.
Ten committee people from wards across the city endorsed Brooks in ads her campaign posted on Facebook.
Party bylaws say party officials can be kicked out of their posts if they endorse anyone in a general election who is not a Democratic candidate.
There are seven City Council at-large seats, but voters can only choose five candidates. Two of the seats go to the candidates with the most votes who are not in the city’s majority party — so, non-Democrats. Those seats have gone to Republicans for decades.
Five Democrats and five Republicans are on the ballot, along with five independents or smaller-party candidates. Brooks and O’Rourke say they are aiming for the Republican-held seats. That does little to mollify the Democratic leadership.
So, what happens next? Rabb and Saval know they may be ousted as ward leaders.
“I think it depends on how much the Democratic Party loves their Republicans,” said Rabb, whose 9th Ward had the highest voter turnout in May’s primary election. “There’s a higher level of accountability with progressives seeking to make Democrats live up to their espoused values.”
“I made this choice because I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Saval, whose ward was also among the top performers in May. “I think [a Working Families Party] victory will make the Democratic Party stronger.”
We’ve been here before.
John Sabatina Sr. was ousted as the Democratic leader of the 56th Ward after he backed Republican Sam Katz for mayor in 1999. Sabatina’s wife took over the ward, and he eventually became its leader again.
Then-mayor Michael Nutter endorsed a former staffer in an independent run for Council in 2015. There was talk of sanctions, but the party took no action.
One leader who apparently will escape sanction: Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, the party’s vice chairperson and leader of the 46th Ward, who surprised some of her committee members last week by urging them to support Councilman David Oh, a Republican. Blackwell on Thursday said she meant for her committee members to tell that to Republican voters.
“She made a mistake, and she’s backing up on it,” Brady said.
Where did Philadelphia 3.0 go in the 10th District?
Philadelphia 3.0, the formerly dark-money group that helped defeat Blackwell in May’s Democratic primary, was supposed to take on another longtime incumbent this fall by backing Democrat Judy Moore’s challenge to 10-term Republican Councilman Brian O’Neill.
The group knocked on doors in Northeast Philly’s 10th District, then sent sent out a mailer and conducted a poll in September, O’Neill said. Since then, voters haven’t heard a peep.
The group’s most recent campaign finance report shows that from June 11 through Oct. 21 it spent $47,000, including $23,000 on polling and $17,000 on consultants. None of the other expenditures, however, appeared to be intended to help Moore’s campaign.
Barring a very late push for Moore, Philadelphia 3.0 appears to have bowed out of the race, O’Neill said.
“I won’t know probably ever why they got out. I just have my own ideas,” said O’Neill. “The polling may have told them that even what they did over the summer and what my opponent was doing wasn’t going to mean they could beat me.”
Ali Perelman, Philadelphia 3.0’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.
O’Neill, who in August said he believed the race would be his most competitive in four decades, said Thursday that he is confident heading into Election Day.
“3.0 was my biggest concern,” O’Neill said. “And it was a good motivator.”
“Have I thought about it? I think about lots of stuff. I think about being a Major League Baseball player. I don’t know if I’ll ever be one. Probably not. But, yeah, you look at your future and you assess your age and you figure out what you’re going to do in the next phase of life.”
— Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, asked by reporters Thursday in City Hall about a report in The Inquirer that he is considering a run for governor in 2022