There are few political phrases in Philadelphia that evoke so many reactions — devotion, derision, avarice, and angst — as street money. That’s the cash paid on Election Day to volunteers manning the polls and knocking on doors to turn out voters.
Say hello to the “Coordinated Campaign for the Philadelphia Democratic Party,” a new fund-raising effort to pay for voter outreach and volunteer recruitment for all the races on the Nov. 3 ballot, chaired by former City Controller Alan Butkovitz.
Clout dared to poke fun, dubbing it the “Committee to Reinstate Street Money.” Butkovitz, who recently dropped his bid for state auditor general, was not amused. For Democrats, this is about much more than “a payday for committee people,” he insists.
A little history: For decades, street money flowed from presidential campaigns to the local party to the poll workers before the general election. The rate had been remarkably stable across the years: $100 each for two committee people in each of the city’s 1,703 divisions, coming to $340,600 per election.
Bob Brady, chairman of the local party, said former Gov. Ed Rendell and Comcast executive David L. Cohen have filled the street money gap since 2008. Brady jokingly refers to the local Democratic machine as a dinosaur that has survived extinction out of Election Day necessity.
“So you got to feed the dinosaur,” Brady said. “You know, dinosaurs are extinct and old. But you have to be careful. They can eat you.”
Some of this is territorial. Brady complains about national campaigns sending in volunteers with little sense of the city or its politics.
“Sometimes they even get in the way,” he said. “Nobody knows who they are. They always take credit if they win. If there is a loss, they blame us.”
Rendell said presidential campaigns stopped paying street money in Philly because the benefits were outweighed by the problems it caused in places like Pittsburgh, Scranton, Reading, and Bethlehem, where local parties also wanted to cash in.
“They just don’t have that much money,” Rendell said of presidential campaigns.
Butkovitz says Philly’s new effort will go well beyond paying poll workers. Think phone banks, mailed campaign literature, social media voter outreach, and volunteer recruitment. And Brady said labor unions, always a reliable source of political contributions, are already talking about supporting the effort.
“Pennsylvania is in a superstar spot” due to its swing-state status, Butkovitz says. He envisions drawing donations from nearby states — New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland — where the Democratic nominee is likely to win in the general election, barring an earthshaking event.
And he makes this point: Clinton carried a 475,000-vote margin out of Philadelphia, but Donald Trump won the state by 44,292 votes. What if Clinton had won Philadelphia by 525,000 votes?
“In an election this tight, where we have a backlash to the impeachment and jitters about [U.S. Sen.] Bernie Sanders and the nomination and all that, it’s going to be necessary to be really efficient," Butkovitz said. "And 525,000 is a better majority than 475,000. And it may be necessary to tip Pennsylvania.”
Speaking of street money, Rendell allows that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s deep, deep pockets could revive the tradition. Bloomberg has already promised to keep spending big on presidential politics even if he is not the Democratic nominee.
“Whether he spends it on street money, that remains to be seen,” Rendell said. “But he’s spending that money whether he’s the nominee or not.”
Need proof? Bloomberg had a fancy rally at the National Constitution Center on Tuesday, sparing no expense. It was free to attend. T-shirts, pins, and other campaign swag were tossed about. The Mediterranean spread included gourmet flatbreads and wine.
“Pinot grigio or chardonnay?” is a question we’ve yet to hear at another free political rally in Philly this election cycle, let alone at the Constitution Center. Call it the People’s Wine Cave.
Once the program got underway — a little a cappella, former Mayor Michael Nutter (now on the Bloomberg payroll) pumping up the crowd — the lighting dimmed to blue as the words “WE LIKE MIKE” were projected onto the walls, giving Bloomberg’s entrance the effect of a 76ers pre-game show.
On street money, a Bloomberg campaign spokesperson in Pennsylvania said he “can’t disclose what our exact strategy will be" but promised “a robust field operation."
Former Vice President Joe Biden had a rough week. He said himself he got “gut punched” by a fourth-place finish in Iowa. U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, a supporter, had a different spin on things. He insists that Biden, headquartered in Philadelphia, now has something the city can appreciate: underdog status.
“Did anybody think the Eagles were going to win the Super Bowl with Nick Foles?” Evans asked.