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Philly Democrats this week faced their every-four-year fight to elect ward leaders

Like leap year and the Olympics, Philadelphians can expect the city's Democratic Party to squabble and fight through the quadrennial process of electing ward leaders.

Bob Brady, Chair of Philadelphia's Democratic City Committee, speaks in a news conference in June 2020 while former Philadelphia City Councilmember Jannie Blackwell, the party's first vice chair, listens.
Bob Brady, Chair of Philadelphia's Democratic City Committee, speaks in a news conference in June 2020 while former Philadelphia City Councilmember Jannie Blackwell, the party's first vice chair, listens.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party endured its quadrennial conniption — elections for ward leaders — that degenerated at times Monday evening into screaming matches, physical tussles, threats, accusations, profanity, chanting, and one contest that still has no result.

This bedlam is as predictable every four years as the Olympics, leap year, and presidential elections.

In West Philadelphia’s 46th Ward, former City Councilmember Jannie Blackwell appears to have been reelected in a meeting where a microphone was wrestled away from a committeeperson attempting to complain about how the election was being conducted. Blackwell’s crew called a vote while her opponents were still trying to nominate a challenger.

“I thank you for your support,” Blackwell said to a crowd screaming at her as she adjourned the meeting. She is also the party’s first vice chair.

Former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, serving as Blackwell’s attorney, lashed out at people complaining, and later told Clout that the opponents never nominated a challenger and focused instead on procedural issues.

“They seemed intent on shutting down the meeting,” said Butkovitz, who was reelected Democratic leader of the 54th Ward on Monday and is the party’s finance chair. “We begged them to nominate somebody.”

Progressives opposed to Blackwell’s reelection released videos of the chaos, complaining they were denied the chance to nominate a candidate, threatened with violence, and taunted with slurs.

Deborah Rose Hinchey, a progressive committeeperson in the ward, said Blackwell’s election will be challenged Saturday with the party’s Contest Committee, and a legal challenge in court could come after that.

Saturday will mark the second attempt to elect a leader for the 45th Ward in the River Wards after Monday’s meeting erupted in a dispute about who could vote, and then was adjourned in a cacophony of insults and accusations.

Ward Leader Harry Enggasser, in a video circulated of the meeting, explained the Democratic Party’s stance that a committeeperson elected with write-in votes in last month’s primary must receive at least 10 votes, the number of signatures required on nomination petitions to be named on the ballot.

Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady, in a letter to the City Commissioners last week, said that position is supported by state law and a 2018 court ruling.

Enggasser repeatedly flashed that letter Monday until a woman disputing it took it away and tore it up.

The City Commissioners issue election certificates to any candidate for committee posts who gets the most votes. Lisa Deeley, chair of the three-member Commissioners who oversee city elections, said state law “conflicts with itself on this question” and should be clarified.

Brady laughed off the video of his letter being torn up while noting the 45th Ward election will be held at Democratic City Committee headquarters, using the party’s rules.

“Let her bitch and moan in front of us,” he said of the woman who challenged Enggasser.

Progressive forces put up wins in Fairmount’s 15th Ward, where former City Councilmember Bill Greenlee opted not to run again when challenged by Matt Lowenthal. In South Philly’s Ward 39A, Jonathan “JR” Rowan stepped down rather than contest the election with Maureen Brown.

State Rep. Danilo Burgos easily defeated Emilio Vazquez in North Philly’s 43rd Ward. Burgos defeated Vazquez for the 197th District seat in 2018.

State Rep. Mike Driscoll, who gets sworn in as a City Council member Friday, took over in the 65th Ward from former Councilmember Bobby Henon, who resigned after a federal corruption conviction.

Philly GOP parts ways with the Lanzilottis

Philadelphia’s Republican Party now has zero Lanzilottis as ward leaders.

William Lanzilotti was barred from a ward leader meeting Wednesday evening where Vince Fenerty was elected as the new chair. He argued at the door, using a phone to record party bouncers who kept him out.

Lanzilotti and his son, former Ward 39A leader Billy Lanzilotti, organized elections in South Philly on Monday for Ward 39A and the 1st Ward.

Billy Lanzilotti was expelled last month from his post by the party for his role in diverting mail ballots to a P.O. box he controlled.

He told Clout on Monday that he and his father planned to have his father elected to lead the 1st Ward and Ward 39A.

Fenerty, after being elected chair, said party rules were not followed for those meetings and the father and son are not ward leaders. The party voted Wednesday to appoint Marjilyn Murray, a candidate for the state House’s 184th District, as the 1st Ward leader. The Ward 39A post remains open.

Billy Lanzilotti refused to testify under subpoena from the City Commissioners last month, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The Inquirer found that dozens of Republican mail ballots for the May 17 primary were diverted to the P.O. box. Lanzilotti at the time said he helped voters fill out their ballot applications, inserting his P.O. box on the form where voters would typically write their home addresses. What he called a “service to the voters” raised questions about whether it was an illegal “ballot harvesting” scheme.

Lanzilotti was angling to also take over the 26th Ward in South Philly when the mail ballot move came to light.

The District Attorney’s Office has said it is aware of Lanzilotti’s mail ballot effort but declined to say this week if an investigation is underway.

Clout provides often irreverent news and analysis about people, power, and politics.