There was talk of bullying and bribes. There were claims that political participation by Black people was relegated to second-class status. There were complaints that some of the most politically powerful people in Pennsylvania were pushing too hard for what they wanted.
And then there was a vote and a resounding win for the new chair of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania — State Sen. Sharif Street of Philadelphia.
And the whole fight was broadcast live on Pennsylvania Cable Network.
Street defeated Gerald “Jerry” Lawrence of Delaware County, the party’s Southeast Caucus chair, by a vote of 174 to 138 in a meeting Saturday in Gettysburg.
He is the first Black person elected to lead the party.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the party’s nominee for governor, Gov. Tom Wolf, and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey backed Lawrence.
Street, who had campaigned for a coalition of rural and urban members of the party’s State Committee, calling them ignored or forgotten, immediately tried to heal the rift. He vowed to unify the party behind Shapiro and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate.
“We just had a family exercise,” Street told the crowd. “But let’s make it very clear — we are still family.”
Street, the son of former Philadelphia Mayor John Street, said the party has been “bleeding votes” in some parts of the state where people who once supported Barack Obama twice for president now feel rejected and demonized and are turning to Republican candidates.
“They’re not bad people,” he said. “They’re people who feel ignored. They’re people that feel forgotten.”
He could have been describing some of the party activists in the room with him Saturday.
Phyllis Bennett, a State Committee member from Dauphin County, stood to claim that people’s jobs had been threatened and bribes had been offered to prevent Street from winning.
“It is past time to have a Black or brown person leading this party,” she said. “It is time for this party to stop taking us for granted and relegating us to the back room.”
Linda Fields, a State Committee member and member of the Democratic National Committee from Montgomery County, nominated Street. She cited Street’s work in the past four years as party vice chair and called on the crowd to back up claims of being “progressive” by voting for him.
“I’m tired of being told, wait till next time,” she said. “Not anymore. It’s not just that he’s a Black man. It’s that he’s qualified.”
Shapiro, who addressed the crowd before the vote, clearly sensed the tension.
“Let’s take a deep breath,” he said. “There’s a little bit of agita in the room.”
Shapiro issued a letter in support of Lawrence two weeks ago, insisting that the party should not be led by someone who also held elected office and might face a conflict of interest between political ambition and party needs.
That was a clear reference to Street working with Republican legislators on a revised map of congressional districts while mulling a primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, which rankled some in the party.
Street responded Thursday with a letter to State Committee members, saying “Our party cannot simply be an extension of a statewide candidate’s campaign — it must prioritize engaging Democratic voters in every part of the state, building a foundation to elect good Democratic candidates on all levels of government, including school board members, township supervisors, county commissioners, and state legislators in the House and Senate.”