Everyone’s talking about politics. But where are voters in Philly’s 2019 election?
“The people who show up for general elections where there’s not a whole lot of competitive races are like the regular church-goers. They’re there to kind of participate in a comforting ritual.”
Ryan Hoff never sees local politicians in his corner of South Philadelphia. He works at Esposito’s Meats in the Italian Market, the same butcher shop where his grandfather worked for decades, and doesn’t feel like decisions politicians make have an impact on his everyday life.
“I feel like they’re all just different heads of the same serpent,” Hoff said Tuesday, explaining why he wasn’t planning to vote in the general election. “Nobody really cares about the person.”
Hoff isn’t unique. This is life in Philadelphia on the day of an off-year general election, when election watchers will consider it a win if more than a quarter of voters make it to the polls. Civic engagement has felt high in America in the Trump era, but municipal issues just don’t get people jazzed like national races or even statewide ones.
“The people who show up for general elections where there’s not a whole lot of competitive races are like the regular churchgoers,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, the Philadelphia-based government-reform group. “They’re there to kind of participate in a comforting ritual.”
Plenty of folks across the city Tuesday didn’t know about insurgent progressives from an independent party hoping to oust Republicans from City Council — one of whom won — or the one competitive Council district race in the 10th District. They hadn’t heard about the councilman in the river wards — Bobby Henon — who is under indictment but won a third term anyway; at last count, his Republican opponent’s campaign had $173 on hand. And they didn’t care that Mayor Jim Kenney was up for reelection and was on his way to victory by a huge margin.
Often voter turnout is highest when there’s a competitive executive race. In Philly, that happens in the primaries. Four years ago, when Kenney ran in his first general election, about 258,000 people voted, meaning three out of every four registered voters stayed home. In landslide fashion, he beat Republican businesswoman Melissa Murray Bailey, a former Democrat who raised less than $30,000. And yet, Kenney was chosen by about 13% of the people who actually lived in the city (a total that includes those too young to vote).
The following year was the 2016 presidential election, which saw nearly triple that number of voters in Philadelphia. Turnout figures in the 2017 general plunged, with about 211,000 people voting when Philadelphians cast ballots for justices on the state Supreme Court and picked Democrat Larry Krasner to lead the District Attorney’s Office over Republican Beth Grossman. Last year was the midterms, and more than a half-million people voted in the city.
Political apathy isn’t out of the ordinary, but it’s doubly felt during general elections in Philadelphia, where Democrats have ruled the city for decades and hold a voter registration advantage of 7-1, making most general election races feel pretty dull. Candidates, especially those for citywide office, often cement their wins in the spring and spend little to no money cruising to victory in the fall.
And this year’s mayor’s race was more of a snooze than Kenney’s first time around.
“This mayor’s race makes last mayor’s race look like a barn-burner,” Thornburgh said.
Kenney has literally ignored his Republican challenger, Billy Ciancaglini, refusing to debate or even appear at a community forum with him. As of late last month, Ciancaglini had raised $10,500 and admitted few voters know who he is. A Republican mayoral candidate hasn’t mounted a serious challenge in Philadelphia since 2003.
Tori DeJesse, a 24-year-old teacher from South Philly, doesn’t approve of the job Kenney’s done — “he’s from Second Street and he hasn’t done anything to help the Mummers” — but she wasn’t registered to vote Tuesday. She’s not really into politics, and fears she’d be responsible if she voted for someone and he or she failed.
Besides, she said, “I always thought if I registered to vote, I’d be put in for jury duty."
Some did vote, mostly out of habit, but knew little about the election. Lawrence Moore, 69, of Point Breeze, has lived in a building for seniors for seven years and the election machines are in his lobby. He always votes.
“I just go, like, bloob-bloop-bloo-bloob-bloop,” he said, miming pushing random buttons. He hasn’t heard about any candidates for office recently outside of President Donald Trump, who won’t be on the ballot until next year.
The biggest citywide story is the race for a handful of City Council seats. The City Charter requires that two at-large Council members — who represent the whole city — be members of a minority party. That’s meant Republicans, but for the first time, third-party candidates from the Working Families Party mounted a real challenge. One of them, Kendra Brooks, made history by winning. Her presence on Council could draw the body farther to the left.
Still, it’s an uphill battle: most Philly families aren’t talking about the city charter minority party representation rules over dinner.
Janet Faulls, a 60-year-old yoga instructor from South Philadelphia, said she hadn’t heard about the Working Families party or the Council at-large race, but was planning to vote.
“I know a lot of people in prison,” she said, “so I’m thinking about the judges. We want judges that can support second chances.”
Judicial candidates were the only statewide races on the ballot Tuesday. Criminal justice reform is a way to get folks engaged in judicial elections, said Nikil Sival, a Democratic ward leader and a cofounder of Reclaim Philadelphia, a left-wing group in the city.
“People are more attuned than maybe previously,” he said, “to aspects of criminal justice reform and the importance of courts and, in a sense, the outsize impact the courts have on the lives of tons of people.”
And then there are those who want to vote but aren’t registered. Wilbert Bennett, 37, just got out of state prison last month and was under the impression he couldn’t register to vote because he’s got a felony record. In fact, voting rights are restored to those in Pennsylvania with felony convictions upon release. But Bennett doesn’t think his vote would make a difference, anyway.
He’s been homeless since he got out, and said there were no resources available upon his release. Bennett is black, and said he’s never felt like the political system works for African Americans who live in Philadelphia or anywhere else.
“When it comes down to it,” he said, “this election is not for us.”