Maria Pandolfi walked out of the Guerin Recreation Center at 16th and Jackson Streets minutes before 2 p.m., clutching a blue card featuring photos of 18 Democratic candidates. Pandolfi, 57, said that without those recommendations, she would have been lost.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t know what to vote for, who to vote for,” she said. In the voting booth, she was just thinking about human rights and animal rights, she said, before pushing the button for district City Council candidate Lauren Vidas and Mayor Jim Kenney, as the card advised.
On a primary day where it sometimes seemed at time like candidates outnumbered voters — with the most crowded City Council field in 40 years, plus a slew of energetic contenders for Common Pleas Court judgeships and city row offices — it was understandable that she was overwhelmed.
For the most part, however, primary day appeared to be running smoothly. At the Committee of Seventy, which monitors problems at the polls, the phones were “not exactly ringing off the hook,” policy director Pat Christmas said.
It was uncertain whether turnout would match 2015′s, when an open mayoral race brought out nearly a quarter-million voters. One question was whether voters who’d become more engaged following the 2016 presidential election would come out for local races. “There’s definitely some of that activism continuing," Christmas said. But it remained unclear just how that would affect the turnout numbers — or the outcomes.
“Most people will vote for the incumbent, or the candidates endorsed by the Democratic City Committee,” predicted Carol Tart, 59, a judge of elections, outside the Mount Moriah Temple Baptist Church at Fourth and Wharton Streets.
For instance, Tart, a political consultant, supports Lou Lanni, a challenger to First District Councilman Mark Squilla. “But his game plan was way behind, and he doesn’t have enough people on the street. That’s the problem with most of the candidates. They don’t have enough money. They don’t have enough foot power.”
Complicating matters, many voters do not understand the process well, Tart said. “There are those who want to go straight ticket, but you can’t go straight ticket in the primary.”
There were pockets of eager voters. In West Philadelphia, supporters of Jamie Gauthier, challenger to 27-year incumbent Jannie L. Blackwell in the Third Councilmanic District, shared hopes for better public transit, more affordable housing, and improved bike lane infrastructure. Those who sought an upset in the Seventh Councilmanic District, where Maria Quinoñes-Sánchez has held office for a decade, said they wanted someone who would prioritize their community. Citywide, a vociferous (but likely inconsequential) anyone-but-Kenney contingent spoke against the soda tax, safe-injection sites, and stop-and-frisk policing.
At least at Famous 4th Street Delicatessen, Philadelphia’s election-day power center, the status quo felt secure.
As ever, there were the overstuffed sandwiches, the briny bowls of pickles, the lunchtime crowds of bold-faced political names: consultant Neil Oxman holding down a table with Comcast executive David Cohen while state Treasurer Joe Torsella wandered up. Across the room, former state senator and federal prisoner Vincent Fumo was still wondering aloud, to a reporter, “Where were you guys when I was in trouble?”
Fumo said he wasn’t impressed by the millennials flooding the ballot; he thought progressive groups should have concentrated on one or two candidates rather than diluting their power.
He himself worked on a couple of races this cycle, but would not say which. “I’m like Meyer Lansky. ... I’m not out front and I don’t want to be — because you guys will kill me.”
Still, around the city there were signs of upheaval, particularly in the newly open wards and those where the grassroots organization Reclaim Philadelphia has strong support.
A 51st Ward committeeperson, Eric Braxton, 43, of West Philadelphia, decided to hand out the Reclaim ballot instead of the party ticket outside the polling place at the Kingsessing Library this year — in the face of an aggressive push by Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady to keep the wards in line.
“Never before, as I understand it, has Brady put this much pressure on people to accept the whole ticket,” he said. “But I actually think it will make the party stronger, when people are empowered.”
And at the Dickinson Square recreation center in South Philadelphia, those dueling forces were evident as Sam Arnold, 27, a First Ward committee person, stood side by side with Walt Prusacki, 61, offering voters competing viewpoints and versions of a Democratic sample ballot.
In the First Ward, committee people came together to produce their own sample ballot of candidates they agreed to endorse, after extensive research, Arnold said.
“I do think it’s bringing a lot more people in, and resulted in a lot more canvassing and door-knocking,” he said.
Prusacki, meanwhile, was distributing Democratic City Committee ballots. At the bottom, in fine print, was the phrase, “Paid for by IBEW Local 98 COPE,” the political arm of the union led by John J. Dougherty, who is under federal indictment. “He’s a nice guy. Well, he never did me wrong,” he said.
Prusacki said people of his generation don’t bother voting. “They know nothing’s going to change,” he said.
Yvette Tarkenton, 57, of West Philadelphia, said it’s the youth in her neighborhood who seem to have given up. “The elderly come out. They come out early. They come out strong. I got a lady on my block, she’ll be 104 in June. She’ll be here. It’s the youth [that don’t]. I have seven children myself, all eligible to vote, but do they?”
Tarkenton said she was about to call home, wake them all up.
Patricia Wright, 63, nodded in agreement. “No excuses: Come on out! The weather is perfect. The sun is strong.”
Wright said nothing would keep her away.
“Philadelphia is mmm, mmm, mmmm,” she said, to summing up her views of the current state of affairs: the soda tax putting people out of business, the charter schools starving the district of crucial funds. She voted against incumbents in all the key races. “We need people who care for the children, the poor, the middle class. The rich? Shoot, nobody cares about them.”
“All we can do is say a prayer," she added, “and hope we can get the right people in office.”