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Philadelphia’s political machines are stumbling. Who will fill the power void?

With Philadelphia’s storied political machines mired in corruption scandals, the Democratic City Committee besieged by insurgents, and the business community struggling to stay relevant, a power vacuum may be emerging in city politics.

Philadelphia Democratic City Committee chairman Bob Brady, left, City Councilwoman-elect Kendra Brooks, center, and IBEW Local 98 leader John Dougherty, right.
Philadelphia Democratic City Committee chairman Bob Brady, left, City Councilwoman-elect Kendra Brooks, center, and IBEW Local 98 leader John Dougherty, right.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA, TOM GRALISH and TIM TAI / Staff Photographers

Pennsylvania Society, a gathering of the state’s political class that lands in New York City each winter, used to be the “Johnny Doc” show.

John J. Dougherty, the leader of Philadelphia’s powerful Electricians union, threw the biggest party of the weekend and was a frequent topic of conversation at other events, as party-goers speculated about whom he would support in the following year’s campaigns.

But Dougherty, who is under federal indictment for public corruption and the misuse of union funds, and has denied all charges, hasn’t attended the event the last two years. There was no comparable center of gravity at the festivities in Midtown Manhattan this month.

With Philadelphia’s storied political machines mired in corruption scandals, the Democratic City Committee besieged by insurgents, and the business community struggling to stay relevant, some political players say a power vacuum may be emerging in city politics.

Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia lobbyist with Bellevue Strategies, said the traditional powers “are not as forceful as they used to be” and that challengers to the established order are “just not scared anymore.”

“There used to be a time when people were legitimately afraid for their business prospects or their future prospects if they ran for office" against entrenched incumbents or establishment favorites, Rashed said. “I don’t think that exists anymore.”

The old guard is by no means irrelevant. Dougherty’s union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, still spends vast sums on elections, and Dougherty has the ear of Mayor Jim Kenney. Candidates still court Democratic ward leaders and local party Chairman Bob Brady for endorsements. And the business lobby, despite a slew of losses over workers’ rights legislation in recent years, still has allies in City Council.

But with progressive insurgents like the volunteer group Reclaim Philadelphia and other outsiders scoring victories in elections and policy, the balance of power is in flux.

“I wouldn’t say that the building trades or City Committee don’t have powerful roles to play," said Anthony Campisi, a public affairs consultant and lobbyist in Philadelphia. "I just don’t think that many people think they have the ability to carry a slate of candidates like they did even four years ago. Everybody is trying to figure out who is the most powerful, and what does an endorsement from the building trades mean vs., say, Reclaim Philadelphia for getting somebody elected?”

Dougherty rejected the idea that his union’s grip has slipped.

“I believe that next year will be the best year in hours worked in the history of Local 98,” Dougherty said after Pennsylvania Society. “From a political perspective, we’re going to be as big a player as anybody in Philadelphia and the region.”

Brady, a former congressman who has headed the local party for decades, also bristled at the notion of a power vacuum. Asked who was in charge of Philadelphia politics, Brady said: “Me.”

“I’ve been doing it for years," Brady said. "A lot of people jump up and take credit for stuff. I run the Democratic Party. The mayor does the mayor’s thing, and I do my thing. Some people are workhorses. Some people are show horses.”

The local party establishment, however, has shown unmistakable signs of weakness in recent elections.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell called Larry Krasner’s 2017 election as district attorney “a bad day for the Democratic machine.” Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, Brady’s vice chair on the City Committee, lost to first-time candidate Jamie Gauthier in this year’s primary. And Brady spent much of this fall in a futile attempt to keep Democrats from supporting Kendra Brooks of the Working Families Party in her Council bid. Brooks racked up endorsements from Democratic elected officials and was supported by many party foot soldiers in her historic victory.

Gov. Tom Wolf has also shown some willingness to buck the Democratic establishment in Philadelphia. A recent election reform compromise he struck with Republicans abolished straight-party voting, a cherished tool of the city party, since it allows voters to back all Democratic candidates at once without having to select individual candidates they might not know in down-ballot races.

Even David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive and former Rendell chief of staff who became a legendary behind-the-scenes operator, has seen some of his local influence wane as his national profile has grown and city politics have moved to the left.

Progressive upstarts aren’t the only players who have emerged. Philadelphia 3.0, the business-backed, reform-oriented super PAC, played a key role in Gauthier’s upset of Blackwell. South Jersey political power broker George E. Norcross III aided in Kenney’s 2015 election as well as Krasner’s victory.

But among the newcomers, it is the progressive movement, with groups like Reclaim, that has made the most inroads and appears best positioned to become a permanent force.

“Ultimately what is happening is that the groups that work hardest and really speak to the needs of constituents — on the Green New Deal, on health care, on jobs, on criminal justice reform — that’s what’s in the hearts and souls of Philadelphians,” said Amanda McIllmuray, Reclaim’s political director, “so I think we’ll continue to see progressives who work hard win."

Reclaim has focused more than other progressive groups on infiltrating the ward system, the neighborhood-based Election Day muscle behind the party establishment’s longtime dominance. Nikil Saval, a Reclaim co-founder, in 2018 won the race to be leader of South Philadelphia’s 2nd Ward. Next year, he’s challenging State Sen. Larry Farnese in the Democratic primary.

“We see a huge opportunity with the ward system," McIllmurray said "We think of it as transforming the party infrastructure. The wards are structured so that you have people that can talk to literally all of their neighbors.”

Without one dominant force in city politics, Campisi said, successful candidates in the future may need to follow the blueprint of Kenney’s 2015 victory, in which he won support from old guard powers as well as energized newcomers. Kenney was backed by progressive activists, the building trades, and the Northwest Coalition, the political machine that controls some of Philadelphia’s best-performing wards.

“He was able to build coalitions, and the question is whether those types of strategic alliances were what was important or whether the actors have changed," Campisi said. “No one’s exactly sure how this is going to shake out."