Not the usual suspects

‘Philadelphia Battlefields’ by John Kromer

5 minute read
Is the future of American democracy written at the local level? (Image courtesy of Temple University Press.)
Is the future of American democracy written at the local level? (Image courtesy of Temple University Press.)

Cynics might say that Philadelphia elections are preordained, but a new book disagrees. In Philadelphia Battlefields, Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City, John Kromer analyzes how upstarts have repeatedly outmaneuvered party machinery.

Working around the party system

Ed Rendell did it. In 1977 the future Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor was an assistant district attorney running for the top spot against an unpopular incumbent. F. Emmett Fitzpatrick had the endorsement of the Democratic City Committee and the backing of Mayor Frank Rizzo, who was even less popular than his district attorney.

When no challenger to Fitzpatrick emerged, Rendell entered the race. With little money, but sensing dissatisfaction among rank-and-file Democrats, the campaign relied on disillusioned committeepersons, whom the campaign persuaded to distribute Rendell literature. Those connections, plus relentless canvasing, helped Rendell win the primary and seal the victory in November.

Citizens in the architecture

Democracy can be undercut when a single party dominates election after election. Incumbents can become comfortably entrenched, protected by arcane rules, disengaged voters, and low turnout, all of which can be found here. Yet Kromer demonstrates many instances in which motivated underdogs have prevailed over the existing power structure.

In 2017 Philadelphia’s off-year election was overwhelmed by voter outrage stoked by the 2016 presidential results as well as the recent indictment of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. Constituent anger worked to the advantage of Larry Krasner, one of seven DA candidates in the open primary. Anger also galvanized support for women candidates at all levels, including political newcomer Rebecca Rhynhart, running for city controller against the incumbent, Alan Butkovitz.

Voter sentiment aside, Rhynhart ran a canny campaign. Similar to Rendell’s divide-and-conquer strategy, her team persuaded several of the DA candidates to list her on sample ballots, a tacit endorsement which was handed to voters as they arrived at the polls. “Because the election for district attorney was attracting the most attention … and because the Democratic Party had not endorsed any particular candidate for DA,” Kromer writes, “many voters were likely to pay the most attention to information associated with the candidate they supported for DA. Because campaign workers for multiple DA candidates were distributing sample ballots that also promoted Rhynhart’s candidacy for controller, the benefits for Rhynhart were likely to be significant.”

In theory, an excellent model

The book examines political upsets going back to the 1950s, when the Republican Party ran Philadelphia, and was the target of reformers. The Grand Old Party dominated in the first half of the 20th century, and until 1960, registered Republicans in Philadelphia outnumbered Democrats.

As he deconstructs upset campaigns, Kromer, who served as city director of housing in the Rendell administration, offers a tutorial on the structure of Philadelphia government. In his estimation, it’s “an excellent model for representative government.” Really.

Philadelphia consists of 66 elective wards that, though geographically contiguous, don’t necessarily correspond to neighborhoods. Wards are made up of divisions, which are realigned after each census and consist of 100 to 1200 voters. Currently there are 1,692 divisions.

Each division has a polling place, and may have up to four elected committeepersons, with no more than two from the same party. Kromer describes committeepersons as “unpaid party representatives responsible for informing voters about the party’s candidates in each election and responding to voter requests for information and assistance.”

Finding a way in

In 1979, Chaka Fattah and Curtis Jones devised an ingenious way to become better known as they ran for two of the three slots on City Commission, the board that supervises elections. Every day, under the guise of college reporters, they called the campaign of mayoral candidate Charles Bowser for his scheduled appearances. Then they followed the same route to chat up the crowds and media who’d come to see Bowser.

Though neither man won, each established political credibility for the future. Jones is currently in his fourth term on Philadelphia City Council. Fattah served in the Pennsylvania House and Senate, and for 21 years in the US House of Representatives, until being convicted in 2016 of corruption.

Content with corruption?

Political malfeasance is a recurring theme in Philadelphia, a product of single-party domination, patronage, blind loyalty, reflexive endorsements, insularity that discourages challengers, and quasi-public agencies which are not subject to the ethical standards imposed by Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter. All of which lead citizens to believe that there is little point to voting.

Philadelphia has held five mayoral elections in the 21st century: 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019. Only once (2003) has voter turnout exceeded 30 percent. That’s a shocking number. It reveals a chasm of opportunity for candidates who can break through voter apathy, and should energize potential disruptors from the Northeast to the Navy Yard.

The future is local

Kromer believes that the future of American democracy will be written at the local level. School boards, city councils, and county commissions are where voters’ voices ring loudest, and where political careers begin. Innovative solutions are conceived at the local level. And it’s where decisions are made that have the greatest impact on individual lives.

To increase governmental responsiveness and inspire citizen engagement, Kromer recommends opening up Philadelphia’s system. Let every voter participate in primaries regardless of party affiliation, and vote for any candidate they choose. Democratize how wards are run and endorsements are made. Make Election Day a holiday and treat it as a celebration. Maybe then, casting a ballot will feel less a struggle and more the exciting right that it is.

Image description: The cover of the book Philadelphia Battlefields, Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City. It has a grid of four black-and-white photos of individual people: Chaka Fattah, Rebecca Rhynhart, Ed Rendell, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Battlefields, Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City. By John Kromer. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, August 20, 2020. 340 pages, softcover; $37.50. Get it at Temple University Press.

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