Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Philadelphia Democratic Party is worse than I realized; it looks like I have another volunteer project.

The Philadelphia Democratic Party is worse than I realized. I’ve been a committeeperson for decades in the liberal oasis of Philadelphia's 9th ward. Curious about how the Democratic Party works outside of the 9th ward, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and run for Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee. (This may turn out to be one of those careful what you wish for experiences.)

A recent incident in Southwest Philly reported in City Paper made me think I should be focusing on my own backyard rather than State Committtee . Holly Otterbein’s “When Elections Don't Matter: The city Democratic Party doesn't always care what voters think” ”is a must read for Philly progressives.

Six residents of the 40th Ward, in Southwest Philadelphia, decided to run for Democratic committee positions. Most of them were community leaders but new to politics. They said they were motivated by a desire to improve the appallingly low voter turn-out in their neighborhood and to improve the quality of life in their community.

The Democratic Party challenged their petitions and 5 of them were either kicked off the ballot or withdrew. Tracey Gordon survived the petition challenge and she won the election with 38 votes. Here’s where it gets really interesting. According to Holly Otterbein,

...on June 7, at the ward's first post-election meeting, deputy chair Gregory Moses suggested that the committee oust Gordon. He cited a bylaw to support his position:

"If at any time in the opinion of the majority of the entire ward committee, a member is unfaithful to the Democratic Party and the best interests of the party, or refuses, fails or neglects to work in harmony with the ward committee, the ward committee shall be empowered to remove said person from its membership."

The committee agreed, and unanimously voted Gordon out......

Gordon asked for a copy of the bylaw she broke. That request was denied. She also phoned the DCC, Philly Democratic kingpin U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party about the meeting, but heard zip back.

"How can a ward go against the will of the citizens who elected me?" she asks.
She still doesn't even have a copy of the bylaw used to toss her out.

What I found especially interesting is that the party officials would not produce a written rule: I had a similar (although far less outrageous) experience at Democratic State Committee. See My new volunteer project: The Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee

It turns out this rule does exist in written form in the Party’s by-laws. We progressives must protest Democratic City Committee’s unseating of a duly elected committee person and demand the removal of the clause which allows a ward committee to overturn the results of an election. To quote again from the City Paper article:

Though Gordon and the group's plight might seem like small potatoes, it speaks to a larger, more troubling issue: If the DCC can so easily push out an elected committee person simply because she wanted to bring in new blood, how will potentially corrupt elements in the party ever be weeded out?

There is the argument quoted in City Paper that "Parties are essentially private,” and can do whatever they want. Granted they are technically private organizations; however, in a one party town like Philadelphia the Democratic party fulfills a quasi public function. Almost all our elected officials-- the mayor, district attorney, controller, most city council representatives and all local judicial candidates-- hold office by virtue of winning a Democratic primary. The way the Democratic Party operates has consequences for all our citizens.

Well, it looks like I have another volunteer project. I’m trying to interest some organizations I belong to to form a network of Philly progressives who work within the party structure. Often we do not know of each other’s existence. We have no way of communicating with each other and supporting each other.

If we were organized, when the party does something egregious, there would be an organized group which could take some action and try to combat the cynicism and apathy which allows the Democratic City Committee to get away with making a mockery of democracy. If we achieve modicum of success, it might encourage more progressives and fair minded citizens of all poltical persuasions to run for committee person slots.

Bottom line: We have to speak out against what happened in Southwest Philly. If those of us who are committee people and thus representatives of the Democratic Party in our neighborhoods, don’t speak out, then we’re complicit.


  1. You must have greater patience than I; I would get quickly disgusted with all the angels and pinheads business when there are bagheads to be countered. Is there a better metaphor for what's wrong with our beloved party than this tale of self-sabotage? You may be a saint, Karen, and I am full of admiration. And you're much more ladylike than I am, too.

    When I get home to the East Coast in a couple of weeks, I'm going to contact the Democratic Party headquarters in our tiny county seat. It's very different for us: there are only five Democrats in the entire state, so we deal with things like being invisible or being run down in the street by herds of ultra-cons rushing to support the likes of Andre Bauer or Nikki Haley. Wish me luck.

  2. Is there a way to tie the democratic work of opposing the Democratic steamrolling of the Southwest committeeperson to fundraising somehow, Karen? Could the 9th, where you already have such strong ties, go on record with Brady? I don't know how thin-skinned the DCC members are (maybe years of entrenchment have made them impervious) but I wonder if continued publicity and intimations of reduced donations could be persuasive. Your idea of unifying progressives and "democratic" party members sounds like a good start, though I agree with Nance that the path you're choosing sounds long and rocky.
    Nance (Karen introduced me to your wonderful blog), here's wishing you good fortune in your quest.

  3. Just an afterthought, Karen: How can you protect yourself from dismissal once you begin organizing? Would the support of the 9th protect you from being judged "unfaithful" or "failing in harmony" by the DCC leadership? Have they read Heller, do you think?

  4. Reni and Nance,
    Thanks for the encouragement! I don’t know yet how many people want to join me-–that will determine if I get anywhere.

    I don’t think they’ll try to kick me out–-the 9th ward is protection there. Reni, who is the Heller you alluded to?

    And Nance have you written about Nikki Haley? Would love to get your take on her.

  5. Sorry for what turned out to be an obscure reference (if a former English professor missed it, that seals it!), Karen. Trying to reform from within while avoiding getting cast as disloyal seemed a Catch-22 situation to me.

  6. Not obscure at all. I should have gotten this—am really slipping.

  7. Hi Karen: I just read your very interesting story of what happened in SW Philly. It didn't surprise me -- you know what a cynic I am about two-party politics -- but it made me furious anyway. I think what is needed in addition to your campaign to unite Dem progressives is more publicity. Why don't you contact Dave Davies of WHYY and see if he thinks the station might do a story about this? If you haver any contacts on the Inquirer or NYT staff (I have an old lefty ) friend at the Inky -- Joe De Stefano -- contact them too.

  8. Carol, a good point about publicity. I cross-posted on
    and it is front-paged there. Most of the progressive activists/ journalists read YPP.

    Also, I went to a political breakfast today and got some people from 22nd ward (election irregularities there) to allow me to send their contact info to the City Paper reporter. So we’ll see.

    I don’t know Joe de Stefano but would be happy to have you forward him the link. Local papers have cut back on staff so there’s unfortunately much less investigative reporting on local level than we had in past.

    If you have the time cut and paste your comment on
    it might inspire others!

    Also, from "Fired-up" who commented on my post at YPP:

    How about we all give Brady a few more calls!
    PA Office Phone: 610-874-7094

    Pass this on to your contacts!

  9. Karen,

    Good for you for wanting, and for wanting others, to take this on. Happy to join you!