Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Bob Brady's recent Inquirer article,“What is a committee person?” ignores the lack of democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party

Bob Brady in his recent article “What is a committee person?” describes committeepeople as “grassroots boots on the ground of the political parties” and “the backbone of our democratic process.”

Unfortunately, many of the people he describes as the backbone of our democracy do not have right to participate in the democratic process by voting on Democratic Party endorsements. In only a handful of wards do committeepeople consistently vote on endorsements; in most wards the decisions are made by the ward leader.

In theory all the ward leaders then come together to vote on candidate endorsements and the majority vote of ward leaders determines the Philadelphia Democratic Party (known as City Committee) endorsements. In practice a small group of party leaders makes the decisions and ward leaders are expected to fall in line.

One of the ward leaders I interviewed for my book Green Shoots
 of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Partynoted that the 69 ward leaders are not all equally empowered to make endorsement decisions and that in fact “there are only a few ward leaders who are involved in making decisions for the Democratic Party. We were all invited to come to that meeting to fill [a seat for a 2014 special election for council at-large] but that decision had already been made.”

Individual ward leaders, however, do not necessarily back the candidate endorsed by City Committee and elections have become something of a free for all with ward leaders sometimes making their own financially advantageous deals with candidates in return for a slot on the ward’s sample ballot.

Not only does Brady fail to acknowledge the undemocratic nature of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, he mischaracterizes the job of committeeperson as a “365-day-a-year, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week responsibility.” This is absurd.

As one of the progressive ward leaders I interviewed noted: “There are a lot different ways wards do things and how much activity there is, from knocking on doors to no activity at all until Election Day and that’s the way most of the city operates—-no action whatsoever until Election Day.”

No on expects a committeeperson to be on duty 365 days a year. But the job does involve intensive activity in the period immediately before the primary and general election, contacting voters, informing them of what’s at stake in each election, and making recommendations regarding candidates and ballot questions. And in the progressive wards where committeepeople vote on endorsements, the duties also involve attendance at ward meetings to interview candidates and vote on endorsements.

If all committeepeople performed these basic political duties, we no doubt would have higher turnout and a better informed electorate. And if all committeepeople voted on endorsements, we would in all probability have better candidates on the Democratic Party ballot. If endorsement decisions are made by a democratic vote rather than by the ward leader, there is a check on ward leaders’ cutting people from the ballot and selling slots on the ward ballot to the highest bidder.

I am hopeful that many of the new committeepeople we will elect in 2018 will demand that the Democratic Party operate according to democratic principles. Some wards generally considered closed wards are already beginning to adopt some of the features of open, democratic wards. Change is coming.

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