Sunday, May 22, 2022

New political landscape demands new Democratic Party Leadership

Candidates from all walks of life are running for and winning public office; the ranks of those aspiring to become elected officials are no longer dominated by those with backgrounds in law and business.

The old route to election, gaining the endorsement of the Democratic or Republican Party, is no longer the road to victory, either in Philadelphia or for state-wide races in Pennsylvania. Conor Lamb, whose campaign was based on his presumed electability and who was endorsed by a host of elected officials, lost to John Fetterman by a 30 point margin state-wide. In Philadelphia, he came in third place (25%) behind John Fetterman(36%) and Malcolm Kenyatta(33%). A cautious, conventional politician who presented himself as a centrist, he was the kind of candidate who won in Pennsylvania in the past, but he was clearly not the candidate of the present moment.

The value of party endorsement has dwindled over the years and in some cases has arguably become a liability. Party endorsement did not help Lamb and served only to demonstrate that the party establishment was out of touch with the electorate.

Democratic Party endorsement counted for little both in the statewide race and in several high-profile races such as Chris Rabb’s race for a state house seat in Northwest Philadelphia. Rabb’s opponent was endorsed by every elected official in the Northwest, but Rabb won decisively with over 60% of the vote. In my conversations with voters, they frequently indicated they chose Rabb because of his political independence.

Political endorsements have declined in importance , but money matters, especially so in state- wide races. In the past, funds have been raised mostly through large donations. Now, a candidate with widespread support can raise significant sums through the contributions of many small donors. Still, a state-wide campaign demands considerable resources, and until we get campaign finance reform and public funding of campaigns, progressive candidates like Kenyatta will be at a disadvantage.

This is much less the case in local races, where candidates are likely to be known to voters. Given that Kenyatta was vastly outspent by his opponents, his high vote totals in Philadelphia are impressive, as are those of the progressives targeted by Bob Brady for defeat, Elizabeth Fiedler, Rick Krajewski and Chris Rabb, who were re-elected by wide margins.

The breakdown in political institutions that has led to progressive victories has led also to victories of Trump loyalists who believe against all evidence that 2020 elections were stolen. For progressives, the breakdown of the Democratic Party machine is an opportunity to work towards building a society committed to economic, gender, and racial justice. However, the breakdown of the Republican political machine has left the Democrats with far more frightening opponents than the Republicans of the pre-Trump era. The major challenge for Democrats is to engage young voters, especially young voters of color, who trend Democratic but who do not vote their numbers.

However, the Democratic Party has turned to candidates who strike most young voters as a return to the past and has at times sent the message that progressives do not belong in the Democratic Party. I have heard Democratic Party activists argue that progressives should not be running as Democrats but should run as third-party candidates because they are not really Democrats. They seem unaware that there is a long tradition of progressives building a base within the Democratic party. The labor movement did this; the civil rights movement did this. Also, there are progressive caucuses in many state legislatures and a progressive caucus in Congress. Progressives are an integral part of the Democratic Party.

Party Chair Bob Brady seems to be putting more energy into defeating progressives than into defeating Republicans. He ran an ugly campaign against progressive incumbents in conjunction with a PAC affiliated with the Republican Party. This city deserves better. We are, for good or ill, a one-party town, and almost all our elected officials pass through the Democratic Party. Given this, we cannot afford a Democratic Party leadership whose endorsements are so out of touch with the electorate, who are unable to motivate more than 20% of citizens to vote in mid-term elections, and who are so threatened by progressives that they focus on defeating them rather than the real threat posed by far-right Republicans.

In June, Ward leaders will elect party leadership. If new leadership is not elected in 2022, there will not be another opportunity for four years. We can’t afford to wait.


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