When Brian Sims won a state House seat in 2012 by defeating 14-term incumbent Babette Josephs, he infuriated her. In his first couple years in office, Sims also enraged the city’s Democratic machine by endorsing people who ran against House Democrats and accusing a colleague of “arguing with plants.”
Now Ben Waxman, a former state Senate aide, is running against Sims in this year’s primary election, and in recent weeks, Waxman has won the endorsement of two Democratic wards in the 182nd legislative district: the 5th Ward and the 8th Ward. (The only other ward in the district — the 2nd Ward — hasn’t announced its plans, according to Waxman’s and Sims’ campaigns.) This is bad news for Sims: It means that Waxman has locked down Sims’ home ward (the 5th) and the biggest ward in the district (the 8th), both of which will help Waxman get out of the vote on Election Day.
More often than not, Philly’s Democratic wards support incumbents. So this development raises an interesting question: Is Sims still paying the price for running as an insurgent against Josephs in 2012? Or has he simply failed to develop relationships in the city’s ward system?
Matt Fontana, a committee person in the 8th Ward, says he didn’t vote to endorse Sims partly because the state representative has missed 46 legislative votes (out of 1,028 total) since taking office. Fontana says others in the ward likely abandoned him because “there was a sense that his constituent services are not what they needed to be. … One woman said she tried to reach out to his office on five separate occasions for an issue affecting her, and had not heard back.”
Fontana says the 8th Ward endorsed Waxman instead of the two other challengers in the race for a couple reasons. “First, because he’s really made his campaign about education. … He has very specific ideas about what Harrisburg needs to do to to help the public education system in Philadelphia,” he says. “I also think Ben has taken the time to cultivate relationships in the ward.”
Dan Siegel, a political consultant for Sims’ campaign, has a different theory. He says that Waxman may be benefiting from political revenge: Josephs, the former state representative who lost her seat to Sims in 2012, is currently a committee person in the 8th Ward. “Babette has a lot of bad blood toward Brian,” says Siegel, “and she’s been whipping votes for anyone but Brian for a long time.”
When told about Siegel’s comment, Waxman shot back: “How does he explain the 5th Ward unanimously endorsing me? There are plenty of committee people in both wards who supported Brian when he ran against Babette, who are now supporting me.”
Siegel has an explanation for why the 5th Ward is backing Waxman, too: “It perennially endorses challengers,” he says. In fact, the ward endorsed Sims in 2012, Siegel says.
As for the complaint about Sims missing votes, Siegel dismisses it: He points out that the lawmaker has a 95.5 percent voting record overall. Siegel also says that between January 2013 and February 2016, Sims’ office completed about 23,600 constituent services — a 450 percent increase, he claims, over the amount provided by Josephs’ office in her last three years in office.
Fifth Ward leader Michael Boyle and 2nd Ward leader Edward Nesmith did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story. Eighth Ward leader Larry Farnese, who is a state senator, says he isn’t sure why the ward voted to endorse Waxman. Farnese is personally backing Sims in the election.
At the end of last week, Sims lost another big endorsement to Waxman: the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’. Union leader Jerry Jordan says of the teachers, “They like Brian Sims a lot, but the thing that made a difference was that they actually know Ben, and Ben has the track record of speaking out on our issues and being on the ground when our members have been on the ground dealing with challenges.”
It should be noted that, despite his recent losses with Center City wards and the teachers union, Sims has won the endorsements of some high-level Democrats: Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenney.
In the end, how much will Waxman’s endorsements help him? On one hand, wards in Center City aren’t as powerful as wards in many other parts of Philadelphia. In fact, all wards in the city will be less influential during this year’s presidential race than they are in off-year elections, when fewer people come to the polls. On the other hand, the 5th and 8th wards will help Waxman turn out the vote at least somewhat; perhaps more importantly, the PFT played a major role in getting Councilwoman Helen Gym elected last spring. These endorsements also help to establish Waxman as Sims’ most viable challenger. Marni Snyder and Lou Lanni are running against Sims in the primary as well.
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