The words “Harrisburg” and “intrigue” are pretty much antithetical these days. Philadelphia’s relationship to the yawning capital consists mostly of being outraged at the governor, while taking occasional breaks to cackle mirthfully when he makes a gaffe. He is an evil buffoon, we are Rachel Maddow, and the show is on perpetual repeat.
Enter the Chimera of state politics, the three-headed monster that threatens to devour itself in its quest for Philadelphia delegation supremacy. The cast of characters: superstar 35-year-old Center City representative Brian Sims; his former boss, felled opponent, and now, primary challenger Babette Josephs; his colleague and recent antagonist, Northeast Philadelphia stalwart Mark Cohen.
The plot: Sims turns against several fellow House Democrats, including Cohen, endorsing their primary opponents. Shortly thereafter, Babette Josephs, the sweet 73-year-old lady you see walking her doggie in Fitler Square who lost a bitter political cage match to Sims two years ago, announces she’s coming out of retirement to challenge him in the primary. Amidst all this, Sims goes on an epic, unfiltered Facebook rant against Cohen in which he accuses the 64-year-old of having performance-crippling dementia.
So that’s where this profoundly weird Democratic slugfest was at last night, when for the first time since it erupted two weeks ago, all three of them appeared together in public, invited by the political group Philly for Change to deliver primary-season stump speeches at Tattooed Mom’s on South Street. The venue itself, with its graffiti’d out, obscenity-laden walls, suggests hostile territory for a crew of assorted hacks ’n’ flacks more accustomed to Joseph A. Bank sterility. And hostile it would be.
Josephs arrives first, where I find her sitting at the bar, sipping a Coke, and fiddling around with a collection of plastic frogs. She’s talking to somebody about the temperature of her apartment. “House talk,” she says, turning to me. “Not the House of Representatives.” Sims arrives next, flanked by a couple of aides, appearing completely bewildered by Tattoed Mom’s and searching for a bathroom. Josephs marches up to him and sticks out her hand. The proverbial camera bulbs are popping now as the entire room (or possibly just the two reporters and one blogger present) holds its breath and stares at the exchange.
“Brian, how are you,” Josephs asks, cordially. “Representative,” he greets the woman he unseated, reflexively acknowledging her veteran status. Then they stand there awkwardly for a few seconds before Josephs turns around, shrugs and makes a little “Ok, so that happened” face.
Twenty-five minutes later Cohen arrives (true to form, per Sims’s screed), just in time to hear Sims discuss exactly what everybody has come to hear him discuss. Sims walks to the front of the room, defends his new habit of bucking party incumbents, and answers a question from a Philly for Change regular named Jordan Davis. It was Davis’s Facebook query, “Why do you hate Mark Cohen so much?” that prompted what a state house source called the “Facebook post heard ’round the world.” Davis asks him to defend his “age-ist” and “able-ist” post, adding that she has it preserved on her phone. Sims ups the ante and asks if he can read it aloud. Gasp.
A brief note, before we go on: The political theater at this point has already reached a rarified level. Sims, looking schoolboy innocent in a brass-buttoned blue blazer, calling Josephs out for inventing things about his record; Josephs, sitting directly opposite him on the other side of the room, nonchalantly playing a word-search game on her iPhone; Cohen standing directly behind Josephs, stooped and staring directly at Sims. But that Sims would voluntarily rehash the first truly embarrassing episode of his promising political career qualifies as the inaugural Holy Shit moment of the night. Just linger for a minute over this excerpt from the offending post, which is eyebrow-raising enough when not narrated aloud at a packed bar.
I don’t hate Mark Cohen but his behavior in the Capitol has been one of the most shocking surprises of my time there. Virtually every single person in the Capital has a story about Mark being lost in a bathroom or arguing with the plants or with the pictures on the wall…He’s no longer doing a job, good or bad, that he’s been paid more than anyone else in state history to do
Alas, Davis can’t produce the post and the annals of Pennsylvania political history would be poorer for it. But Sims gamely offers to summarize it, and looking right at Cohen, doubles down: “I don’t take personal issue with him. [What] people have for a long time viewed as quirky and odd, I think is now at a point where we can do a whole lot better.”
DEPENDING on how you look at it, Sims’s gambit is either a terrible strategy or a brilliant one. From a procedural standpoint, he may have made his life harder. “It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” says the state house source. “I haven’t heard any specific people saying they’re going to retaliate against him. But I have heard people not wanting to work with him. They don’t see where the benefit is.” Adds a political operative who is sympathetic to Sims: “You can’t fucking do this bullshit if you’ve got $10,000 in the bank.’ (Sims’s war chest would seem to be lighter than some thought.) On the other hand, if Sims’s goal is to raise his profile and start a powerful movement within his own caucus — Ted Cruz-style — he’s on the right track.
But even that goal may have backfired. Now that Sims has his own primary race to fight — he’s the favorite, but he only won by a couple hundred votes in 2012 — it follows that he’ll be too distracted by his own race to support the handful of challengers he’s backing. And he believes that distraction was engineered specifically as a response to his own intra-party insubordination.
“A couple of weeks ago,” Sims told the crowd last night, “It got back to me that as a result of backing two challengers to my colleagues, those colleagues had reached out to Representative Josephs and said to her that if she ran, they would support her running again.” Cohen denied this when I asked him last night. (On Sims in general he demurred, telling the crowd: “Brian Sims says I have a quirky personality. I do have a quirky personality.”) And the campaign manager of Upper Darby State Representative Margo Davidson, whom Sims is also opposing, did not respond to an interview request. But Josephs herself, when I asked her before the event if Cohen and Davidson were using her, didn’t dispute the notion.
“Well of course it’ll distract him,” she told me. “I’m delighted that [Cohen and Davidson] have their own reasons for supporting me, because that means they’re going to continue to do it… Margo Davidson will not now begrudge the time her campaign manager spends on my campaign.” (Davidson’s campaign manager Shannon Marietta, Josephs says, will serve her campaign on a volunteer basis.)
In any event, the primary is in May, and bedfellows have been made. Davidson’s support for school vouchers and abortion restriction legislation makes her alliance with the far-left Josephs a little awkward. (And Sims’s primary challenge intuitive.) But while there is something louche about Cohen (see his 15,000-word Wikipedia entry, his per diem mini-scandal, and of course, the interesting personal habits that Sims detailed in public, and others discuss off-the-record), he and Josephs are allied on policy. During her address last night, Josephs showered praise on Cohen’s record while repeatedly hammering Sims for his “scurrilous” attacks. (Earlier she told me she hoped the Facebook message would be “Brian Sims’s Fort Lee, New Jersey, George Washington Bridge traffic jam.”)
To a certain extent, the Sims vs. Josephs/Cohen free-for-all will be a referendum on how business should be done in Harrisburg. Do you stay loyal and keep your head down? Or do you purge away and refuse to compromise? Last night though, the event ended up showcasing the way Philadelphia does business. After most of the crowd had shuffled out, I saw Cohen hunched over in the corner, scrawling something on a piece of paper, which he then handed to Josephs.
“Did he just cut you a campaign check?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said. I asked how much it was for. “I’ll report it,” she promised. “I’ll report it.”
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