Back in 2012, Patrick Kerkstra wrote a seminal piece for Philly Mag entitled “What Will It Take for New Philadelphians to Clean Up City Hall?,” that wondered when the newcomers and Millennials who’d been driving the city’s recent population growth would get over their allergy to hand-to-hand electoral combat.
The New Philadelphians are no layabouts, he observed — they’ve just been choosing, for various reasons, to channel their civic energy into decidedly inoffensive activities on the edges of politics, rather than the longer-term project of seizing control of city government.
Two years later, the landscape has begun to shift, and nowhere is the shift more evident than in the quiet competition for 30th ward leader in Graduate Hospital, where 30-year-old Obama organizer TJ Hurst has been plotting a campaign to depose incumbent ward leader Marcia Wilkof.
For those unfamiliar with what a Ward Leader is, here’s a quick explanation.
Philadelphia is divided into 66 wards, and the wards are comprised of 1,687 divisions — a few dozen per ward. Voters don’t directly elect a ward leader — they elect members of the Ward Executive Committee, called committeepeople. Voters registered with one of the parties get to choose two committeepeople, and then those people go on to pick their ward’s leader in a meeting after the primary elections.
The basic job of the ward leader is helping select which candidates the city party should support, and then turning voters out in support of its chosen candidates.
Committeeperson races are very lowest-level elections in all of city politics. In the division where, full disclosure, I’m running for committeeperson, (ward 2, division 19) there are about 400 registered voters, and about three quarters of them are Democrats. The two incumbents I’m running against won their respective seats with 62 and 45 votes, so next Tuesday I know I need to get about 70 people to vote for me, just to be safe.
It all sounds a bit boring, but this is a key source of political power in the city, although one that has been on the wane in recent years.
Back in the day, the ward leader, via the committeeperson, was the person you had to talk to if you wanted to get a job with the city, or get a pothole filled. Nowadays, thank goodness, most city services are distributed on the basis of data, not political favors, and the number of patronage jobs available has dwindled, thanks to good government reformers cleaning up departments, and the fiscal legacy of the Great Recession. The key remaining source of the ward system’s power lies in the concept of the “political friend.”
If you’ve read this far into a piece about the Philly ward system on a Friday, you are probably somebody’s political friend. Over the next few days, a handful of your friends who want to vote, but haven’t bothered to read up on the candidates are going to ask you who to vote for, because they know you’ve been paying attention.
A good committeeperson is like the political friend of their division. In the weeks before the election, they’ll go around to all their neighbors distributing sample ballots, suggesting people vote for the ward’s chosen candidates, getting about $100 in “street money” for their time, sourced from those candidates. Zoom out from the division level to the entire ward, and you can see why this system is so powerful.
But the question of how this power should be wielded is controversial, even among political reformers, which brings us back to the 30th ward.
It’s important to understand that while the situation in the 30th ward has frequently been conflated in the media with developer Ori Feibush‘s committeeperson slate in the 36th, and though the outcome of this ward fight will have potentially decisive implications for the race between Feibush and 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, the contest in the 30th is totally unrelated to Feibush’s efforts.
Rather, it is borne out of a genuine clash between two distinct visions for reform politics in Philadelphia.
Some reformers, like the present 30th ward leader, Dr. Marcia Wilkof — a professor at Wharton with a specialization in management consulting — see the ward system as primarily a vehicle for getting out the vote, and the goal of their brand of reform politics is to make this process more public.
The 30th has been classified as an Open Ward by reformers associated with the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus PAC, which they define as a ward with transparent processes for establishing bylaws, selecting candidates for endorsement, handling money, holding orientations for new committeepeople, and publishing some basic public information about their activities.
Other reformers, like TJ Hurst — a transplant from Mississippi who moved to Philadelphia to work for Barack Obama in 2008, and presently serves as manager of the Great Schools Compact at the Philadelphia School Partnership — see the ward system as a vector for policy activism, in addition to its classic role as a get-out-the-vote machine.
“With the traditional levers gone, taking some policy stances could build trust equity and make the ward more relevant again,” he says.
In this view, the goal of reform politics isn’t really about changing the ward system, it’s about recruiting people who share a common policy agenda for the committeeperson seats, and using the ward as a vehicle to advance that agenda through elections — selecting candidates to support on the basis of how closely their views match the Ward Executive Committee’s policy goals, and making policy asks of candidates and sitting politicians.
In other words, hate the player, not the game. This is essentially how the more activist wards operate now, like those where the building trades unions hold the most sway, and it can be a very effective platform for exercising political power.
Hurst gave a recent example from the 8th Ward, where former Representative Babette Josephs introduced a resolution demanding a probe of the Philadelphia Police Department after a transgender woman, Nizah Morris, was arrested and later turned up dead shortly after entering a police vehicle.
“They put out a resolution saying to AG Kathleen Kane, ‘We supported you, we helped you get elected, this is an issue that’s important to us, and we want you to look into it'” he said, “When a committeeperson calls an elected official, or goes in front of the zoning board, people pay that much more attention.”
The 8th Ward committeepeople came together to support the resolution, but when a committeeperson from the 30th Ward brought the issue to Wilkof suggesting their ward do the same, Hurst claims she declined on the grounds that it’s inappropriate for the Ward to push policy.
When I asked Wilkof for her view of the ward’s role, and her opinion on Hurst’s campaign, I got a version of the same not-quite-forthcoming answer three times in a row.
“I think it’s great to have new energy in the ward,” she said, “We all need more people, young and old, to get involved in politics. I think that’s terrific.”
In Graduate Hospital, the issues that have energized some of the first-time committeeperson candidates to run on Hurst’s slate have to do with schools and community development.
There is a frustration with some of the current committeepeople using their political status to try to stop projects and amenities that New Philadelphians like, such as the mixed-use development plan for 2300 South Street (popular with Team Hurst, unpopular with committeewoman Barbara Failer’s South Street West Civic Association and some other incumbents), or outdoor seating for popular neighborhood bar Sidecar (supported by Team Hurst, opposed by Wilkof and affiliates).
One of the candidates running with Hurst is Marcus Iannozzi of the South Street West Business Association, who was persuaded to run because he wants to see the ward lend political support to more mixed-use development, and act as a counter, not an enabler, to some of the neighborhood’s NIMBY impulses.
“I do feel that there hasn’t been enough support from committeepeople for smarter development, in particular more commercial — locally grown commercial in the character of the neighborhood,” he says, “And I’m interested in making sure that the perspective of the residents who want the amenities, who want a walkable neighborhood, is being heard by public officials.”
These same concerns were also an important motivator for Lauren Vidas, another former Obama organizer, and currently a lobbyist with Hazzouri & Associates, who is sympathetic to Hurst’s goal of a more policy-focused ward organization.
“A lot of the new people who are running are very pro-transit oriented development, pro-density, pro-2300 South Street — the idea that we don’t need a 1:1 parking ratio every time we put up a building,” she said, “That sort of more progressive concept of what city living means — a lot of the old guard has been involved in opposing this type of development.”
The number of Philadelphia School Partnership employees running — Hurst, Mike Wang, Miki Poy — might give some charter school skeptics pause, but Hurst is quick to stress that the group’s education agenda would fall within the venn diagram of what PSP and District advocates agree about, namely money.
“If you look at the selection of the people that I recruited,” says Hurst, “Mike Wang, the managing director at Philadelphia School Partnership and former head of Teach for America, to Matt Olesh of Friends of Chester A. Arthur, to Christine Carlson, of the Greater Center City Neighborhood School Coalition, who is a very staunch supporter of the District and neighborhood schools — not everyone agrees on how the money should be used, but we all agree we need more money for the schools.”
Hurst suggested a possible action for the Ward would be to write a letter to City Council members, asking that the entire $120 million haul from this year’s 1% sales tax extension be used for the public schools.
The committeeperson elections can be highly unpredictable, given the low turnout, but Hurst expressed confidence that the 23 supporters running on his slate were out-hustling many of the incumbent committeepeople in canvassing their divisions.
But no matter what lies in store for the New Philadelphians on Tuesday, expect the hustling to continue.
“If we can pull this off Tuesday,” he said, “imagine what we can do in other wards across the city in 4 years.”
Follow @jongeeting on Twitter.