Primary Postmortem: Election Was a Bloodbath for Pennsylvania Progressives

Philly’s political machine continues to chug along, but there are signs of hope amid the carnage.

From left: Bob Brady (photo | Jeff Fusco), María Quiñones-Sánchez, Tom Wolf (photo | AP, Chris Knight, Intelligencer Journal)

From left: Bob Brady (photo | Jeff Fusco), María Quiñones-Sánchez, Tom Wolf (photo | AP, Chris Knight, Intelligencer Journal)

Ever since the heady days of President Obama’s 2008 run, when the Presidential campaign trained a new generation of organizers to compete with Hillary Clinton’s support among the old-line political machines in the Pennsylvania primary, it seemed like progressive reformers couldn’t lose.

From Joe Sestak’s victory over party-switching Republican Arlen Specter in 2010, to Matt Cartwright’s 2012 win over Blue Dog Tim Holden up in the Lehigh Valley, to the election of optimistic young leaders like Brian Sims in Philly and Erin Molchany in Pittsburgh in the same year; to progressive reform Mayor Bill Peduto’s coalition coming to power in Pittsburgh in 2013, there seemed to be a general trend toward more upsets, more power slipping away from the old-line power brokers.

But, at least on the surface, this past Tuesday night was a terrible night for Pennsylvania progressives. By sun-up, the electoral battlefield was littered with defeated liberal challengers.

Sure, some reformers made it through. Tom Wolf was arguably the most liberal candidate in the race for Governor, having earned the endorsement of departed lefty candidate John Hanger and everything, but that was something of an outlier given Wolf’s unique status as a self-funder with a prohibitive polling advantage.

And young progressives like Jason Dawkins in Frankford and Josh Maxwell in Downingtown managed to put up impressive wins. The Philly ballot initiative applying living wage contracting rules to subcontractors even passed.

But the losses far outnumbered the wins. Liberal Harrisburg Councilman Brad Koplinski lost his bid for Lt. Governor; the other three candidates Dawkins ran with on Philly Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s reform slate all lost their races; Peduto-aligned Pittsburgh progressives Erin Molchany and Tom Michalow were defeated; and Pennsylvania is now about to send an all-male delegation to Washington in November.

Looking at the bigger picture in our region, the issue is that very low turnout elections like Tuesday’s advantage the most organized participants — the old-school political machines, particularly in Northeast Philly, controlled by Congressman Bob Brady and IBEW Local 98 business manager John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.

Fittingly, the Inquirer ran a profile on Dougherty’s political machinery the day before the election which sounded a bit too impressed with his power, though it’s hard not to be. Local 98 is the biggest political donor in the state of Pennsylvania. But while money and PACs are certainly an important contributor to its influence, the real source of Dougherty’s power is much more straightforward.

In a city that’s notoriously hard to get out to the polls, his people show up.

They showed up to defeat progressive heartthrob Daylin Leach in the 13th district, where union-backed social conservative Brendan Boyle won in a blowout. They showed up to block Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez’s slate over some ethically challenged incumbent reps in North Philly and Kensington. And they showed up to support checked-out long-time Rep. Mark Cohen over Rep. Brian Sims-backed community activist Jared Solomon.

The other Sims-backed challenger, Billy Smith in Delaware County, lost to incumbent Margo Davidson, who was opposed by Planned Parenthood, PSEA, and the National Organization for Women. Had Sims not succeeded in knocking former Rep. Babette Josephs off the primary ballot, it’s possible he might have gone down as well.

There’s no sugar-coating the setback for reformers that comes with the defeat of Leach, and the symbolic hit to Brian Sims’ influence in Philadelphia’s state delegation. Sims and Leach are in the very small club of Philly-area politicians anyone is actually excited about, and who might be capable of building an alternative power base in the region to supplant Bob Brady and John Dougherty’s now-dominant base of white working-class voters.

Still, the project of building an alternative to the Brady-Dougherty machine did not necessarily lose ground on Tuesday.

At the lowest level of city politics, young reformers gained ground in the 30th ward in Graduate Hospital with T.J. Hurst’s slate winning 12 of the 22 seats they challenged. At least two unaffiliated newcomers were also elected.

Hurst failed to win his own committeeperson race, dashing his hopes of becoming 30th ward leader, but enough challengers won that it is now an open question whether current ward leader Marcia Wilkof will be able to cobble together the 18 votes she’ll need to remain in power.

Challengers allied with Ori Feibush in the 36th ward were significantly less successful, but the success rate is really beside the point. These types of ward challenges will only become more commonplace in future election cycles as Philadelphia’s population continues to grow, as newcomers continue to age and become more established, and the voters allied with the Brady-Dougherty machine shrink as a share of the population.

When I canvassed my neighborhood for my own (successful!) committeeperson challenge, barely any of the young parents and new homeowners in my division had any idea who Bob Brady or John Dougherty are, or what a ward leader does. The machine’s brand of politics, the things they stand for, have increasingly little purchase with New Philadelphians. And as the age window for political involvement continues to shift, the tiny power vacuum — now barely perceptible in Philadelphia politics — will continue to widen. One thing is for certain — we will look back on 2014 as the year when Millennials first stepped into the breach.

Follow @JonGeeting on Twitter.

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  • BlueWomanRedCounty

    Don’t overlook Kerith Strano Taylor who won the Democratic nomination for the 5th Congressional district. In a very conservative district, she defeated a more conservative opponent. She has a very difficult battle against incumbent Glenn Thompson ahead of her but I wouldn’t count her out.

  • Dude

    Oh please, Boyle is not a “social conservative”, that’s just ridiculous. I’d also note that plenty of people are excited for him as well, even if they aren’t from the same suburban turned urban crowd you hang with.

    • Jonathan Geeting

      Uh, he co-sponsored an ALEC-style bill clear-cutting abortion clinics. That’s a social conservative.

      • Dude

        No, it isn’t. It is a regulation, sure, but you are making the same argument the NRA does when they talk about people who propose mild gun regulations being anti-gun.

        • Jonathan Geeting

          This a bill from a right wing bill factory, not some minor regulation. The real progressive position is expanding abortion rights, not curtailing them. Is Boyle going to be a force for rolling back the Hyde amendment? The Stupak amendment? Definitely not.

          • Dude

            The American people, and especially the people of Northeast Philadelphia whom Boyle has primarily been elected by, do not agree with your position on abortion. It isn’t exactly a mainstream one. ALEC is pushing this (when they have largely dropped most of their social conservative push) because its popular. The voters obviously agreed, which is why Boyle was resoundingly elected despite the ad campaign by all three of his opponents highlighting his vote. Not to mention that PA’s regulation of abortion clinics was lacking. That’s why we had the tragedy of two women dying in Gosnell’s clinic. Kermit Gosnell can never again happen in PA, and access to abortion has not been curtailed by nearly the level the detractors of the bill claimed.

          • Jonathan Geeting

            “PA’s regulation of abortion clinics was lacking. That’s why we had the tragedy of two women dying Gosnell’s clinic.”

            The reason that women in desperate positions go to butchers like Gosnell, rather than a real medical doctor, is that PA’s abortion regulations already make it too difficult for mainstream doctors to offer that service. Too few abortion clinics = more Gosnells. And Boyle’s legislation closed 5 more abortion clinics, forcing more women into the hands of black market quacks.

            Pennsylvania is a pro-choice state. You can argue that some northeast Philly backward Democrats favor more abortion restrictions, and I won’t disagree. And I understand from your argument that you personally are a social conservative like Boyle, but that doesn’t mean a solid social progressive like Allyson Schwartz can’t win the district. And it doesn’t mean that real progressives have to accept a social conservative like Boyle as their standard-bearer in the 2016 primary.


          • DP

            This was not an election won on issues. It was won on geography. Three Montco people split the Montco part of the vote leaving one Philly person to win by dominating the Philly part of the district. No amount of “non machine” turnout would have changes this. If every progressive in both counties had turned out they would have split among the three and Boyle still would have won. Leach or Margolies drops and the person who stayed wins. Simple as that. It’s in the numbers. Boyle got 70% of 27,611 total votes in Philly but only 16.1% 32,733 votes in Montco.

          • Jonathan Geeting

            Exactly. Which is why we need a Philly candidate to take out Boyle in 2016.

          • Dude

            From the Northeast? There are like 12 “progressives” in the Northeast.

          • Dude

            The 13th will be redrawn to better suit Boyle. The GOP will want to get the more Democratic leaning areas of Bucks out of the 8th, so they’ll add Bensalem to the 13th, and Brady will give Boyle the Riverwards section of his district. The union branch of the city party is ecstatic about Boyle and will work with the GOP to strengthen his hold on the seat.

          • Dude

            Philadelphia is not exactly an area with few abortion clinics. Gosnell’s clinic existed because legitimate doctors would refer patients who were in their third trimester to Gosnell. 5 abortion clinics in the entire state, and from what I know, three of them are associated with a Maryland abortion doctor of very ill repute (cited for substandard clinics many times). There are many industries and services, and its up to us to determine their level of regulation. Believing that abortion should be regulated does not mean that one wants abortion to be illegal.

            Again, his mild deviation from the standard script does not make Boyle a social conservative. He’s had three votes on abortion. The first was the 2011 votes, but more recently he voted against a Republican bill to ban abortion coverage from the exchanges. Hardly the action of a “social conservative”

          • Jonathan Geeting

            Again, it’s not a mild deviation. He co-sponsored a TRAP bill (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) dreamed up in a right-wing bill factory that was medically-unnecessary and designed to restrict abortion access. That legitimate doctors would refer women to someone like Gosnell for third trimester abortions is a function of the state’s regulations – regulations supported by Brendan Boyle.

  • Super D woman

    This article could be written with one line, two sentences. The ultra self absorbed super far-left liberal elitists lost big. Hooray!

    • Jonathan Geeting

      Hi Brendan

  • Pat Rogers

    As an Independent left leaning sometimes Democrat I will NOT vote for Brendan Boyle. I’d rather Write-in “Legalize Marijuana”.

    He is in the pocket of the FOP. I cannot expect him to ever represent, reflect or respect my social justice values. My voting for him would be voting for someone who promises to continue to have police arrest my family members and friends who smoke pot. Why, as a sane and loving American, would I do that?

    • Dude

      Boyle supports decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.

      • Pat Rogers

        So Boyle says on the campaign trail.

        Decriminalization keeps in place the multi billion dollar a year black market that subsidizes crime and economically destabilizes American cities.

        Decriminalization leaves users, gangsters and criminals in control of the morals and ethics of pot sales. Only legalization slams shut the gateway of access to pot sales by kids by putting regulated, licensed and taxed responsible adult supervision in control of pot sales.

        Decriminalization says that Boyle will continue to support the arrest my family, friends and neighbors.

        Decriminalization is a smoke screen for the Jim Crow status quo.

        • Dude

          Decriminalization is a step in the right direction. CO and WA decriminalized before they legalized, and decriminalization is what keeps people out of jail.

          • Pat Rogers

            Then you would leave in place a system that puts hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the hands of gangsters. Tax-free.

            And you prefer that the criminal and user sales-force that today has unfettered access to kids continue.

            Why do you oppose responsible adult supervision of drug sales in favor of abusers and gangsters selling to kids unregulated on street corners?

          • Dude

            I agree, but its a first step.

  • RickW1234

    I’m not sure progressives had a bad day. We have nominated one of the most progressive democrats ever to run for Gov, whether he self funded or not he even won Philly not the party backed Schwartz. The author seems to equate electing new people with electing progressives. Mark Cohen is one of the most solid progressives in the State House, so I’m not sure progressives lost this race unless a progressive is someone not in office who is supported by Brian Sims. And yes Mayor Peduto lost a couple of primaries but many of his endorsed candidates won. And finally the author seems to think that the only measure of progressivism is to be pro-choice. But what about those who support issues on fixing income inequality , protecting the environment and expanding medicaid. Don’t those count as progressive issues