Inside Take: To Win the Democratic Party’s Endorsement, Pay and Pay Again

McCalla: The "heinous and heroic" alike seek party endorsements, but only the ones willing to cough up street money are anointed.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider. McCalla is a policy consultant who has provided pro bono advice to mayoral candidate Anthony H. Williams, amongst other candidates this election cycle.) 

Recently, we were treated to the news that Democratic City Committee has endorsed a full slate of candidates in the May 19th primary. There were charming pics of eager candidates with venerated Party Chair Bob Brady that palpably projected an esprit de corps.

The endorsement “entitles” those lucky candidates to be included on the party’s official ballot and warmly welcomed by every Democratic Ward Leader (almost 70 of them) in town. The expectation is that those candidates will have a distinct advantage over the dozens of others who are also running.

But, this is politics, and nothing is free in politics. The party “requests a contribution” towards election day expenses, prior to the formal blessing. If the candidate can’t pony up $20,000-30,000, all the fancy speeches and colorful literature gets offered to a candidate who can. The endorsement is mostly about the money.

The lucky candidates make the “contribution” and proceed with a smile only to be waylaid by renegade clusters of ward leaders, who are possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit. They too open their palms, expecting “contributions” in the thousands. If the candidate refuses to pay, there’s no recourse. Many candidates pay twice for the same endorsement. And, it isn’t unheard of for novice candidates to be “cut” on election day. That is, a ward leader might just take a candidates cash and not support them. In the infamous words of former Councilperson Jimmy Tayoun, “sheep get sheared.”

There will be individual ward leaders who demand additional tribute based on the “reliability” or size of their ward. Candidates can expect to field multiple and continual requests for staff jobs, in addition to cash.

Our system offers treats judicial candidates the same way. To be elected judge, one has to pay, pay and pay. The heinous and heroic enter the same door, but only the one with cash comes out the other side.

Famously, gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf refused to pay tribute (aka street money) to Philadelphia’s Democratic machine, sending Brady into a true tizzy. Our local tradition of “requesting contributions” in exchange for political support even ensnared a young senator named Barack Obama who annoyed friendly ward leaders by refusing to pay. The local machine was expecting as much as $500k from the young aspirant. The late, legendary Ward Leader Carol Campbell explained “this is a machine city and ward leaders have to pay their committee people.”

There is a deceptive theater to politics that encourages us to judge candidates on manners, posture and buzz words, believing each is an earnest person in an uncomplicated endeavor. Its like believing the beautifully marbled steak at the market didn’t come from a bloody slaughterhouse.

If Obama was expected to cough up $500k and Wolf was expected to pay $340k, add in all the other candidates and you quickly realize there’s a ton of cash floating around on Election Day. Thats our system, glossy photos for websites, suggesting camaraderie, while wrinkled, experienced hands count out $20s and $50s in backrooms.

Jay McCalla has served as a city deputy managing director, a director for the Redevelopment Authority and as chief of staff to Councilman Rick Mariano.