Democrats Sweep Special Elections

Four big lessons from a foregone conclusion.

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Three special elections were held in Philadelphia yesterday to fill vacant seats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Who won? The Democrats, of course. Easily.

Johnny Doc acolyte and former at-large City Councilman Ed Neilson — that master of special elections — beat Republican challenger Timothy Dailey by a nearly 2-1 margin in the Northeast’s 174th District. And that was the closest race of the day. By far. In the 191st district, in Southwest Philadelphia, Joanna McClinton, chief counsel to State Sen. and former mayoral candidate Anthony Williams beat out third party candidate Tracey Gordon, 70 percent to 26 percent. The GOP contender, one Charles Wilkins Jr., had all of 84 votes (or about four percent of the vote) with 92 percent of precincts counted. Finally, in the 195th district, which covers Mantua and the lower western quadrant of North Philadelphia, Republican Adam Lang was trounced by Donna Bullock, a former senior staffer for City Council President Darrell Clarke.

These results were all predictable. Indeed, they were all basically foregone conclusions. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to learn from yesterday’s election. Such as…

1. Special elections are awful. How? Let’s count the ways.

  1. They’re grotesquely undemocratic. In a normal election, there’s a primary election, where voters from each party pick a candidate. But there’s no primary in a special election in Pennsylvania. Instead, party ward leaders pick the candidates. Given how much Democrats dominate Philadelphia, this basically means Democratic ward leaders get to choose the victors of special elections.
  2. They’re expensive. There’s a premium to holding an election in a handful of districts on a day when the rest of the city isn’t voting. And while the state picks up the tab (instead of the city), that’s still a cost taxpayers have to absorb to send the anointed picks of ward leaders to Harrisburg.
  3. Most important? Nobody normal votes in special elections. Seriously. It’s the middle of August, after all. Only the party crazies, political junkies and/or blood relatives of candidates actually turn out for special elections. See below:

2. Each of the winners has a powerful political sponsor.

Neilson is a former political director for John Dougherty’s Local 98 Electrician’s union, and while his relationship with Doc is complicated, there’s no real doubt here that Doc just added another arrow to his Harrisburg quiver. McClinton’s nomination (and automatic victory) meanwhile, shows Anthony Williams still has juice — at least in his own backyard. And Bullock’s ascendance gives Darrell Clarke some eyes and ears he can count on in Harrisburg. I don’t say any of this to take away from the accomplishments of the candidates. There’s a long apprenticeship tradition in politics; particularly in Philadelphia politics. Bullock I know a little bit (the others, not so much), and she’s definitely got the makeup to be a force. But it certainly says something about the nature of Philadelphia politics that the three new members of the Harrisburg delegation elected yesterday all have strong ties to one or another of the city’s handful of power brokers.

3. There are signs of life in Philadelphia’s Republican Party.

The last time the GOP even fielded a candidate in the 174th district, George W. Bush was president. On Tuesday, the Republican nominee won a third of the vote. Yes, it was a trouncing. But it covered the spread, and then some. The city’s GOP has all kinds of problems, but there are indicators that it still has strength in the Northeast, from Dailey’s respectable showing to Republican Martina White’s victory in the Northeast’s 170th district in the last House special election earlier this year.

4. The city’s delegation to Harrisburg is a little bit better.

Bullock and McClinton are replacing the disgraced Michelle Brownlee and Ronald Waters, who each pleaded guilty to corruption charges earlier this year. Waters had been in the House since 1999 (he got in by winning a special election, naturally), and he did very little to distinguish himself in the 15+ years he served. Brownlee had barely arrived in Harrisburg before getting caught up in a sting investigation.

So, it’s not going out on a limb to predict that Bullock and McClinton will serve the city better. But that probably sells them short. Both are young. Both are ambitious. Philadelphia needs more of both qualities in its delegation.