Can Black Voters Matter “Democratize” Philly Politics?

The group is joining forces with a Silicon Valley startup to help grassroots candidates. It wants a political system "truly empowered by the people."

A year ago, businessman Sulaiman Rahman was feeling dissatisfied with Philadelphia’s political system. Most residents were staying away from the polls: Only 36 percent of registered voters had come out in the last election. Plus, many talented people weren’t running for office because they didn’t think they could compete with the city’s political machines.

So Rahman did something: Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, he founded a local group called Black Voters Matter in order to “channel the energy of the protests to the polls.” He wants to encourage more people to vote and run for office in Philadelphia.

Black Voters Matter has held fundraisers, mixers and film screenings. Now it’s trying something completely new: It is teaming up with the Silicon Valley-based company Crowdpac to launch a campaign to help grassroots candidates run in Philly. What’s most intriguing about the effort is that Black Voters Matter is going to give some of those upstarts access to potential voters and donors. Could that shake up city politics?

Rahman sure hopes so. He says his goal is to “democratize the system so it’s truly empowered by the people.”

“In many cases, the people who are in [office] aren’t elected — they’re selected. They’ve kind of inherited the positions,” he says. “We have to have a strong pipeline for the next generation of leadership.”

Here’s how the Black Voters Matter campaign works: A few weeks ago, the group asked Philadelphians to nominate potential candidates on Crowdpac. The website is similar to Kickstarter: You can nominate whoever you want to run for office, and then pledge money to them. You’ll only be charged if your candidate jumps into the race, though.

In 45 short days, users nominated more than 50 candidates for the Black Voters Matter campaign. The group promised to provide support to whichever nominees won the largest number of campaign contributions and endorsements (a/k/a Internet votes) on Crowdpac.

Rahman is a businessman, the former board chairman of the local African-American Chamber of Commerce, and the CEO of the Urban Philly Professional Network, which boasts more than 15,000 members throughout the region. In other words, he knows people with money and presides over a group full of civically active Philadelphians. That’s what could make a real difference for the top nominees.

“We’re going to open up doors of potential support for them,” he says. “We agreed to give them a platform to speak to our audience of 15,000 through our email communications as well as events.” Rahman is also going to introduce the candidates to possible donors.

Black Voters Matter is the first group in the country to launch a nomination campaign on Crowdpac; political director Liz Jaff says it will soon allow other organizations to try out the feature.

Black Voters Matter told Citified which of the nominees racked up the most endorsements and contributions. These are the people who will receive help from the organization, and they haven’t been announced until now. They are Democrats Omar Woodard, 32, an adjunct professor who is eyeing a run for the State Senate in the 3rd District; Chris Rabb, 45, another adjunct professor who is running for the State House in the 200th District; Edwin Santana, 37, an educator who is campaigning for the State House in the 192nd District; and Movita Johnson-Harrell, 49, an executive director at an assisted living facility who is running for the State House in the 190th District.

Rahman calls it a “strong” slate. Indeed, it’s an impressive list of engaged, relatively young Philadelphians. But Rahman says that Black Voters Matter isn’t planning to endorse the Crowdpac nominees, at least not now. “Our main objective with this campaign is to increase the pipeline of talent running for office,” he says. “Our means was by offering a very objective and non-partisan way to gain access to the resources we can provide.”

Merely introducing the four candidates to potential donors and voters could give them a boost, though — and they’ll need it. All of the Black Voters Matter nominees are facing opponents with traditional machine support. (And while we’re on the subject of machines, let it be known that Democratic City Committee aide Louis Farinella argues that the party has a perfectly fine talent pipeline. He points to young, party-backed lawmakers like Joanna McClinton and Donna Bullock as proof.)

If Woodard throws his hat in the ring, his foe will be Sharif Street, the party-backed son of former Mayor John Street. Rabb and Santana will be fighting against candidates supported by ward leaders, too: Tonyelle Cook-Artis and Lynwood Savage, respectively. (Rabb does have the benefit of being endorsed by the 9th Ward, though, where he is a committee person.) At the same time, Santana will have to reckon with Morgan Cephus, a former aide in Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.’s office. Johnson-Harrell, meanwhile, is trying to take out indicted incumbent Vanessa Lowery Brown, who is virtually guaranteed to receive an endorsement from the Democratic Party despite her legal troubles. To potentially make matters more difficult, some political insiders have questioned whether Crowdpac is an effective tool (though I think it’s probably too soon to tell).

Put simply, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the four upstart candidates. What’s interesting about the Black Voters Matter campaign is that it seeks to give challengers many of the things that political machines usually offer — i.e. access to potential voters and donations — but in a more small-d democratic way. In fact, it’s so small-d democratic that party-backed candidates were among the 50-plus people nominated in the group’s campaign.

I’ll be watching to see if the Black Voters Matter nominees get on the ballot, and how well they do on Election Day. Even if the insurgents don’t win, it will still be a success story if they give their opponents a run for their money.