Campaign Journal: Next?

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Tired of the dynamics of this year's mayor's race — pro-business reformer vs. loyal politics-as-usual Democrat? Steel yourself. You're in for a replay in 2007 — only without John Street and Sam Katz. Street's tough-guy insider role will be played by John Dougherty, the Irish-American union boss, and Katz's role of nerdy technocrat by Michael Nutter, the black councilman. The battle will be in the Democratic primary, and will reverse the strongest determinant in Street-Katz voting patterns: race.

If Katz wins this month, the serious self-examination in the Democratic camp will be, “Who lost the white liberals?” Actually, they've been lost for some time: In 1991, Katz won largely white-liberal wards in Center City, Fairmount and Chestnut Hill with more than 70 percent of the vote. But this summer, a PowerPoint presentation circulated among the type of white liberals who would vote for Katz, proposing the creation of the Philadelphia Democratic Leadership Council. Advocating tax cuts, campaign-finance reform, and “right-sizing Philadelphia's government,” it is really a prescription for a Democratic party after Street — an era some of its authors would like to see begin this month. “The best shot for internal Democratic-party reformers is to lose this election,” says Penn urban-policy analyst Mark Alan Hughes, who signed on with the dlc. “If they win, there's no reason why they should change anything.”

Before Katz, Democrats had never in the modern era lost white liberals — and Street hasn't done much to reassemble the biracial coalitions that supported Wilson Goode and Bill Gray. His only appeal to elites has been through white guilt (the guy with the $130,000 salary and city pension is beginning sentences, “We poor people”) and Democratic loyalty. But in nationalizing the election, Street ignores the peculiarities of local politics. Here, tax cuts have become an issue of the good-government left, but Street has attacked them as a fetish of the supply-side right.

Perhaps the most hawkish tax-cutter on Council, Nutter has signed on to lead the dlc. He'd enter 2007 with a base among middle-class blacks, and a natural appeal to the business community.

Dougherty's base would be white ethnics, but he has slowly been cultivating connections among new-style Center City Democrats. If Street is reelected, Dougherty might run with the full support of party leaders; if not, he'll have to reach for elites, with a major gesture to show he's more than a machine labor boss. “He just needs to pick one of several things that would be difficult for people to hear on Two Street,” Hughes says. Nutter's challenge is tougher: to unite working-class blacks and white elites under a progressive banner. Nutter's Sister Souljah moment might mean disowning his white doppelganger, Mayor Katz.

Source URL: https://www.phillymag.com/news/2006/05/15/campaign-journal-next/