Philly Dems Ignore City’s Changing Identity

The party's black-and-white approach to political power is outdated

Philadelphia’s Democratic party is, to say the least, not known for being forward thinking. It prefers to cling tenaciously to the old ways, time-honored values like street money, favor-trading and incumbency. Philadelphia may change—look around, it obviously is—but the party tries its damnedest not to.

The Inquirer this week reported that the U.S. Census found that African Americans are now the single-largest ethnic group in Philadelphia. That’s noteworthy, but I think dwelling on that risks missing the bigger story. Both the white and black populations in Philadelphia are declining, it’s just that African Americans are leaving the city a little more slowly than whites. The real story, it seems to me, is the growth of the city’s Latino and Asian neighborhoods. These communities now account for 21 percent of the city as a whole, according to the new Census numbers.

When I read that, I thought of the city’s Democratic party, an institution that is still all about the delicate balance of power between white and black in this city. There are no Asians holding an elected city office in Philadelphia, and only one Latino, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents the seventh council district.

The seventh district is, by some reckonings, the most gerrymandered electoral district in the nation. Its twisted shape defies all logic, unless the logic is to try and deny Hispanics in the city a district of their own, in which case its shape makes a lot of sense.

But even the torturous boundaries of the district were not enough to prevent Sánchez’s election in 2007, when she won without party support against Daniel Savage, a party guy who had been appointed to the seat by ward leaders to serve out the rest of imprisoned Rick Mariano’s term in office.

Sánchez has been a good addition to council. What’s more, she’s an incumbent now, which, for the party, is arguably the most important credential of all. Even so, a majority of ward leaders in the seventh council district are supporting Savage, who is white, over Sánchez.

Whatever Savage’s qualities (he is a likable guy, but his resume does not suggest the city will wither away without his services), it seems borderline retrograde for ward leaders in the seventh district to endorse a white challenger over a Latino incumbent, solely because Savage is faithful to the party. I don’t mean to suggest they’re motivated by racial animus, because I don’t think that’s the case. It’s more like personal animus; they’re offended that Sánchez dared defy them. But it does smack of standing on the wrong side of history and the city’s changing demographics.

“I’m extremely disappointed at the Democratic Party and its leadership and its inability to relate to its constituents,” Sánchez told me. “Latinos are a key part of the Democratic base, and the fact that they cannot support the only Latina in office and that they’re willing to against their own incumbency rule demonstrates just how out of the touch they are.”

Sánchez is the only Latino seeking a high-profile city office this election, but there are two well-qualified Asian candidates campaigning for at-large council positions: Democrat Andy Toy and Republican David Oh.

Neither is assured victory, but both should at least post respectable vote totals. And you have to think that, eventually, demographics will win out, and the city will eventually have its share of Latino and Asian elected leaders. When that happens, it’ll be in spite of Philadelphia’s Democratic party, not because of it.