Attention, Philadelphia Democrats! The Revolution Has Begun

The election of Republican Al Schmidt as city commissioner is a direct threat to the status quo. And we Democrats better get the message.

Democrats have ruled Philadelphia pretty much unopposed for 60 years, but the Republicans have finally elected a promising young leader who might just be a sign of things to come. Unless Democrats take note and take action, we may find ourselves out of power and out of luck. Sound unlikely? Before Democrats took over in 1951, the Grand Old Party had ruled Philadelphia for much of the previous century. They failed to see the threat to their power and continued business as usual until it was too late for them. We Democrats would be wise to learn from their mistakes.

In 2009, I ran for city controller in the Democratic primary. As part of the process, I spoke before a panel of Philadelphia Democratic Party officials to ask them to consider me for endorsement as the party’s candidate. I knew my reform positions were likely to make me a less-than-attractive candidate for the party insiders. Still, I made my best pitch.

“You have nothing to fear from me,” I told them, explaining my embrace of the philosophy and the principles of the party of Jefferson and Jackson. But, I warned, if we Democrats in Philadelphia continued to endorse hacks and pols instead of qualified candidates that could excite voter’s passions, we risked going the way of the Republicans in 1951. I was not a threat to Philadelphia Democrats, I told them.  The real threat to continued Democratic hegemony was the Republican candidate for controller — Al Schmidt.

Al Schmidt is a bright and thoughtful Ph.D. holder who worked for the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington. He has set down roots here and he is not interested in perpetuating the sorry state of so much in Philadelphia or making excuses for why we cannot change. Al is not interested in begging for patronage scraps from the Democrat-controlled table or bartering for contracts for his donors. He wants what a lot of us Philadelphians want — change.

Al led a revolt for control of the Philadelphia Republican Party and in winning election as City Commissioner this month, he defeated the once-invincible Republican old guard on their own turf.

How scared of him are the Republican party faithful? While trying to convince me to switch parties and run for mayor earlier this year, Republican leaders told me I could do anything I wanted — change my registration to Democrat after switching to Republican to get on the ballot, reject Republican policies, badmouth the Republican governor of Pennsylvania — except one thing. I was counseled by one party honcho not to endorse Al Schmidt.

Al is a threat to the status quo. That might be bad for the party machines, but it might not be so bad for Philadelphia. Now that he has defeated an incumbent Republican who held office since 1996 and won election as one of three city commissioners, Al will take office in January and assume responsibility for running city elections. It is expected that Al and Democratic reformer Stephanie Singer (who herself ousted a Democrat who had held the position since 1976) will together provide competent leadership and fair elections. Both are welcome news in a town where the fix always seems to be in and the electoral dice are often loaded.

How will Democrats respond?

If we keep putting forth the same ward healers and party favorites who have paid their dues and bided their time, we are likely to get more of the same insipid and uninspiring candidates and office holders that hold Philadelphia back — which would be fine enough to continue to hold off the candidates city Republicans usually nominate in opposition. But now, from the rubble of the party that had dominated the first half of the 20th Century, something new has emerged. In Al Schmidt, Philadelphia’s loyal opposition has produced a winner and a promising leader.

Could the Philadelphia Democratic donkey become an endangered species?  Maybe not tomorrow, but remember, the dinosaurs had a pretty good run for a while before us mammals had our day.

If Democrats don’t get serious about backing candidates who can make the case to the voters of Philadelphia that we can offer solutions for the city’s myriad challenges, voters just might start looking elsewhere for leadership. Unless we put forth candidates who are committed to fighting for change, we might force voters to look to another party for alternatives.

Then, we might just find out that Schmidt happens.