Primary Postmortem: Election Was a Bloodbath for Pennsylvania Progressives

Philly's political machine continues to chug along, but there are signs of hope amid the carnage.

From left: Bob Brady (photo | Jeff Fusco), María Quiñones-Sánchez, Tom Wolf (photo | AP, Chris Knight, Intelligencer Journal)

From left: Bob Brady (photo | Jeff Fusco), María Quiñones-Sánchez, Tom Wolf (photo | AP, Chris Knight, Intelligencer Journal)

Ever since the heady days of President Obama’s 2008 run, when the Presidential campaign trained a new generation of organizers to compete with Hillary Clinton’s support among the old-line political machines in the Pennsylvania primary, it seemed like progressive reformers couldn’t lose.

From Joe Sestak’s victory over party-switching Republican Arlen Specter in 2010, to Matt Cartwright’s 2012 win over Blue Dog Tim Holden up in the Lehigh Valley, to the election of optimistic young leaders like Brian Sims in Philly and Erin Molchany in Pittsburgh in the same year; to progressive reform Mayor Bill Peduto’s coalition coming to power in Pittsburgh in 2013, there seemed to be a general trend toward more upsets, more power slipping away from the old-line power brokers.

But, at least on the surface, this past Tuesday night was a terrible night for Pennsylvania progressives. By sun-up, the electoral battlefield was littered with defeated liberal challengers.

Sure, some reformers made it through. Tom Wolf was arguably the most liberal candidate in the race for Governor, having earned the endorsement of departed lefty candidate John Hanger and everything, but that was something of an outlier given Wolf’s unique status as a self-funder with a prohibitive polling advantage.

And young progressives like Jason Dawkins in Frankford and Josh Maxwell in Downingtown managed to put up impressive wins. The Philly ballot initiative applying living wage contracting rules to subcontractors even passed.

But the losses far outnumbered the wins. Liberal Harrisburg Councilman Brad Koplinski lost his bid for Lt. Governor; the other three candidates Dawkins ran with on Philly Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s reform slate all lost their races; Peduto-aligned Pittsburgh progressives Erin Molchany and Tom Michalow were defeated; and Pennsylvania is now about to send an all-male delegation to Washington in November.

Looking at the bigger picture in our region, the issue is that very low turnout elections like Tuesday’s advantage the most organized participants — the old-school political machines, particularly in Northeast Philly, controlled by Congressman Bob Brady and IBEW Local 98 business manager John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.

Fittingly, the Inquirer ran a profile on Dougherty’s political machinery the day before the election which sounded a bit too impressed with his power, though it’s hard not to be. Local 98 is the biggest political donor in the state of Pennsylvania. But while money and PACs are certainly an important contributor to its influence, the real source of Dougherty’s power is much more straightforward.

In a city that’s notoriously hard to get out to the polls, his people show up.

They showed up to defeat progressive heartthrob Daylin Leach in the 13th district, where union-backed social conservative Brendan Boyle won in a blowout. They showed up to block Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez’s slate over some ethically challenged incumbent reps in North Philly and Kensington. And they showed up to support checked-out long-time Rep. Mark Cohen over Rep. Brian Sims-backed community activist Jared Solomon.

The other Sims-backed challenger, Billy Smith in Delaware County, lost to incumbent Margo Davidson, who was opposed by Planned Parenthood, PSEA, and the National Organization for Women. Had Sims not succeeded in knocking former Rep. Babette Josephs off the primary ballot, it’s possible he might have gone down as well.

There’s no sugar-coating the setback for reformers that comes with the defeat of Leach, and the symbolic hit to Brian Sims’ influence in Philadelphia’s state delegation. Sims and Leach are in the very small club of Philly-area politicians anyone is actually excited about, and who might be capable of building an alternative power base in the region to supplant Bob Brady and John Dougherty’s now-dominant base of white working-class voters.

Still, the project of building an alternative to the Brady-Dougherty machine did not necessarily lose ground on Tuesday.

At the lowest level of city politics, young reformers gained ground in the 30th ward in Graduate Hospital with T.J. Hurst’s slate winning 12 of the 22 seats they challenged. At least two unaffiliated newcomers were also elected.

Hurst failed to win his own committeeperson race, dashing his hopes of becoming 30th ward leader, but enough challengers won that it is now an open question whether current ward leader Marcia Wilkof will be able to cobble together the 18 votes she’ll need to remain in power.

Challengers allied with Ori Feibush in the 36th ward were significantly less successful, but the success rate is really beside the point. These types of ward challenges will only become more commonplace in future election cycles as Philadelphia’s population continues to grow, as newcomers continue to age and become more established, and the voters allied with the Brady-Dougherty machine shrink as a share of the population.

When I canvassed my neighborhood for my own (successful!) committeeperson challenge, barely any of the young parents and new homeowners in my division had any idea who Bob Brady or John Dougherty are, or what a ward leader does. The machine’s brand of politics, the things they stand for, have increasingly little purchase with New Philadelphians. And as the age window for political involvement continues to shift, the tiny power vacuum — now barely perceptible in Philadelphia politics — will continue to widen. One thing is for certain — we will look back on 2014 as the year when Millennials first stepped into the breach.

Follow @JonGeeting on Twitter.