To Resist Trump, Fix Philly’s Elite, Boring, Anti-Competitive Democratic Party

Opinion: The 2016 election should be a wake-up call for the local Democratic machine, too.

Bob Brady, Leslie Acosta and Chaka Fattah.

Bob Brady, Leslie Acosta and Chaka Fattah. Photos Jeff Fusco, Pa. House, Matt Rourke via AP

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party suffers from the same cancer as the national Democratic Party. Only it’s arguably much more advanced.

Think the Democratic National Committee favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders behind closed doors? In Philadelphia, the Democratic City Committee paves the way for its preferred candidates out in the open, without any shame: Before the mayoral primary even started, Philly Democratic Party boss Bob Brady publicly threw his weight behind state Sen. Tony Williams. The party puts its thumb on the scales in Democratic primaries for the judiciary, City Council and General Assembly, too, and its endorsements matter even more in these races because so few people pay close attention to them.

Think the national Democratic Party turns a blind eye to corruption? Earlier this year, the Democratic City Committee endorsed Chaka Fattah for Congress after he was charged with using taxpayer dollars and charitable donations to pay back an illegal loan. How could the party do this, as its schools were starving and its constituents were sinking deeper and deeper into poverty? Oh, but it gets worse: This month, Philly Democratic state Rep. Leslie Acosta was reelected after pleading guilty to conspiring to commit money laundering at a mental health clinic in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Imagine how selfish you have to be to run for office after admitting to bilking the most vulnerable among us — and imagine how little she’ll be able to get done for her constituents, many of whom are Latinos and immigrants, now that she’s the laughingstock of Harrisburg. The list goes on and on. Over the summer, the FBI raided the offices of Democratic Councilman Bobby Henon and subpoenaed Mayor Jim Kenney’s campaign finance records. The feds are also reportedly investigating Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams.

Think the national Democrats are boring and not liberal enough? Let me introduce you to Katie McGinty, the uncharismatic Senate candidate who lost to Pat Toomey in an election that Democrats desperately needed to win in case of a Donald Trump upset. A lot has been made of the fact that McGinty, a moderate who supports fracking and is wishy-washy on sanctuary cities, received millions of dollars from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the primary. What has gotten much less attention is the fact that she was just as much a product of the Philadelphia Democratic Party as the DSCC. Everyone from Brady to former Gov. Ed Rendell to former Mayor Michael Nutter to numerous City Council members backed her in the primary over Democrats John Fetterman and Joe Sestak, two anti-establishment figures who might have fared better in a year in which people were clearly crying out for change.

Think the Democratic National Committee is anti-competitive? In 2016, 18 of 30 Democratic candidates in Philadelphia who ran for the General Assembly didn’t face an opponent in the primary. That includes state Rep. Ed Neilson, who is in office only because he’s been handpicked by Democratic ward leaders for three separate special elections, as well as state Rep. Angel Cruz, who was arrested in the 1990s for allegedly attempting to pay people to vote for him in a ward election. (The charges were dropped after a jury couldn’t agree on a verdict.) In the 2015 primary, seven of nine Democratic Council District candidates weren’t challenged.

Think the national Democrats are elitists who cozy up to lobbyists and big businesses? After serving as an environmental advisor to President Bill Clinton and secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, McGinty worked for and advised energy companies like Iberdrola and NRG Energy. Nutter, who said as a mayor earning $178,000 a year that he looked forward to making money “for the first time ever” once he left office, has since gotten gigs everywhere from CNN to the Homeland Security Advisory Council to Airbnb. Rendell’s post-gubernatorial career has included a job as a senior advisor at a boutique investment bank, and the liaison for a natural gas company and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Rendell is also being paid $5,000 a month to sit on an “advisory committee” by a casino in … the island of Saipan.

Think the national Democratic Party can’t get out the vote? In Philadelphia’s 2015 mayoral primary, only 27 percent of registered voters came to the polls. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that one of Philly’s two Democratic City Commissioners, Anthony Clark, can barely bother to show up for work. Oh, and Clark hasn’t voted in numerous recent elections, including the 2012 presidential race. Guess who stood behind Clark during his reelection campaign last year despite his abysmal voting record? Brady, who told a reporter, “He’s a Democrat.” Well, so were the five Democrats who ran against Clark in the primary.

Think the national Democrats have too many political dynasties? Google Philadelphia’s Greens, Goodes, Tartagliones, Blackwells, Cohens, Williams, Stacks, Rizzos and Streets.

Hopefully, all this makes you angry. Hopefully, it doesn’t make you despondent.

In today’s brave, new political climate, Americans on both sides of the aisle are looking for ways to stand up for what they believe. This comes after many years of people checking out of politics. Now, donations to Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union are skyrocketing in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Subscriptions to the New York Times are booming. Before November 8th, only 30 millennials had signed up for a nonpartisan workshop in Philadelphia on how to run for office. Then Trump won, and nearly 300 young people flooded the event.

In recent days, there have been lots of essays and Facebook groups and Twitter threads that have proposed myriad thought-provoking ways to participate effectively in the democratic process. In the January issue of Philadelphia magazine, we will publish a no-bullshit guide on how people on the left, right and middle can become active in the city’s rich network of political, academic, religious and civic institutions. But I also want to suggest an idea to one group of people in particular — Philadelphia liberals, especially those opposed to Trump — who are worth focusing on because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one in the city, and because Philly overwhelming voted against Trump.

It’s this: Get involved in your city’s Democratic Party. It needs your help. Run for office. You can start small. Election board workers are up for election in 2017. Here’s a guide on how to run. Committee people, who are the foot soldiers of the local Democratic Party, are up for election in 2018. Here’s a manual on how to run for those positions. It’s far easier than you probably think. Many incumbent committee people won with only a few dozen votes in 2014. Donate to and volunteer for candidates who you believe in. Show up at City Council hearings you care about. Vote in the District Attorney’s race next year, and the mid-term elections after that. Fight for local causes you support, like perhaps a citywide $15 minimum wage or the reduction of  the use of stop-and-frisk.

There are signs that Philadelphians want fresh blood in the Democratic Party. Voters rejected Brady’s first choice, Tony Williams, in the mayoral primary. They kicked out Fattah in 2016, as well as then-Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr., son of the Mayor Wilson Goode, Sr., in 2015; they also prevented former Councilman and Republican-turned-Democrat Frank Rizzo, Jr., son of the Mayor Frank Rizzo, Sr., from returning to Council last year. Democrat Chris Rabb, who ran against one of the post powerful political coalitions in the city this year, won a seat in the state House. Brendan Boyle, former state representative and son of a SEPTA janitor, beat Marjorie Margolies, Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law, in the 2014 Congressional primary. Newcomers Helen Gym and Allan Domb both ran issue-driven campaigns for Democratic City Council At-Large last year, and won. Democratic Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez has emerged victorious in three elections despite the fact that the local Democratic Party has fought her tooth and nail in every one.

You can try to improve your local Democratic Party at the same time you help build a third party, if that’s your thing. You can also remake your local Democratic Party at the same time you march in the streets against Trump, send letters to your Republican Congressman, and oppose the GOP generally, if that’s your thing. None of these things are mutually exclusive.

Some liberals will say that Democrats will hurt themselves if they fight amongst each other. Obviously, there is a risk of going overboard in any endeavor. But respectful debate and competition within the city’s Democratic Party will, in my opinion, only help it. Right now, the Democratic City Committee is stifling competition and scaring away young people, which it desperately needs to breathe new life and energy into the party. Imagine if the city’s Democrats instead made local elections more contested and exciting: Perhaps voter turnout in mid-term elections, during which Democrats often underperform, would go up. Maybe tight elections would also produce better local politicians. And maybe those higher-quality elected officials would eventually run for statewide and federal office, thus helping Democrats nationally.

If you need more convincing, look at what intraparty battle has done for Republicans: This entire year has been defined by the GOP’s intense infighting, and the Republican Party will now control the presidency, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, the Pennsylvania General Assembly and 31 other state legislatures around the country.

Follow @HollyOtterbein on Twitter.