Why Is Bob Brady Still in Charge?

Bob Brady has used personal charm to rule Philly’s Democratic Party. But with one politician after another heading to jail, how’s that working out for us?

Photo | Colin Lenton

Photo | Colin Lenton

Bob Brady, the U.S. Congressman and boss of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, is six-foot-one and has a massive barrel chest. His head and neck are also strikingly thick; his voice is almost as gravelly as Tom Waits’s. In another life, he would have been a bodyguard. So when his black SUV whizzes past a couple police officers in Washington, D.C., they spot him easily. “Good morning, Congressman!” they shout, looking sincerely pleased to see him.

Brady grins. “The cops work for me,” he says. “The cops, the zoo, the garden, Smithsonian Institution, every employee, sergeant-at-arms, the courts, every one of them.” He is the ranking Democrat on the Committee on House Administration, which funds every office and panel in the chamber, manages many Capitol employees, and, apparently, oversees the National Zoo. The officers are smiling on this sunny morning in March, he says, because he got them a raise. “They’d all vote for me for Speaker!” Brady boasts. He’s used his committee to make many friends. In 2010, he says, back when the Democrats controlled Congress, a Republican named Kevin McCarthy asked Brady to pass legislation out of his committee. “I gave him a bill. I gave him two bills. I gave him three bills. And he never forgot that.” Today, McCarthy is the House Majority Leader.

Brady has hundreds of stories like this. When I ask him questions about policy, he gives me one-word answers. He’s equally bored by the topic of political corruption, despite the fact that Philadelphia’s Democratic district attorney was charged with bribery and wire fraud just four days after my trip to Washington. But when I get Brady talking about people — what they’ve done for him and, especially, what he’s done for them — he won’t shut up.

In a single day, he uses the word “friend” 41 times, describing U.S. presidents, governors, journalists, Mummers, block captains, ward leaders and average Joes. Vice President Joe Biden is a “dear friend.” House Speaker Paul Ryan is a “personal friend of mine.” ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio is a “buddy.” Hillary Clinton is such a good pal, Brady confides, that she thought about making him Secretary of Labor. “I begged her not to even think about it,” Brady chuckles. (One person he decidedly does not call friend is Senator Bernie Sanders, whom he writes off as “not a nice man,” “rigid,” and promising “things that he can no way in hell deliver.”) Brady is so tight with retired House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, that he says Boehner volunteered to be deposed after he found out Brady was suing the Inquirer for defamation. “He says, ‘I’ll be in Cleveland, and I’ll take a ride over and I’ll have dinner with you!’” Brady says.

Brady is an unabashedly old-school politician. In order to get things done, he makes and keeps scores of friends. This comes naturally to him: He’s a deeply loyal and unapologetically transactional man. He’s also charismatic in that brash, blue-collar, purely Philadelphian way. Brady’s allies say his relationships have enabled him to do everything from stitch together the city’s Democratic Party to help save the Sunoco refinery in Southwest Philly. What they don’t say is that these close ties are likely also why he’s stood idly by in recent years as the city’s elected officials have incinerated the public’s trust.

Several times over the past year, rumors have bubbled up that Brady is going to step down as party chairman, Congressman or both. Once, after I shared such gossip at a private meeting with city leaders, I got a call from Brady 10 minutes later. “I have sources, too,” he joked, then promised he wasn’t going anywhere.

For all his charms, you can’t help wondering: Would everyone — the Democratic Party, Philadelphia, and perhaps even Brady himself — be better off if he actually did step aside?

In New York City, Tammany Hall is something children learn about in history class. In Chicago, Richard J. Daley has been dead more than 40 years. In Philadelphia, Bob Brady’s Democratic machine reigns supreme.

At 72, Brady stands atop one of the last big-city political operations in America. He seized control of the Democratic City Committee in 1986, just after Philadelphia dropped a bomb on Osage Avenue. He’s since watched the likes of Wilson Goode, Ed Rendell, John Street and Vince Fumo — all friends, of course — come and go.

The mere fact that Brady has held onto power for 30 years is impressive. That isn’t easy when political rivals like John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty are reaching for your crown. It’s also no small feat that Brady has held warring factions within the Democratic Party — from the Tartagliones and Sánchezes in North Philly to the Boyles and Sabatinas in the Northeast — under the same tent. In so doing, Brady has helped keep Philadelphia a dark blue dot in a sea of red. Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one in the city, a fact that has helped swing many statewide elections.

And yet, particularly over the past few years, the Democratic Party has crumbled apart in a way that is potentially devastating to the city as a whole.

Since 2000, law enforcement officials have investigated no fewer than 32 Philadelphia Democrats. The allegations seem to get more debasing — more Robin Hood-in-reverse — every year. Seth Williams, the sitting district attorney, was indicted in March for allegedly stealing from his own mother and seeking thousands of dollars’ worth of bribes in exchange for making people’s legal problems go away. Chaka Fattah, the former 11-term Congressman, was sentenced in December to a decade in prison for using cash from taxpayers and a charity to pay back an illegal campaign loan. Leslie Acosta, the ex-state rep, pleaded guilty in 2016 to conspiring to commit money laundering.

Those are only the biggest and baddest examples of graft in the past year. The city’s traffic court was abolished altogether after nine judges were charged with ticket fixing in 2013. (Seven were later convicted on various charges.) In 2014, five state lawmakers — nearly a quarter of Philadelphia’s Harrisburg delegation — were accused of taking petty bribes; four have been convicted, some of lesser charges. The avalanche of indictments has left Philadelphians wondering whether their elected officials run for office to help anyone other than themselves.

Brady could make weeding out criminals his number one job. He could create a mentorship program for new elected officials, or push for a party bylaw that forbids Democrats from endorsing anyone charged with a felony. Instead, the party endorsed Fattah after the feds indicted him, supported the candidate Acosta chose as her successor, and welcomed a ward leader into the party’s ranks who’d served time in prison for bribing councilmen from Atlantic City.

Brady has failed in other ways, too. If Hillary Clinton had gotten just 27 more votes in each polling place in Philadelphia, she would have won Pennsylvania’s 20 electors. Maybe this would have been possible if Brady’s party hadn’t endorsed Anthony Clark for city commissioner. It’s Clark’s job to oversee elections, but he barely votes or shows up to work. Brady has also been unable to stem the rising number of independents and third-party voters in the city, most of whom are millennials. On his watch, their ranks have grown from 30,000 to more than 120,000.

Nor has Brady done enough to address the thin bench for Democrats in this town, which leaves both the party and Philadelphia without a coming generation of leaders. And little things like tech go unattended-to in Brady’s antiquated machine: The local party isn’t on Twitter, and its website is so ancient that a photo of the skyline featured on its homepage doesn’t have the Comcast building in it. No, not the one currently under construction; the one that opened in 2008.

But Brady doesn’t hold himself responsible for all this. For each mark against the party, he has an answer: Williams was never his guy. He couldn’t turn his back on Fattah. It was the ward leaders who wanted to endorse Acosta’s favorite candidate, not him personally.

Brady didn’t get where he is by promising to kick the bums out of City Hall or enact a grand vision for the Democratic Party. He’s there to do what he always does: get shit done. And it can seem like the only thing guiding what Brady gets done is the friends he knows.

Bob Brady. Photo | Colin Lenton

Bob Brady. Photo | Colin Lenton

The Philadelphia Democratic Party decides the fate of the city in a sterile, all-white stucco building at 2nd and Spring Garden streets. I’d mistake it for a dentist’s office if not for the tall gray letters nailed above the doors that read, “Robert A. Brady Office Building.”

On a windy, overcast day in mid-March, ward leaders are huddling inside to decide on judicial endorsements. The day before, Brady told me I wouldn’t be allowed behind closed doors — but could interview party apparatchiks as they came and went.

Fifteen minutes after I arrive, a man walks out. “Holly? Is Holly here?” He waves me into the room where it all happens.

A dozen or so ward leaders are sitting around a corporate table, with paper and pens in front of them. I half expect someone to fire up a PowerPoint or 3-D chart. Brady, dressed in a polo shirt and casual pants, stands. “I told everybody you were coming. I told them you’re probably gonna beat me up big-time!” he says with a smile. He introduces me to the ward leaders, one by one, and explains what they look for in judicial candidates: “We gotta do gender. We gotta do racial. We gotta do geographical.”

Brady adds that there’s one other factor they have to consider: ballot position. In Philadelphia, a lottery conducted via an ancient tin can determines whether a candidate’s name appears at the top or bottom of the ballot — and this little detail can mean the difference between someone losing a race and landing a six-figure job for life. The first time I met with Brady for this article, I mentioned how absurd and almost pagan the tradition is. In more fair-minded areas, ballot positions are rotated by polling place.

“It’s a disgrace the way it’s a lottery,” Brady says now, at the table. “Our friend Angel Cruz, who’s a state legislator” — and also a ward leader who’s sitting in the room at this moment — “maybe he could put a law in the state to make this a better, even playing field.” That Brady himself, a 10-term U.S. Congressman and the head of the most powerful Democratic organization in the state, might have some clout to get the law changed seems never to cross his mind.

But this is the way Brady operates — not on the level of ideas or policy, but on purely personal terms. Everyone — including, at this moment, me — gets treated like a friend.

For instance, later Brady tells me he would support a nonpartisan commission that picked judges. As long as the commission is diverse, that is. “Not just big law firms. Community activists, you know, neighborhood people. Maybe the media!” he says, looking at me. When I ask what he thinks of an argument that’s gaining steam on the left — that now is the time to make the case for single-payer health care, with 60 percent of Americans supporting the policy, according to one poll — he promises to “pass it along.”

David L. Cohen is Comcast’s executive vice president, ex-mayoral chief of staff for Ed Rendell, and, of course, “a friend of Bob’s and a huge fan of what he does.” He says this tendency of Brady’s has made him successful: “What Bob is really good at is constituent service to members of Congress and to the Philadelphia community. I’ve described him as the mayor of Congress. When somebody needs something, they come to him.”

So if a lawmaker needs a new desk? “He would get another desk,” says Cohen. And if a lawmaker wants six tickets to a Beyoncé show at the Wells Fargo Center? “Bob gets them six tickets.” That might sound unimportant, Cohen says, but those little favors have lubricated major agreements benefiting the region’s economy: “He can convene the Pennsylvania delegation, Republicans and Democrats together, and say, ‘Hey, we need to work together.’” Brady’s allies say that’s how he helped cut a deal to save the Sunoco facility and persuaded bigwigs to bring the Democratic National Convention to Philly.

But there are downsides to Brady’s retro style, too. In a city with systemic problems, it can appear awfully small-minded.

“Let me run something by you,” Brady says one day as I’m driving with him from Washington, D.C.

“When you go to vote, you see them tables?” he asks. He means the ones at polling stations, where officials sit and check voters in. “Who do you think gets them tables? We do. You see them chairs? Who do you think gets them chairs? Democratic ward leaders and committee people do. You see them binders? How do you think they get there? We gotta go pick them up. How do the machines get there? We gotta call the commissioners.”

Ken Smukler, Brady’s top political operative, is nodding vigorously as Brady gives his full-throated defense of the Democratic machine. “Remember when we sat at the restaurant in the Bellevue with all Obama’s field people?” Smukler asks. “And one of them says, ‘Well, who do we have to talk to to get more provisional ballots into a poll location?’ I say, ‘You’re talking to him!’ That’s why I’ve always said: People don’t realize the uniqueness of a big-city party machine.”

Brady starts talking faster and louder than before. “I happen to subscribe to the fact that I love my ward leaders and I love my committee people, and they don’t get enough recognition! ‘Oh, you get them a job?’ You’re goddamn right I get them a job! Because they work hard! They’re community people! They know their neighbors! Why shouldn’t a Councilman that they supported hire them? Why shouldn’t a Congressman? Everybody in my staff is involved in politics. Why not? Why not?”

Brady owes his career to a politician who played a starring role in one of the worst corruption scandals in Philadelphia’s history. It was the mid-1970s, and Brady was an unemployed carpenter with two young kids at home. Things were so bad that PGW sent someone to shut off the heat at his rowhome. A friend asked Brady if he wanted to do remodeling work for City Council president George Schwartz. “I knew who he was,” says Brady. “He went to pay me, and I said, ‘That’s fine. I’m okay. No, I don’t want it. I was happy to do it.’ He never forgot that.”

Schwartz became Brady’s mentor. He made him a sergeant-at-arms in Council and a committee person in West Philly’s 34th Ward. That meant Brady would spend the next few years keeping order on the Council floor (he once had to “physically” haul out John Street) and driving Schwartz around the city. “I didn’t have any goals in mind,” he says. “I just wanted to serve my community and help people.”

Then, in the early ’80s, Schwartz quit politics the way many elected officials in Philadelphia do: He was charged with extortion and conspiracy in the Abscam scandal. (Schwartz later did a year in prison for his crimes. Or, as Brady puts it, he “went on vacation.”) That created a wide-open space for someone to lead the 34th Ward. “Naturally,” says Brady, “Schwartz picked me to succeed him.”

Shortly thereafter, Brady ran on former mayor Frank Rizzo’s slate for City Council. His opponents? Wilson Goode’s guys. Anyone else who tried that would have risked being persona non grata to Goode from that day forward. But Brady charmed Goode by helping him secure union support in the mayoral election. Goode, in turn, rewarded Brady by making him his labor liaison. Even more critically, Goode backed Brady over a black candidate when he campaigned for party chairman in 1986. In just five years, Brady hopscotched from committee person to ward leader to head of the Democratic Party in one of the biggest cities in the United States.

More than a decade later, the seat in the 1st Congressional District opened up after incumbent Thomas Foglietta became the ambassador to Italy. “I don’t believe in running against incumbents,” says Brady. “I believe in talking to them and saying, ‘Hey, I want to help you.’” A special election was held, and naturally, Democratic ward leaders chose Brady to fill the spot. Newspaper clippings say that Brady’s handling of policy was questioned during the 1998 election, but he won handily.

To this day, Brady isn’t a policy guy. Though he’s been in Congress for nearly 20 years, there isn’t a single bill that defines his legacy. Even his friends admit as much. “Look, Bob is not a member of Congress who is going to develop a creative piece of legislation to deal with some sophisticated public-policy issue,” says Cohen. “He’s not going to be the author of health-care reform legislation or tax-reform legislation.”

Still, Brady has made some prescient votes. He said “nay” to free trade deals and the authorization of the Iraq War. “I thought it was all bull about the weapons of mass destruction,” he says. “And guess what? I was kinda right.” Liberal groups like Planned Parenthood and the NAACP have given his voting record high marks.

But his allies say his strengths lie elsewhere: He’s carved a spot for himself as someone who can use his personal relationships to settle disputes and bring home the bacon.

“His likeability is what makes him so effective,” says Rendell. “People want to get things done for Bob Brady.” Rendell argues that Brady’s accomplishments in D.C. have been underrated. For instance, Brady pushed for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to transform much of the city’s high-rise public housing into more traditional two-story homes. “Bob was an extremely important ally in helping us persuade HUD to do that,” says Rendell. “And if you look at public housing today, all of those horrible big buildings that were nothing more than breeding grounds for crime and drugs are gone.”

Rendell thinks Brady will even be productive under President Trump: “He’s very good at getting whatever pork is left in Washington. And if you call Bob Brady and say, ‘Hey Bob, there’s a thing in this bill that’s going to hurt us. Can you get it amended out?’ … even if it’s a Republican amendment, he can usually have some success in getting it amended out.”

When I ask Rendell if it might be good for the city to have someone new in Brady’s seat — someone better at policy — he’s adamant that the answer is no. But Rendell seems to know deep down that something is very wrong with Brady’s party. A few weeks after we talk, he tells a City & State reporter that Brady should consider letting committee people vote directly for ward endorsements and only endorsing judicial candidates who are cleared by the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Brady’s response? A big fat meh.

If the city’s power elites are reluctant to let Brady go as a Congressman, they’re downright petrified by the prospect of him leaving his Democratic Party post.

“I don’t know how he manages it!” gushes Anna Brown, a ward leader in Southwest Philly. “I’ve always done what my boss has told me, which is Bob Brady,” says Angel Cruz, sounding awfully reverential for a state representative and ward leader. Former City Controller Jon Saidel, a close friend to Brady who often attends party meetings, says Brady should “stay chairman until he’s 120, which is the age of Moses.”

There’s a reason Brady’s ward leaders adore him: He often lets them do whatever they want. This has certainly kept the peace, but it’s also been a disaster for the city at times.

Look at the special election to replace Leslie Acosta, the state lawmaker who pleaded guilty to a money-laundering charge. The 197th House District is a layup for the party: 85 percent of voters are registered Democratic. So did Brady use this opportunity to endorse a rising star in the party, someone who could do good for the city and perhaps use that seat to run for higher office one day? Of course not. Instead, the party handpicked Acosta’s favorite in the race, Freddie Ramirez — a candidate later found to live outside the district — to replace her.

A judge figured out that Ramirez wasn’t a district resident — thanks to, of all things, records that showed he didn’t flush the toilet enough in the home he listed as his own — and kicked him off the ballot. This left one of the most Democratic seats in Pennsylvania vulnerable to being stolen by the GOP. A Democratic write-in candidate named Emilio Vazquez ended up winning the 197th election, but the race was not without a trail of slime: Both the district attorney and the attorney general are investigating the election for fraud.

Brady defends the endorsement of Ramirez, arguing that it was the ward leaders’ choice to make. He says, “I don’t live there” and “I gotta show them their respect.” He could have run a basic background check on Ramirez, though. After all, Cruz says he knew that Ramirez didn’t live in the district.

The fact that Brady is like a father who can’t say no to his bratty kids is only part of the reason he runs the party this way. There’s a nugget of a virtue that explains it, too. “He’s extremely loyal,” says Zack Stalberg, the former president of the good-government Committee of Seventy. “The unfortunate side of that is, generally speaking, even if you’re a bad person, if he decides he’s going to be loyal to you, he stays loyal no matter what.”

Stalberg tells a story to underline his point. Back in 2007, then-City Councilman Jim Kenney introduced a series of bills to double the campaign finance limits. It was clearly a favor for the Congressman, Stalberg says: Brady, who is best at raising money in large globs, was running for mayor. Kenney was his top ally. Stalberg came out hard against the legislation, taking every opportunity to trash Kenney publicly.

As Stalberg was suiting up for a hearing on the bill, his wife said she heard on the radio that it was pulled. “I’m really puzzled by all this,” says Stalberg, “and I get into work, and I pick up the phone. He says, ‘It’s Bob. We pulled all six of the bills.’ And I said, ‘Well, I know that, but I don’t know what it’s all about.’ He said, ‘Do me a favor: Take it easy on Jimmy.’ And I said, ‘Well, if the bills are gone, then it’s easier for me to cease my attacks on Kenney.’ He cared more about the fact that his guy was in the target than he did about his own campaign.”

Every month or so, Brady goes to breakfast with his friends in Congress. On a Friday in mid-March, Democrats from New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are gathered together at a Congressional dining room in Washington, D.C. Brady orders Egg Beaters and turkey sausage. “I gotta fit into my thong!” he jokes. The entire meal has a distinctly old-boys’-club vibe. One Congressman asks if Curt Schilling, the Phillies pitcher-turned-Breitbart staffer, is really going to run against Senator Elizabeth Warren. “I hope so!” another quips.

Democratic Representative Matt Cartwright is wearing a tan, professorial blazer, which Brady realizes is a perfect target for a joke. He calls it Cartwright’s “camel-hair smoking jacket.” Cartwright smiles, then recalls a story about Brady: In 2012, Cartwright ran for Congress in the primary against Tim Holden, an incumbent Blue Dog Democrat. One day, Brady approached him at a meeting with party leaders. “Brady says to me, ‘I’m going to do everything in my power to beat you.’”

Cartwright, of course, had the last laugh at the ballot box. But it’s clear that Brady loves this anecdote anyway. “Now you know that if someone runs against you,” Brady says, “I’ll tell them the same thing!”

The scene highlights another unfortunate side to Brady’s loyalty: If you betray the Democratic machine, you’re a traitor.

Such lopsided priorities can result in Brady backing the wrong side. Cartwright, after all, held onto his seat in 2016 in a district that Trump won by double digits. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, one of the most talented elected officials in the city, also earned the party’s scorn for failing to wait her turn to run for office. That’s partly why the Democratic City Committee in 2015 initially supported her opponent, a nobody who compared gay men to flatworms in a Facebook post. Joe Sestak, a three-star admiral, committed similar sins by challenging Senator Arlen Specter in 2010. So in 2016, a year in which voters were clearly crying out for change, the Democratic machine backed Senate candidate Katie McGinty, an uncharismatic bureaucrat, over the anti-establishment Sestak.

There are people out there who have bigger dreams for Philadelphia’s Democratic Party. Omar Woodard is the executive director of the GreenLight Fund, a venture capital firm that funds anti-poverty initiatives, and a former staffer for State Senator Tony Williams’s mayoral campaign. He envisions a more small-d “democratic” machine — and potentially one that’s sending fewer elected officials “on vacation.”

“I don’t understand why committee people aren’t doing constituent services, and why ward leaders aren’t taking the pulse of their neighborhoods on key issues,” he says. “It seems to me to be an incredibly sad, wasted opportunity. We could literally be going door-to-door and really surveying what it is that people want from their representatives.”

Jon Geeting, director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, wants a party that is laser-focused on increasing voter turnout. “Where I live in the 18th Ward, they had one meeting in 2016 and didn’t really do anything to get out the vote for Hillary Clinton. I and a lot of people I know are frustrated that there’s not a deeper engagement.”

But even some of these reformers are loath to criticize Brady. “I don’t want to be quoted in the magazine saying bad things about Bob Brady … ” one activist says, trailing off, when I ask him to grade Brady’s legacy.

Will someone take Brady on? Now is the perfect time: Voters can infiltrate the Democratic machine during the 2018 primaries for committee people. These foot soldiers elect the city’s ward leaders, who in turn elect the party’s chairman. If no one pushes Brady to be better, it will tell us something about ourselves: that we are too easily charmed, perhaps, or that we, too, have bought into the idea that Brady shouldn’t be held accountable for his own party. It will mean that we’re okay with a party leader who doesn’t seem all that bothered by the fact that Democrat after Democrat has gone to jail on his watch.

But after 30 years, Brady isn’t going to change — or leave anytime soon — without pressure. At least, he probably won’t.

“You know you like your job when you put your best suit on to go to work,” he tells me one day, apropos of nothing. “If you get up in the morning and just put anything on, you don’t like your job.”

He pauses. “I’m getting a little worried, because I’m not putting my best suit on all the time.”

Published as “Everybody’s Friend” in the May 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.