Democrats Who Filed to Run for City Council at Large: 34. Chance of Real Change: 0.
There are just five vacant City Council at-large seats for Democrats, and this super-crowded field means we’re not getting much of a shakeup in City Hall.
The most politically important Tuesday of the year apart from Election Day has just passed, and I’m pissed.
Tuesday was the deadline for candidates to file to run in the May 21st primary election, and according to the City Commissioners’ Office, 34 Democrats have submitted petitions for City Council at-large seats. Next up comes the challenge process, in which candidates try to thin the crowd by getting enough of their opponents’ petition signatures disqualified to boot them from the ballot.
But whatever the outcome of the challenges, we’re still facing a huge field of candidates — and with only five at-large seats available, this is disappointing news for voters looking for a major shakeup in City Hall. The at-large race I initially hoped would be centered on strong platforms and new ideas will now be a desperate scramble for financial contributions, endorsements, and increased demands for visibility. The candidates with the most money, highest name recognition, and best positions on the ballot will most likely win.
The unfortunate takeaway: In Philly politics, a race isn’t competitive when it’s too competitive.
You can expect incumbents Helen Gym, Derek Green, and Allan Domb to keep their seats, because they have the most money so far and the backing of the establishment. This leaves only two seats that are truly up for grabs, as incumbents Blondell Reynolds-Brown and Bill Greenlee have already announced they’re not running for re-election.
If I had to predict the front-runners for those two seats now — based on money, establishment backing, and name recognition — they would be former City Council staffer Justin DiBerardinis, former deputy manager Eryn Santamoor, former City Controller staffer Isaiah Thomas, community activist Sherrie Cohen, former Blondell Reynold-Brown chief of staff Katherine Gilmore Richardson, and former Pennsylvania lieutenant governor Mike Stack.
When a race is this damn crowded, there’s sadly less time to talk about platforms — the period of first-time candidates announcing their agendas and vision for Philly is essentially over. Campaigns will now get caught up in the work of making phone calls and hiring more canvassers, their candidates prioritizing fundraising and endorsement-seeking over face-time with potential voters.
In a perfect world, perhaps 15 of these candidates would still be shooting their best shot. I had to Google many of the candidates who filed to get a sense of who they are. A good number of them didn’t even have candidate profiles on social media or dedicated websites for me to learn more about their campaigns. If voters can’t find you, they won’t vote for you — especially for an at-large seat. With a field this packed, it would be easy for voters to dismiss a third of those who’ve filed based on that principle alone.
All of that being said, I don’t want to give up all hope that diverse candidates raising unique issues could nudge City Council to do a little more to think outside the box in terms of how they legislate. We’ve seen some nuanced discussions on immigration, councilmanic prerogative, and term-limits — perhaps the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow of hopefuls is a chance to redirect the priorities of the city at a time when change is inevitable.