Can Unions and Ward Leaders Still Swing the Mayoral Primary?


It's been a few weeks since Tom Knox, the millionaire businessman, pulled ahead in the polls — more than enough time for local pundits to consider what such a victory in the May 15 Democratic primary might say about Philadelphia politics and where it's heading.

After all, the conventional wisdom is that Philadelphia, unlike New York and other large urban centers, is a place where old-school politics still flourish, and where the Democratic Party machine and labor unions wield enormous political clout.

One question has been raised by Knox's political momentum: Can this primary race be viewed as a gauge for whether unions and ward leaders still help swing an election? Or are money and TV advertising the ultimate equalizers, to say nothing of the Web and other nontraditional forms of political campaigning?

'A Different Election'
"This is a different kind of election in a variety of ways," replied G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. "I'm not sure this race is a perfect test of the efficacy of party organization and unions."

First of all, the fact that there are five candidates — Knox, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D-District 1), State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-District 202), U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-District 2) and former City Councilman Michael Nutter — complicates matters. In fact, Madonna said that, first and foremost, parties and unions are much more effective at rallying behind a candidate in a general election than in a primary.

Madonna explained that the equation is not as simple as Knox and his multimillion-dollar television campaign taking on the unions and the party establishment; other dynamics are at play. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, a Knox lead seemed improbable.

As party chairman, Madonna explained, Brady certainly has much of the Democratic establishment behind him, but Fattah has strong support as well. And while Brady has collected a laundry list of union endorsements, some major ones — the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, as well as the AFL-CIO — have remained neutral.

Jerry Jordan, vice president of the teachers' union, said that members felt that none of the candidates had distinguished themselves on education policy. Jordan did note that the union may offer a mayoral endorsement in the general election.

A number of analysts stated that the party structure and ward leaders — who line up committee members to back a particular candidate, and who provide invaluable logistical support leading up to Election Day — have historically played a far greater role in races for judicial and at-large City Council seats than in mayoral contests.

"I've always believed that the vote for mayor — next to the vote for president — is the most important vote that a Philadelphian makes," said local political consultant Larry Ceisler, adding that in big races with well-known candidates, voters usually make up their own minds and don't pay all that much attention to endorsements.

"But if it's a close election, having those ward leaders and committee people supporting you can make all the difference," he said.

State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-District 182) sounded a similar note. "The further up you are on the ticket, the less influence the ward leaders have," said Josephs, who is supporting Evans. "I don't think there are any ward leaders — or very few — that are for Knox."

She and others said that the city's campaign-finance laws, which limit individual contributors from giving more than $5,000 to candidates, has thrown a huge wild card into the race. Knox's four opponents have barely raised more than $1 million, while he has already spent some $5 million of his own money.

Zachary Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of 70, a government watchdog group, said that one unintended consequence of the campaign-finance limits is that most of the candidates haven't been able to rely heavily on commercials — up until the campaign's final month, anyway — and have wound up facing voters directly in an unprecedented number of candidate forums, in which all or most of the mayoral hopefuls have appeared.

"It hasn't necessarily yielded great theater, but it's been a much more issue-oriented contest than any contest I've seen," he said.

Stan Shapiro, a retired attorney for City Council and co-founder of Neighborhood Networks, a political grass-roots organization, agrees that the race has been issue-driven, but also thinks that Philadelphia has a long way to go in reforming and modernizing its political culture.

"There is a fair amount of dissatisfaction with politics the way it is traditionally applied, and there is a sense that the party really restricts itself to those who are loyalists and insiders," he said. "There's dissatisfaction — even among people who are loyal Democrats — and that is only going to increase."


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