OPEN SEASON: Party Committee Elections Can Transform Philly

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THE NONPARTISAN Committee of Seventy has a useful guide to running for committee person in Philadelphia — and this is the season, leading up to the May 15 primary election.

BY TONY WEST
Philadelphia’s tiniest political contests are on the line this spring.

Thousands of them; in fact, no one can tell at this time precisely how many will wind up happening. Collectively, though, they are vital to the workings of partisan democracy and offer key entries to power in government.

These are the elections for committee person. Each electoral division in Philadelphia – 1,684 in all, according to City Commissioner Al Schmidt – is asked to elect two committee persons for the Democratic Party and two more for the Republican Party. There could theoretically be 6,736 winning neighbors in the May 15 primary.

But there won’t be. That’s because most divisions will not be able to rustle up a full roster of four committee people; many, in fact, won’t field any candidates at all. These divisions, on average representing 900 people in a handful of blocks, will have no advocate in the councils of either party; and all our governments – city, state and federal – are run by partisan officials. So voters who have no stake in a party have less say in politics.

This is particularly true in Pennsylvania, where primary elections are “closed,” meaning only voters registered in a party can cast votes in its primary.

Running for committee person is as grassroots as you can get. To get on the ballot, you need only 10 signatures. Even if you’re not on the ballot, a vigorous write-in campaign can beat a lackadaisical ballot candidate. And for the thousands of divisions that don’t have a full ballot for committee persons, a write-in of one can win you a seat at your neighborhood political team.

If you want to change the political world, but haven’t done so yet, serving as committee person makes an excellent starting point.

A quick check on basics: The city is divided into 66 wards, which in turn are divided into divisions. Each division is organized separately by City Commission’s Board of Elections, even when they take place in the same building. A division is the smallest unit of democracy. The core mission of a division is to collect the votes of the citizens who dwell within it.

Each major party has a ward committee that consists of every elected committee person from all its divisions. The average ward having 26 divisions, a strong ward committee may push 50 people, but a weak Democratic committee may have only 10; and some Republican “ward committees” are operated by only a body or two (on which more later).

Each ward committee elects its ward leader. And the ward leaders of each party organize the vote for their party in their ward. They endorse candidates and coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts.

The current ward leader chairs the first ward committee meeting of the new term, which must take place at an appointed time within a month after the primary. Only elected committee people with certificates from the Board of Elections are allowed to enter this meeting.

After that initial meeting, rules for becoming committee people are much more relaxed. Ward leaders can recruit any registered party member in one of their divisions to fill vacant slots on their committees and appoint them informally.

There is no official pay for either committee persons or ward leaders in either party. But good work in a party organization can open doors to career advancement in many ways. That’s one reason why so many people do this volunteer work.

But the most-common reason is simple patriotism: Committee people believe in grassroots America and want to be a part of it.

Building a Strong Ward Team

Strong wards have strong voices in party councils. Likewise, strong ward leaders cock an ear to strong committee persons who deliver GOTV.

Entry-level people who wish to shape their party’s course may begin by seeking division leadership. You are unlikely to sway 9 million people if you cannot sway 900 people first.

This means reaching out to your neighbors. Social media will not save your day if you can’t go door to door aggressively. A good committee person knows how to walk a block and look people in the eye.

Knowing your neighbors’ political views can be fun – and helpful as well.

“Many committee people master local issues and concerns,” noted City Commission Chairwoman Lisa Deeley. “They are experts on their communities. So they’re listened to.” The best committee people help solve problems for their neighbors outside election time, she said.

2018 Primary Is Key to Ward Control

Committee elections are held every four years. The people who are elected in 2018 will steer both parties in this city until 2022.

2018 will see some “ward fights.” In these scenarios, rival power brokers attempt to take over a ward by planting a new majority on its committee. Traditional factions within both parties generally kick in a few such struggles.

This year, burgeoning educated progressives seem geared up to put their own spin on ward control in some areas. But they will only succeed if they can teach their minions what wards are, what divisions are and how voting booths work.

Ward fights don’t have to occur in primary years. Democratic 42nd Ward Leader Elaine Tomlin, in Olney, was ousted earlier this year by Sharon Vaughn. But inevitably they pick up in election years.

Many committee people who were elected in 2014 are either disinterested, retired or dead in 2018. Committee membership is tilted toward the elders, since it doesn’t pay and people with young children have to work for pay. But this guarantees hundreds of vacancies all across Philadelphia from simple attrition.

Joining a Democratic ward committee makes sense in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1. People who want to swing municipal policy one way or another will find an advantage in becoming Democratic committee people.

But there are good reasons for becoming a Republican committee person as well. The state and federal governments are still controlled by Republicans. Important business is controlled by this party. People in highly Democratic wards who want to cultivate relationships with “higher powers” may find value in becoming the “house Republican” of their division.

Republican committee candidates in heavily Democratic candidates may have to scuffle if they want to get on the ballot. Their challenge is catching signatures from 10 registered Republicans in their division. This makes their work harder than that of their Democratic peer.

But in divisions with few Republicans, it’s almost effortless to win a write-in campaign for that division. You just have to register as a Republican for that election. As long as you are a registered Republican, you cannot vote for a Democrat in the primary, but you can do so in the general election.

If you want to run for committee person, you have two channels: for your ward leader or against them.

If you aim to oppose your ward leader or challenge their allegiances, you should do so on the QT. Study your voter list and dodge around their likely supporters. Keep them in the dark as long as possible.

If you aim to uphold your ward leader and their allegiances, keep an ear open for rumors of dissent. If you hear any in your division, hit the campaign trail if you haven’t already.

Where should activists focus their effort? They should begin by studying the masters – the wards that deliver a solid ballot of committee persons. These are the grassroots mavens of Philadelphia street politics.

In the Democratic Party, only 14 of 66 wards were able to come up with a full complement of elected committee persons in 2014. That’s a sorry number for a party that claims six out of seven registered Philadelphia voters. They vote – but they literally don’t vote for themselves, to do any work for their party.

Democratic wards that elected full committee slates in 2014 were the 1st, 9th, 13th, 15th, 18th, 19th, 28th, 30th, 33rd, 34th, 36th, 42nd, 55th and 64th. A shout-out is in special order for 64th Ward Democratic Leader Lorraine Bednarek and Republican Leader Bob Cummings in the Northeast, who delivered the only ward with a full complement of committee people in both parties. It will be good if they continue to set an example in 2018.

South Philadelphia wards tend to lead in signing up committee persons. West and Northwest Philadelphia wards tend to lag in this area.

But across all wards, committee people will be ageing out and signing out in droves. Now is the time for newcomers to enlist in their party process.

Full ward-committee staffing is an equal-opportunity opportunity. Rich neighborhoods do not do well at this. Some poor neighborhoods fail while others excel.

Credit goes to the ward leaders who see to it that all their divisions are covered. But credit also goes to the activists who sign up to tackle this essential mission, and who seek to do it better.

Interested in becoming a committee person? The time to get cracking is now, if you want to go against an incumbent. But if you’re going after an open slot, you just need to get 10 signatures in by March 7. If that doesn’t work, try a write-in campaign!

You should begin by checking City Commission’s website, https://www.philadelphiavotes.com/.

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