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COUNCILMAN Kenyatta Johnson, L, who is also Democratic 36th Ward leader, hosted a ward retreat for his committee people in South Philadelphia to prepare them to campaign for themselves. He was joined by City Commission Chair Lisa Deeley and former Mayor John Street, both of whom are experienced as committee persons. In all 1,686 divisions across Philadelphia, two committee people for each major party are sought to run for election by their neighbors in the May primary. Photo by Leona Dixon

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson (2nd Dist.) convened a “ward retreat” in a Point Breeze church on Feb. 10. Rather than the usual ward party, its purpose was to delve into the larger role of a party committee person and how important that job can be.

About 30 committee people turned out at St. Simon the Cyrenian Episcopal Church for Johnson, who doubles as Democratic 36th Ward Leader. He treated them to a substantial lunch and wowed them with two dynamic presenters who began their careers as committee people: City Commission Chair Lisa Deeley and former Mayor John Street.

The timing was crucial because, as Deeley explained, “When the governor runs, committee people also run.” So their first task in this year’s primary is to circulate petitions to get themselves on the ballot, and then win their division. Each division should have two committee people of each major party.

These races are tiny – a committee person needs just 10 valid signatures on the petition – but it takes work; and victory is not guaranteed. Sometimes rival candidates seek this post, and the person who reached out to more voters is likely to win. They will serve for four years.

Deeley, a committee person for 31 years, came from a political family in the Northeast (her mother Barbara is a former sheriff) and began campaigning as a preteen, going, going door to door with some girlfriends – for the wrong party. “It was when Republican Charlie Dougherty held the congressional seat there,” she recalled. “I came home and told my mother what I had done and what a good time I’d had. She told me our family was Democrats.”

DAWN CHAVOUS, the wife of Councilman and Ward Leader Kenyatta Johnson, raised an issue with fellow committee members.

Deeley said election boards are in crisis. “We have 2,500 unfilled election-board positions citywide,” she noted. “These positions were up for election last year, but not enough people ran, so we have had to work hard to find citizens we can appoint to run elections.

“And voter participation is dropping. Why, as city commissioner, am I doing all this work on the back end of elections if people don’t come out and vote on the front end? Help us get more people engaged in the process.”

Committee people need to know two things well, Deeley advised: the mechanics of voting and their division. “You are part of a community of neighbors,” she said.

Petitions must be technically accurate, or they can be challenged and thrown out. They must know relevant election laws and rules. They should keep an eye out for names on voting rolls that are deceased, or registered at addresses that they know are vacant. They must counsel handicapped persons and ex-offenders on getting assistance to vote.

Street echoed Deeley, stressing that a committee person’s contributions to the community can go far beyond elections. “A committee person is a real job with real responsibilities,” he told the retreat. “If you don’t want to do the job, you should get out.”

DAVE SCHOLNICK was recruited by Tulsa Wills. They are running as a team for committee persons in the 236th Ward, 29th Division.

In a feisty speech, Street emphasized the human side of a division committee member. “There has to be a direct relationship between you and your neighbors,” he said. He urged committee people to be walking advertisers of the importance of voting. On election day, they should note who has not yet voted and reach out to that household.

That relationship should begin with the committee person’s own campaign, said Street. He originally ran as an insurgent against a North Philadelphia ward leader who liked his ward to remain quiet. So Street ran a write-in campaign. He gave out hotdogs and sodas – and write-in stamps. He won.

Because they walk the streets of their division, a good committee person will keep a lookout for local problems. “Is there a pothole that needs to be fixed?” he asked. “You’ve got to tell us in government if that pothole hasn’t been fixed. Nobody in government can check every street every day.”

After lunch, the retreat concentrated on helping committee candidates prepare their petitions.

Johnson said he was inspired to organize the retreat by seeing some work being done by younger progressives to organize educational programs for committee races. “I thought it was a good idea,” he said. “I decided to bring this model to my own ward.”

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