If this were a different city, say, one where the Republicans seemed more like a functioning opposition party rather than a figment of people’s imaginations, then Philadelphia Democrats might be in trouble.
They lost a seat in the state House in late March with a split forming in the Northeast, in a district where the registrations still favor Democrats over Republicans, 2-1. Democratic City Commissioner Stephanie Singer didn’t put together enough valid signatures to get onto the election ballot. The Democratic party isn’t endorsing a mayor, but it did originally endorse for City Council a candidate who allegedly posted racist and anti-gay comments on his Facebook. It also endorsed judges the local bar association disapproves. Now let’s be clear: Philly’s Democrats won the big 2016 Democratic National Convention, but in their own backyard? They’ve faced embarrassment after embarrassment over the last few months.
“These are the chinks that occur in a one-party town,” said Larry Ceisler, a longtime political strategist and principal of Ceisler Media.
Bob Brady, the executive chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, brushed off any perceived problems with the party when Billy Penn reached him last week, explaining, “It’s Philadelphia. It’s a blood sport.”
How long can one party stay in charge?
The Philadelphia Republicans dominated city politics from the 1880s through the first half of the 20th century. The political atmosphere grew so rotten by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Richardson Dilworth started running for mayor that he accused Republican Mayor Bernard Samuel of allowing bookmaking at City Hall and forcing business leaders to buy him birthday gifts, extravagant items like motor boats and station wagons.
In an interview with Billy Penn earlier this year, Joseph DeFelice, executive director of the Philadelphia Republican Party, said the Republicans have an opportunity to gain a foothold in part because the Democrats have been making poor choices while in power. He pointed out criminal investigations of local Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, state Sens. LeAnna Washington and J.P. Miranda, and several traffic court judges. Those make up only about half of the embarrassing acts attached to the Philadelphia Democrats. Since February, Democratic candidates and the local Democratic party have messed up in a variety of ways:
- Democratic ward leaders chose to run Sarah Del Ricci, a friend of Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, instead of former Brendan Boyle aide Seth Kaplan in a special election to fill Boyle’s vacated 170th House seat. Republican Martina White ended up winning the election in a district with twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. A couple of weeks later, Mike Stack’s wife, Tonya Stack, allegedly threw soda at State Rep. Kevin Boyle (Brendan’s brother) and flipped him off.
- City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who billed herself as a reformer, was forced to withdraw from the race after a challenge that nullified some of the 1,000 signatures she needed. The other Democratic incumbent City Commissioner is Anthony Clark. Though his job is to oversee and promote voting in Philadelphia, he didn’t vote from 2011 to 2014.
- Local Democrats endorsed Manny Morales for the 7th District instead of incumbent Maria Quinones-Sanchez. It was revealed in March that Morales’ Facebook account contained many racist, anti-gay, anti-women and anti-immigration pictures. Morales claimed he was hacked, over a period of several years of updates. He deleted the Facebook posts and has remained in the race.
- The Democratic Party endorsed three candidates for judge positions — Sharon Williams Losier, Scott DiClaudio and Tracy Brandeis Roma — the Philadelphia Bar Association said it does not recommend.
Of the split in the Northeast, Brady said, “We’ll put it back together. It will be fine. I’m used to doing it. I’ve been doing it a long time.” Of Morales, Brady said they dropped the endorsement as soon as they found out about his background. Of Singer, he said the Party wasn’t supporting her even before she failed to get the necessary signatures to run.
“She was a disgrace,” Brady said. “How can you run an election if you can’t get 1,000 signatures?”
Hate-filled Facebook posts and poorly vetted endorsements don’t compare to extreme corruption, but like the Republicans of old, the Democrats are the establishment. Congressman Brendan Boyle said the city’s political system has gotten too stagnant and closed.
“I know a few Democratic ward leaders weren’t extremely enthusiastic when I started to get involved and my brother started to get involved,” he said. “And I believe that we would improve the Democratic party, and also the city, if we had more people who are in it for the right reasons, who are hardworking, bright, cared about public policy and were willing to do the work and aren’t just interested in other things.”
But this is Philadelphia. Instead of being consequential, experts essentially classify these setbacks as #DemocratProbs. Until proven otherwise, they don’t mean anything. Ceisler said we won’t see Philadelphia run by Republicans “in our lifetime.” G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, agreed that the latest string of mishaps for the Democrats will do little to blunt their popularity.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “the voters will hold the person accountable. Not the party.”
If these embarrassments really have an effect on the Democratic Party, Ceisler said the results from the primary of its chosen candidates could provide an indication. The Philadelphia Democrats have endorsed the four incumbents running for at-large Council spots and challenger Sherrie Cohen. They have endorsed the incumbents in all the district Council races, except for Quinones-Sanchez. They have endorsed the three judges mentioned above, plus several others. They have endorsed Clark and Lisa Deeley, who worked for incumbent 6th District Council candidate Bobby Henon, for City Commissioner.
A loss from a few of those candidates could mean declining influence.
“What they have to worry about on Tuesday is how many of their endorsed candidates for City Council or for judges and City Commssioner win,” he said. “When the day comes if for some reason they lose more than they win, then that’s a bad day.”