Shirley Kitchen and Sharif Street

Theirs would be the ultimate succession plan, if it hadn’t already been carried out across Philadelphia, year-after-year, race-after-race. Instead, the baton handoff from state Sen. Shirley Kitchen to Sharif Street is as common, and expected, as traffic on the Schuylkill.

Kitchen has announced she’s retiring after serving the 3rd District for nearly 20 years. She endorsed Street for her position, but that’s not where the relationship began. Kitchen’s early political career featured a stint on the Council staff of Street’s father, John Street. John Street backed Kitchen’s first election to the 3rd District, and media accounts back then described her victory as a victory for John Street, who was mulling a mayoral run at the time. Sharif Street started interning for Kitchen when she was a rookie legislator and then worked for her for several years.

When Kitchen decided to retire, Street says, she brought him into her office and told him she wanted him to run for her seat. Not long after, in January, the pair stood in front of a room as Street received an endorsement from Kitchen and the Democratic ward leaders in his district. Democratic City Committee chairman Bob Brady even showed up, as well as several union members.

A couple weeks later, would-be first-time candidate Omar Woodard, who had built inroads in the district for several months and raised support and pledges totaling six figures, chose not to run. Kitchen says she had advised him not to. Street is who she thought would do best carrying on the work she’s done.

“In most of the rest of the world, particularly the corporate sector or entrepreneurial sector, there’s no such thing as succession planning,” says David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. “In Philadelphia politics, that’s where it still seems true.”

‘Telling people to pay their dues’

Handpicking successors while discouraging competition is not illegal and, here in Philadelphia, it’s not unusual. From seats in the legislature to City Council, Philadelphia Democratic positions are won less through challenges than handed down after years of service amongst the right people and only offered when the timing is just right. That’s because when candidates achieve victory they hang on until retirement, indictment, death or a better job, and the party lets them, so long as they stay loyal to the party (an indictment usually doesn’t count as disloyalty).

Talented potential candidates with less experience face not only the difficulty of raising funds and building name recognition but of breaking into a complex, strong political machine. They might be an equal or even superior choice, but they lack the cozy relationships with the ward leaders and party bosses who dictate terms. Many times they are told by other politicians or party officials to wait their turn.

“That happens all the time,” says longtime political consultant and president of The Campaign Group Neil Oxman. “It’s just loyalty. It’s just people telling people to pay their dues.”

Currently there are 28 Democratic state reps and state senators representing Philadelphia County. Five of them won their seat in a real primary challenge against the incumbent. Everyone else took over after the incumbent retired, resigned to take a different position, died or was indicted. The great majority of these 28 elected officials had party support or some type of previous working relationship with the outgoing pol.

Seven of the 28 are members of one of Philadelphia’s dynastic political families. So it’s more likely for a Democratic Philadelphia state legislator to have a relative who once held office or currently holds office than to have earned their spot in a primary election against a non-indicted incumbent. Woodard, 32, recalls noticing about a decade ago when it seemed like sons of former mayors or relatives of other politicians were candidates in every election.

“It was a Rizzo, a Street, a Goode and a Green,” he says. “Then I looked and I saw Anthony Williams. I saw Tartaglione, Sabatina and then I saw Acosta later on. …Politics has always been a family business, anywhere, but it became crystal clear to me that Philadelphia is the biggest small town I’ve ever been in.”

City Council has been marked by the same types of succession plans. At-large seats are sometimes winnable by political newcomers — Helen Gym and Allan Domb provide recent examples — but district seats have proven nearly untouchable. Since 1983, only four Council seats have been lost to a true challenger, and three of those were in the 7th District. The lone newbie in a Council district elected in 2015 was Cherelle Parker, who worked as an aide to the retiring Marian Tasco.

The early political career of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, hailed as a progressive, played out by a similar pattern. When he first ran for City Council, state Sen. Vince Fumo, his mentor, originally opposed his candidacy, believing he wasn’t ready. Fumo later offered his support. Kenney said a few years later about that election, “It had nothing to do with me. It was all the political deals, getting the money and, without a doubt, the support and help of Vince Fumo and Bob Brady. That’s the way it is.”  

‘There’s probably another guy with a better chance’

This isn’t Street’s first time running for office. He campaigned for state representative in 2002 and Council in 2007. He didn’t receive party support either time and lost. He also considered running for an at-large City Council position last year but got the wait-your-turn speech from Kitchen and Brady.  

“I’ve been in the seat where Omar Woodard was where you’re a guy who has a really credible chance of winning,” Street says, “but there’s probably another guy with a better chance of winning.”

Street, 41, worked for several years in Kitchen’s office, starting as an intern while attending law school at Penn and rising to chief of staff. He says that when he stopped working for Kitchen he continued to lend support to communities within the district, performing tasks such as pro bono legal work, and developed relationships with political leaders, as well as non-politicians whose influence is widespread. Street saw Kitchen’s request that he run for her seat as vindication he had shown what he could do to help with limited resources and had earned the trust of area constituents.

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Woodard was building similar connections, particularly in the last year. He and Street would often be at the same events, trying to gain support from the same community members. Despite success from Woodard in connecting with some of those key people, Street gained massive support from the party. The ward leaders in the district backed him, and Woodard didn’t even get the support of Anthony Williams, for whom he had worked during last year’s mayoral election. Williams said before Woodard decided not to run that he would support Kitchen’s favored candidate, which ended up being Street.

Street and Kitchen say they held a joint meeting with Woodard in which they advised him not to run.

“Well they asked my opinion,” says Kitchen, referring to Woodard and Emmanuel Bussie, another prospective candidate she said she advised against running but who is still in the race. “I didn’t call them up and say, ‘Don’t run for the seat.’ They come in and say they want my honest opinion.”

Says Street: “There are a lot of ways people can serve and we agreed at this time it was probably best for me to be candidate for Senator and him to serve in other ways. He had some options. I’ve been there in those meetings before and I looked at things — and if I determined someone else was the better person to run and I had options, too, I exercised those options.”

Woodard says he is convinced he could have won the race and did not feel pushed out. In November, as he was considering a run, a colleague stepped down as executive director of the local branch of the Greenlight Fund and asked Woodard to consider taking over for him. Woodard says he was reluctant at first but after conversations with leaders of the nonprofit decided he could better influence the community in that role, running a firm that invests in local programs to battle poverty.

Omar Woodard
Omar Woodard

“My platform was ending deep poverty particularly in North Philadelphia,” he says. “…I’m looking at the opportunities for impact. I can invest several hundred thousand or millions over the years on organizations focused on that work.”

Thornburgh says advice to not run from politicians or party members is common and destructive because a lack of true choice stifles competition and the possibility that even if a candidate loses, he or she might insert fresh ideas into a political scene in need of them.

“In my mind the most discouraging signal that often gets sent to young candidates is ‘it’s not your time,’” Thornburgh says. “Or, ‘you know that you can make a run but things are going to be awfully tough for you because you don’t have the backing or support of the local political establishment.’”

‘Some of the people… are absolute slugs’

Most other big cities aren’t like Philadelphia. The status quo here hasn’t shifted for decades because of a number of factors, including the strong ward system, low voter turnout and the lack of a formidable Republican Party. Philly’s deep blue tint has led to favorable results for liberals in many statewide and national elections, but for local politics the dominance can be a disaster. The Democrats can get away with keeping questionable leaders in power for long durations because the Republicans aren’t capable of pushing them out.  

“Some of the people in City Council, some of the people in Harrisburg,” says Oxman, “are absolute slugs.”

The status quo is especially hard to breach for races in the state House and Senate. Michael Nutter was able to win the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2007 with almost no support from ward leaders because it was a citywide election in which about 300,000 votes were cast. The party can control the state senate and state representative elections that feature much smaller electorates and far less glamour.

Even in competitive districts (this year, for instance, Mark Cohen is being challenged by Jared Solomon in what will likely be a close 202nd district race), it’s difficult to get people to care. Voters in this spring’s primary are already deciding on a U.S. senator, the attorney general, the state treasurer and, of course, the president. For Democratic voters, Oxman believes, the wild Republican presidential primary will mean vastly more than a House primary.

“How much noise can you absorb about a State Rep. race when Donald Trump will be here?” asks Oxman, who is doing work for the Solomon campaign. “…When that happens, it’s about a committee person handing you a piece of paper.”

‘We’ve gotten out of balance’

Thornburgh doesn’t want to get too scholarly, but he sees in Philadelphia the situation laid out in the pages of James Q. Wilson’s “The Amateur Democrat.” Wilson argues in this classic political tome that city politics is a constant battle between professionals and amateurs. The amateurs are people, often younger, who work in the civic sphere. They aren’t true politicians but attempt to get involved. The professionals are. From a young age, they’ve seen politics as a career.      

“It seems like in that back and forth we’ve gotten out of balance,” Thornburgh says of Philadelphia. “The professionals have dominated the landscape for a long time.”

In Boston, a Harvard law graduate or a community activist might be able to rally the right kind of support and get elected at a young age. In Philadelphia, for most elections to City Council and the state legislature, the party cannot be defeated. The people who have risen to power and kept the party strong embedded themselves in it at a young age. Brady, for instance, started out as a driver for former City Council President George Schwartz. Not surprisingly, he recommends young people interested in politics to approach a potential career in the same way.

“The newcomers have to become people that are well known,” Brady says. “Sharif Street, (it’s not) just because his father was mayor. He was working with multiple candidates, and he’s out there amongst the committeemen. They’re out there working through the community. Somebody that wants to get elected, they have to participate.”

Kitchen says she is supporting Street because of the way he’s continued working in 3rd District communities and not because of political ties. But the last name and the relationships with the local party aren’t insignificant. Asked whether his family and political background give him an advantage, Kitchen answers yes.

“And,” she adds, “that’s what I want.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...