Democratic City Committee Headquarters at 219 Spring Garden St.

Fallout from a political handoff that some described as a “bait-and-switch” in the 175th Pa. House District, which spans rapidly transforming neighborhoods from Queen Village to Kensington, has spread beyond Philadelphia’s borders.

Six-term state Rep. Michael O’Brien’s abrupt, post-primary retirement announcement last month triggered a vote among the district’s five ward leaders to select his replacement in the upcoming general election. Their chosen candidate? O’Brien’s longtime chief of staff, Mary Isaacson.

The choice sparked protests from reform-minded voters, who saw it as just another example of Philly’s insider politicking. The pushback, however, failed to slow the selection process.

But last Friday, in an unusual move, two executive state committee leaders from districts far outside Philadelphia voted against Isaacson’s nomination, citing the “bad optics” of the selection process.

The Pennsylvania State Democratic Executive Committee is comprised of 50 party leaders, one from each state senate district. They’re the ones who vote to formally nominate a candidate for state office after the local party makes its recommendation, but insiders say the “vote” is usually little more than a rubber stamp.

Yet two Democratic leaders told Billy Penn that news of the alleged political chicanery gave them enough cause for a protest vote.

“We’re trying to make a party that’s more inclusive and more transparent, and I don’t know if rubber stamping is the best way to go about it,” said Thomas Shubilla, the state executive democratic committee leader in Luzerne County. “Maybe [Isaacson] is the best candidate, maybe she’s the most qualified, but I didn’t like the way it was ran, so I voted no. Did I think that it would still pass? Yes.”

It did pass. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party does not publish state committee votes online, but provided the roll call to a reporter: Of the 34 executive committee leaders who voted, only two nayed Isaacson’s nomination.

Karen Bojar, a veteran committee person who has written a book about the city’s ward system, said a surreptitious change to the party bylaws in 2014 allowed ward leaders to pick replacement candidates without consulting their committee people — in effect, putting democracy into the hands of four or five voters rather than a few hundred.

Pa.’s 175th House District Credit: State of Pennsylvania / Google Maps

Trust the process?

When O’Brien announced his retirement in July, Democratic ward leaders say they were following party bylaws by seeking an immediate fill-in candidate for the 63-year-old legislator on the November ballot.

But the curious timing of O’Brien’s retirement announcement — a month after he won the primary and days shy of the filing deadline for challengers in the general election — left virtually no window for other candidates to throw their name into the ring. Mike Boyle, Democratic leader of Center City’s 5th Ward, pushed Isaacson’s name to mostly receptive fellow ward leaders, who called for a vote…just five days later.

But O’Brien’s district isn’t what it once was. The zeitgeist in the local Democratic party has brought new faces into the city’s political machine that has long been viewed as an insider’s ballgame. Emboldened by the outsider victories of DA Larry Krasner and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart last year, several reform-minded Democrats ran for open committee seats earlier this year, and won.

“I thought it felt like [the nomination] had been set up,” Nikil Saval, newly elected leader of the 2nd Ward, told City & State PA in July. “I didn’t understand why it was being rushed. I just don’t understand how dire the situation has to get for this party or the country to realize that this kind of politics is completely alienating to voters.”

Despite calls to delay the vote by a week, it was a done deal.

On the state’s executive committee, the logic behind the so-called “rubber stamp” nominations is that the local party knows what’s best for itself.

“I’m sure there are ways we can improve it,” said Brandon Cwalina, a spokesperson for the PA Democratic Party. “But in terms of our relationship with the county party, this is the process that has been the most effective at nominating.”

Lack of trust within the ranks

But Matthew Munsey, the Democratic party chair and state executive committee member in Northampton County, takes issue with that notion — especially among Philadelphia’s scandal-plagued Democratic leadership.

“I have no personal qualms with the candidate,” Munsey told Billy Penn. “But the selection process sounded rushed from what I read. They were asking to delay it by one week to give time for other people to be considered. The excuse was ‘we have to do this now,’ and yet we [ state committee executives] weren’t given a name until two and a half weeks later.”

Munsey recalled a special election in the 197th District last year, when a handful of ward leaders proposed Fred Ramirez to replace then-convicted state Rep. Leslie Acosta. Ramirez eventually lost a residency challenge and the Democratic party was forced to run an embarrassing write-in campaign, which ended with Attorney General Josh Shapiro charging four Democratic election workers charged fraud and voter intimidation. In that case, the state committee greenlighted the candidate without taking a look at the local party’s backroom selection process, Munsey said.

Philadelphia’s Bojar agreed. “The whole idea that the local party knows best doesn’t make sense in Philadelphia when the local party is three or four ward leaders making the decision on behalf of everyone,” she said.

Local watchdogs have long held concerns about the nomination process for replacement candidates, among other intricacies in the city’s opaque ward system. The Committee of Seventy frequently prods Democratic officials to make their decisions more inclusive, despite what bylaws allow. Congressman Bob Brady, who also chairs the local Democratic party, has long defended the current processes.

“Everybody wants to focus on the issues and the candidates, but the process is bedrock to the kinds of officials we can elect,” Bojar said. “The good news is that, for the first time in my memory, people are fighting back and asking questions.”

Isaacson, who has maintained she is a victim of circumstances and pledged to win over concerned committee people, will appear uncontested on the November ballot.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...