In Democratic ward elections full of infighting (and physical fighting!) Philly progressives make key gains

Open or closed? City Dems are battling over who gets to decide endorsements.

Voters line up at Philadelphia City Hall to drop off their mail in ballots in October 2020
Emma Lee / WHYY

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In Democratic ward elections marked by bitter arguments — and in at least one case, a physical struggle — progressives in Philadelphia this week made some small but potentially significant movement toward their goal of making hyperlocal politics more representative.

Even so, they say the city’s Democratic establishment is unfairly locking them out of the bedrock of Philly politics by preventing them from fully participating in ward elections.

Those established Democrats, meanwhile, accuse the progressives of being disrespectful and unproductive.

In the West Philly ward led by Jannie Blackwell, a longtime former city councilmember, video shows someone having a microphone ripped from their hands while trying to raise a procedural concern. In the Mt. Airy ward helmed by Councilmember Cindy Bass, disputes over the election process landed in court even prior to this week’s meeting.

Ward election drama isn’t new.

It happens every four years when each of the city’s 1,703 voting divisions elects up to four committee people — two Democrats and two Republicans — and these local committee people, in turn, elect a party ward leader and other ward officers.

But it appears to be on the rise, said Pat Christmas of the advocacy group Open Wards Philadelphia.

There were “more contested ward leadership elections this time than we saw in 2018,” Christmas said, “and more in 2018 than we saw in 2014.”

Who should have the power to make endorsements?

A primary goal for Christmas and other advocates — and the thing they see as key to a more democratic system — is for all elected committee people to have a say in official candidate endorsements.

Arguably ward leaders’ most important responsibility, endorsements can carry a lot of weight in local races. In most cases, the ward leader has sole authority to decide who gets them. In other words, it’s a closed process.

But there’s a growing push among some Philly Democrats to switch to open wards, where endorsements are generally decided by a vote by the elected committee people.

Since it’s a ward leader’s decision which path to take, progressive groups — some affiliated with pro-reform group Reclaim Philadelphia or national orgs like the Democratic Socialists of America, and others that have coalesced on a local level — have been pushing their own candidates for the position.

That has led to contested ward leader elections, and at least six wards saw notable leadership turnover this week.

Organized progressive candidates who explicitly want to open their wards won in Ward 15 (Fairmount), 24 (West Philly), and 39a (South Philly). Ward 43 in North Philly also saw an outsider candidate take power.

Establishment Democrats kept hold of power in three of the most hotly contested wards, the 46th (West Philly), 21st (Roxborough), and 22nd (Mt. Airy).

Progressives in those three districts, however, maintain the election processes were opaque and unclear — or even a “sham.”

There may be litigation coming in at least some of these battles, said Christmas, of Open Wards Philadelphia. “There was a lot of on-the-ground organizing there that probably will not end after this week.”

‘Meeting is adjourned’ vs. ‘We need to vote!’

One of the most well-documented conflicts happened in the 46th ward, which covers parts of West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill and Cedar Park neighborhoods.

As of now, former Councilmember Blackwell is the elected ward leader — but the result came after the reorganization meeting on Monday devolved into a physical fight.

Videos provided by people at the meeting show committee person Rachelle Faroul speaking on stage when another person grabs the microphone from her hands and forcefully pulls it away. Another person on the stage asks for a show of hands to re-elect Blackwell, video shows, while people off-stage continue to shout they want to nominate someone else.

“We wanted to follow the rules, and so we were trying to get the ward leader, Jannie Blackwell, to address the points of order we were bringing up,” 46th ward committee person Kani Mote told Billy Penn and WHYY News.

Another video shows people passing around a notepad. Alan Butkovitz, the Democratic City Committee finance chair and former city controller, can be heard saying they are signing the paper as voters in support of Blackwell. A person at the meeting begins appealing to Butkovitz, saying people who aren’t elected committee members appear to be voting, in clear violation of party rules. Butkovitz responds, “What you say is clear, is not clear. We can argue this in court.”

Additional video shows Blackwell announcing, “We have completed our business and this meeting is adjourned,” as others cry out “We need to vote!”

Butkovitz is not actually a voter in the 46th ward, he clarified in an interview. He leads the 54th ward, which held its meeting early so he could be present as a lawyer for Blackwell, he said. “She won the election unanimously,” he asserted, “because the other group refused to make a nomination.”

The push to make the ward “more transparent and inclusive” is supported by 23 of 46 committee people, several people in the group said, and the coalition planned to nominate Sergio Cea as ward leader. Cea ran for re-election as committee person in May, but lost. Blackwell was also not elected as a committee person in 2022, though she was in 2018.

The group of 23 this week put out a press release calling the vote to re-elect Blackwell a “sham” and alleging it broke city committee rules — including that at least one person in attendance was not an elected committee person.

Butkovitz denied that allegation. There was one ward division where two people had tied in the committe person election: James Roebuck and Theresa Sims. A tie is broken by coin toss, which Roebuck won, city records show. Roebuck was unable to attend the reorganization meeting, so he withdrew his candidacy, Butkovitz said, and Sims was meant to attend in his place. (Sims’ name is not present on a current list of committee people.)

Raising the specter of third-party endorsements

Another highly-public conflict played out in Mt. Airy’s 22nd Ward, which is led by City Councilmember Cindy Bass.

Tensions in the ward were high even before this week. Open ward advocate and committee person Carla Cain, who ran against Bass for ward leader, had filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court alleging Bass had intentionally excluded committee people from ward meetings and decision-making.

The court sided with Cain, telling Bass to “cease and desist from excluding duly elected members from attending and fully participating and voting … in all future meetings,” and also telling Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady to direct Bass to provide advance notice of meetings and other ward business to all her committee people.

That discord reached into Monday’s ward election, according to people who were there, who described it as chaotic and lacking in transparency.

One newly elected committee person, who asked not to be named, said votes were collected on slips of paper and counted by people selected by Bass. Nobody checked the credentials of committee people or ensured each committee member voted only once, they alleged.

“I don’t know that the outcome would have been different, but there is no guarantee that it was a fair process,” the committee person said.

Reached for comment, Bass maintained her ward is actually pretty open, and said she’d already taken the steps the court ordered even before the lawsuit was resolved.

As for why endorsements couldn’t simply be made by a majority vote of committee people, Bass alluded to the fact that some of Philly’s progressives have, in the past, supported candidates running under third parties, like the Working Families Party.

“We usually try to stay very close to what the Democratic Party endorsements are, which is what our bylaws state,” she said. “So, you know, it’s just very odd to me that we had some [committee people] who [were elected] in 2018 who joined and who did not want to follow the Democratic Party’s bylaws.”

The Philadelphia Democratic Party’s bylaws specifically say members can be ejected from the party if they back a non-Democrat in a general election.

Bass ended up beating Cain by just three votes — like her opponents, she alleges “voting irregularities,” but declined to provide specifics. In her new term, Bass said, she’s hoping to create a “new narrative”: that the 22nd Ward is interested in transparency.

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