A wave of millennials and Gen Zers have been moving into Philadelphia politics over the past decade, shaking up the organizations that form the bedrock of hyperlocal government — the city’s 66 wards. These wards, and the committees that determine their leadership, are traditionally considered a starting point for getting involved in the political scene.
But in some areas of the city, the young progressives trying to join the ranks of the Democratic Party have not felt welcomed.
“The committeepeople that I ran against made it clear that this is something you do with permission,” Andrew Burgess, who ran four years ago in Roxborough/Manayunk’s 21st ward, told Billy Penn. “This is something that you wait your turn for.”
Each committeeperson represents a few hundred registered voters of their party — the people who live in their division, the city’s smallest political unit, usually the size of a few square blocks. But it’s a key position, because these committeepeople elect the city’s Democratic ward leaders. And the ward leaders have considerable clout: they choose who to endorse locally in elections, and vote for the citywide leadership that decides which candidates get full party backing.
In some areas of the city, these seats change hands often. In others, they’re under what can seem like an iron grip. Several hundred committeepeople have held onto their seats for multiple decades, The Inquirer found earlier this year.
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Across the city, the average ward saw 37% of committeeperson seats change hands in 2022, and 40% in 2018.
The wards where party establishment have a firm hold on leadership have seen the least amount of new blood in committeepeople elections since 2014, data analysis by Billy Penn shows. Six of the eight wards led by party leaders saw lower than average turnover in 2022 and 2018.
Open wards — where ward leaders give committeepeople a voice in endorsements and other decision making — have seen committeepeople seats change hands the most since 2014. Of the 15 known open wards in the city, 13 had above-average turnover in 2022.
Bob Brady, the former U.S. representative who’s chair of the Democratic City Committee, acknowledged there’s a perception of the party as being less than inclusive. Leadership has been trying to change that, he said, holding happy hours with the Philadelphia Young Democrats and getting more active on social media.
“There’s a fallacy out there that we’re a closed shop. But we’re an open shop,” Brady said. “We want everyone to feel welcome. We will put them to work without question.”
Therein lies the rub. Some newcomers don’t want to be “put to work” by the party establishment. They want to help set the agenda.
“What the Democratic Party keeps trying to do is decide for us who we should support without engaging us as committeepeople,” Sergio Cea, interim political director for Reclaim Philadelphia, told Billy Penn.
Cea is a former West Philly committeeperson who wanted to be 46th ward leader this year. But the reorganization meeting in the 46th devolved into a physical altercation, and Cea’s supporters say they didn’t get a chance to nominate him. Incumbent ward leader Jannie Blackwell, a former City Council member, was re-elected as ward leader.
The party chair was dismissive of some of the outsider campaigns for committeeperson and ward leader.
“A lot of times people come in with a special interest or special candidates and they’re never seen again,” Brady said. They’re certainly allowed to do that, he said, they just won’t get the party nod. “They’re not endorsed. Most of our endorsed people are people who are with the party, who have been helpful to the party.”
And that’s what some are trying to change. “This is a struggle for power,” said Cea, “and it’s a struggle for what the ideology of the local party is.”
Party chair to city commissioners: You’re ‘dead wrong’ on certification
If you want to be a committeeperson, you need to get at least 10 party members who live in your division to sign a petition, then get that petition and a candidate declaration form to the city commissioners by a certain date. This year, it was March 15, just over two months ahead of the May 17 primary.
As long as your petition isn’t challenged, you’re on the ballot. Then it’s just a matter of campaigning — knocking on doors and asking neighbors to vote for you on Election Day.
Brady, the Democratic Party chair, said he believes all the city’s ward leaders are “welcoming young men and women” to their committees. “If they don’t feel like they’re welcome,” he said of the newbies, “they should call me.”
There were quite a few newcomers to the party this May, per primary election results certified by the Office of City Commissioners.
Out of 2,910 committeepeople elected across Philadelphia, a Billy Penn analysis shows, more than 44% were new to the position. Ten wards ended up with more newcomers than incumbents.
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Some of the new people elected to committees this year weren’t actually on the ballot. They were the write-in candidates who got the most votes — even if it was just a handful, or just one. But some Democratic ward leaders declined to recognize the write-in winners.
That happened in the 21st ward, where some write-in committeepeople were barred from the June reorganization meeting where ward leaders are elected.
“Everyone says get involved… but absolutely, positively I am not welcome there,” said Sean Swanwick, who got three 21st ward write-in votes but said he wasn’t allowed into the meeting.
Ward Leader Lou Agre told Billy Penn it’s because Swarnwick didn’t get at least 10 write-in votes — which is the minimum for getting on the ballot in advance of the election. “We obeyed every bit of the law,” Agre said. “I’m tired of these left-wing, do-gooder, everyone-gets-a-trophy types,” he added.
According to Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio, election code conflicts with itself on the write-in question, and practices are inconsistent across the state. “Historically, the Philadelphia Board of Elections has certified the person who gets the most write-in votes as the winner, and that is what we continued to do in this year,” Custodio told Billy Penn.
Brady, the party chair, said the city commissioners were “dead wrong” to certify the election of committeepeople who got fewer than 10 write-in votes: “The law is quite clear.”
The law he refers to is Section 3155 of the Pa. election code, which says: “In the primary the county board shall not certify the votes cast on irregular ballots for any person for … local party office unless the total number of votes cast for said person is equal to or greater than the number of signatures required on a nomination petition for the particular office.”
When ward leaders refuse to allow low-vote write-in winners, they end up with a temporary vacancy in their division — which allows them to appoint whomever they choose, per Brady. He noted his own ward has several vacancies right now. “As we speak, my guys are recruiting.”
Philly politics as a ‘family business’
Brady acknowledged many Philadelphia committeeperson seats are held by longtime incumbents. Some of them have looked to retire and bring a younger person into the fold, he said — a person of their choosing.
“A lot of them groom somebody… a lot of them put their family in there,” said the Democratic Party chair, defending the practice as important for getting things done. “If you groom someone, they know what they’re doing. They can hit the ground running.”
This practice of patronage is far from a secret. In many divisions, new committeepeople elected in 2018 or 2022 were relatives of their predecessor. In some instances, one family holds both committee seats in a division.
“Philly politics is certainly a family business,” said Jen Devor, an activist and former committeeperson in South Philly’s 36th ward. “It’s like anything with a family history. There’s favoritism, there’s grudges, there’s political families pitted against each other.”
The amount of turnover in committees varies greatly between wards.
In four of the city’s wards with low turnover, close to half of divisions (40%) have had the exact same committeepeople since 2014. In four different wards with high turnover, zero divisions have the same set of committeepeople as they did in 2014.
Overall, wards led by a high-ranking official in the city Democratic party saw higher percentages of incumbents winning in 2022.
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Political organizations like Philadelphia 3.0 and Reclaim Philadelphia, not pleased with how the Democratic party has been steering Philly politics, have been making a concerted effort to get new blood in the mix.
“There are committeepeople who have been doing this for decades, maybe [some who] took over from their parent or grandparent before them,” said Cea, of Reclaim Philadelphia. “They only know the ward system as it’s been laid out before them.”
Jon Geeting, director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, said he has seen this dynamic in neighborhoods throughout the city. “There’s still this culture of ‘wait your turn’ and ‘we shouldn’t even have any competition’ within this one party that exists,” he said.
A ‘fundamental disagreement,’ and a red flag
Open Wards Philly is another group busily trying to recruit new people to run, with the aim of reforming the Philadelphia Democratic Party’s entire system so that all committeepeople in a ward get to vote on endorsements, rather than the ward leader choosing unilaterally.
But keeping new recruits engaged has been a challenge. Most of the open wards have seen a great deal of committee turnover in the last two elections, Billy Penn’s data analysis shows.
Some people get scared away by the prospect of being labeled a troublemaker, and some just tire of constantly bumping into a prickly political establishment that saps their motivation.
Devor, the civic activist, first ran for committeeperson in 2014. She held onto her seat until this year, when she decided not to run again.
“I thought it was a low-entry-level way to get involved in city politics without realizing the explosive can of worms I was opening,” Devor said. Once she was in, “it became pretty clear that I had to start picking sides” between the progressives and the establishment. She has now cut ties with the Democratic Party, she said, and instead founded a nonpartisan nonprofit called Better Civics.
Burgess, of the 21st ward, said he ran for committeeperson in 2018 because he’d just moved to Philadelphia from the suburbs the year prior and wanted to get involved after Donald Trump became president.
“The way the role was explained to me was getting out the vote and helping the people in the blocks of your neighborhood access city government,” Burgess said. He hadn’t met anyone else out campaigning for committeeperson, so he figured it wouldn’t be a competitive election. He was wrong.
The idea that ward leaders make the rules and committeepeople must follow them is at the heart of why an increasingly vocal group of local politicos are trying to change the game.
“There’s a fundamental disagreement perhaps between the party establishment or leadership and others… about how this should work,” Patrick Christmas, an administrator for Open Wards Philly, told Billy Penn. “An open ward empowers committeepeople to have some voice.”
Christmas thinks Bob Brady’s long tenure as party chair — he’s held the position for more than 30 years — is a red flag. “I haven’t observed a great deal of a plan or strategy for passing the torch.”
Some think the party’s failure to tap into voters’ needs could have lasting effects on voter turnout. They worry that the city party establishment, and the ward leaders and committeepeople who support it, aren’t doing enough to mobilize voters, in part because they aren’t backing candidates people are excited about.
Devor, the former 36th ward committeeperson, believes every Philadelphian should have a working knowledge of how the ward system works.
Much of the outcome, she says, is riding on next year’s election. Who becomes mayor, who gets added to City Council, and what their priorities are will determine whether this burgeoning group of politically active millennials and Gen Zers stay involved in city politics, or stay in the city at all.
The “long game” for the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, Devor said, is to create “a ward system that functions well, is harmonious across wards and divisions, and has a consistent approach to delivering the vote.”