In the wake of a busy election, Philly Democrats who were sanctioned for supporting Working Families Party candidates are generally confused about their standing.
They’re also concerned about how the intraparty rift might impact future elections, including next year, when Pa. is expected to be a battleground state.
Some progressives who feel alienated from the Democratic Party establishment want to bury the hatchet. Others say they’d like a chance to reclaim their roles as members of the Democratic City Committee — but aren’t having luck making it happen.
Of the hundred or so committeepeople who signed a public letter endorsing WFP candidates for City Council, a few said they were reprimanded, either by being stripped of get-out-the-vote funds or by being booted from their position. Election Day also brought a handful of other related skirmishes and snatching spats, with one leading to a call to the District Attorney’s Office.
Kate Rivera, a committee person in the 31st Ward in East Kensington, was expelled for signing the letter, along with the two others representing the ward’s 9th division — Lou Bartholomew and Kelsey Moffitt. She’s eager to regain her position.
“I was duly elected by my neighbors,” Rivera told Billy Penn. “It doesn’t feel quite right that one person could have the power to decide just to remove me without some sort of a process.”
A committeeperson is a party member who helps get their neighbors involved in elections and encourages people to go to the polls. Each of Philly’s 66 electoral wards has a committee composed of people elected by their divisions, the smallest voting block, who then in turn elect a ward leader.
Thanks to a recent rule change, unilateral dismissals by a ward leader are allowed by local party bylaws.
Bob Brady, head of the Democratic City Committee, had demanded all party members withhold support for the Working Families Party, and he was clear expulsion was on the table if he was defied.
Though the progressive third party achieved unprecedented success — both of its candidates beat out Republicans to claim Council’s two at-large seats effectively reserved for a minority party — Brady said he was pleased with the general election result.
He cited as a high point the turnout, describing it to Billy Penn as “much better” than the last mayoral cycle in 2019. That year, 28% of the city’s 1.06 million registered voters turned out. Last week saw 31% of 1.03 million eligible voters come to the polls.
Looking ahead to 2024, he surmised that local Democrats will have to do “the same thing we did four years ago,” to help President Biden carry Pennsylvania.
New ward dynamics and new rules
Patrick Wargo, a committee person in the 46th Ward, parts of Squirrel Hill and Cedar Park, was elected to the position last year as part of a slate of neighbors who want to make it an open ward — a movement aiming to change ward bylaws to give individual committeepeople the right to vote on candidate endorsements.
When Wargo went to pick up Election Day materials, he said he was told wouldn’t be receiving the cash, typically around $100, usually given to help GOTV activities.
Wargo’s ward leader is former Councilmember Jannie Blackwell, a longtime establishment Democrat and Brady ally who last year became leader in what many in the ward considered to be a fly-by-night election that didn’t follow proper protocol.
“She informed me that because I signed the committee person letter in support of Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke, that I was not to be given my street money,” Wargo told Billy Penn.
The loss of funds wasn’t a huge deal to Wargo, who still went about his business on Election Day. He handed out WFP literature and advocated for Democratic judicial candidates in West Philly. He says he asked Blackwell if he could still take some literature on the statewide judicial races, but that she demurred.
Now, Wargo wonders if there’s another shoe getting ready to drop. “I really thought that I was gonna get booted on Wednesday after the election, I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” he said.
Democratic City Committee bylaws active from 2014-2022 stated that if a member was unfaithful to the party, “in the opinion of the majority of the entire ward committee,” then “the ward committee shall be empowered to remove said person.”
Current rules, updated two summers ago, contain a crucial revision: Now, in the case of alleged disloyalty, “the ward leader shall be empowered to remove said person from its membership and declare a vacancy in the membership of the ward committee from the said division.”
Reached Wednesday by phone, Brady confirmed that meting out consequences for signing the WFP endorsement letter was being left up to each ward leader. He added that expelled committeepeople can request a hearing with their ward leader to make their case.
Rivera, the former committee person in Kensington, said she did request such a hearing from her ward leader, Peg Rzepksi.
“The last message I sent was ‘Peg, I’m requesting a meeting, which is part of the party bylaws,’ and I didn’t receive a response to that,” said Rivera. After a month she has still not received an answer.
‘We should be on the same team’ moving forward
Many Democratic elected officials endorsed the WFP ticket in full voice, from Councilmember Jaime Gauthier to District Attorney Lary Krasner to Senator Nikil Sval and a litany of state representatives. Many were seen at the third party’s election night bash at Roar Nightclub, including state Rep. Chris Rabb, who caught some flack for supporting Brooks during her first run in 2019
Rabb called pushback against WFP supporters a “distraction” and said he was surprised the Democratic Party would “waste time, effort and nonsense” turning their fire on the WFP instead of Philly’s GOP.
“I was committed to doing whatever I could to support more Black progressives in elected office representing our city, because I need help,” said Rabb.
Maggie Hart, a campaign adviser and former staffer for WFP incumbent Councilmember Brooks, echoed the sentiment. “What is most disappointing for me is seeing some of the most active and ambitious committee people in the city … be penalized for it in a way that actually deters voter turnout,” she said.
Hart’s hoping everyone involved is ready to hit the reset button.
“I think when [Brady’s] ready to collaborate, we’ll be ready to collaborate with him,” she said. “Because we’re not trying to power grab, we’re trying to build power together and we should be on the same team.”
The sentiment was shared by both Wargo and Rivera.
“Despite feeling alienated, I still really care about the party,” Rivera said. “I think that there’s a lot of opportunities for the party to structure things differently, reach more people, and be more effective.”
“It’s not even about leaving people off the ballot,” Wargo said, referencing Brady’s warning that supporting the progressive third party could potentially hurt Democrats. “It’s just about choice.”