Philadelphia Elections: My Endorsements
by Chris Bowers, Sun May 13, 2007 at 05:32:28 PM EDT
I wanted to spend much more time blogging about many of these individual campaigns, but the sheer number of worthy campaigns to focus on, combined with my national focus as a blogger, made it too difficult to reach more than a handful. Still, in the extended entry, I have listed my endorsements for most of the campaigns that will be decided tomorrow in both Philadelphia (mayor, city council at-large, city council district races, "row offices", local judges, and ballot questions) and statewide in Pennsylvania (supreme court and superior court). I briefly discuss, and make endorsements, on one ballot question, and nineteen different campaigns. If a campaign is not listed, it is either because I have no preference, or I simply feel that I do not have enough information to make an informed endorsement.
This is the biggest non-presidential election the city has faced in sixteen years, and we could see some huge changes for the better. Of course, we could also see the status quo upheld, or even a regression, as well. No matter what happens, it is the first large-scale electoral test of the progressive movement in Philadelphia, and what happens here will have widespread, national implications. This is potentially a major turning point for the city, and for the success of local progressive activism. My endorsements, along with brief explanations of each, can be found in the extended entry.
Mayor: Michael Nutter
I have been openly backing Michael Nutter on MyDD for a little more than six weeks now, but I would like to explain the thought process leading to that decision in more detail. Although I had been strongly considering Nutter since February of 2006, it still took a while for me to land firmly in his camp. Before I arrived at my decision, I considered every other major candidate.
Bob Brady is a very warm fellow, has a strong voting record in Congress, has close ties to labor, and has taken some steps to help bridge the racial, neighborhood and identity divides in Philadelphia (at least among machine insiders, that is). However, he is also a consummate insider, backroom dealer, and leader of what remains of the Philadelphia machine. As such, the process side his type of government is almost entirely antithetical to the progressive governing principles of transparency, accountability, and mass participation. Old school New Dealer with a strong civil rights bent--you betcha. New school open leftist--no way. Whenever I hear him bragging on the television or radio that he has the support of almost 3,000 of the city's 3,400 Democratic committee people, I always quip back "yeah, well, the other 400 of us are taking over." With the exception of Lieberman's unwavering support of the Iraq war, I can hardly think of a boast someone could make in a Democratic primary that would turn me off more than trumpeting your insider support.
Tom Knox is certainly an outsider, and made quite a few of the right enemies in the Philadelphia machine. I mean, I have never seen the machine hate any Democrat more than it hates Knox, even to the point where they set up a 527 to swiftboat him (although, in the last week, that 527 has now turned its guns on Nutter instead). However, he has also sided with one of the city's most retrograde forces of all, Johnny Dougherty. Lining up with Dougherty confirms many of the fears progressives in the city had about Knox's connection to pay-day lending, or that he favors Bloomberg style government in NYC. Basically, it is great that Knox would shake the place up, but I didn't do all of this local work just to see the Street and Fumo machines defeated by the Dougherty machine. That might even be considered a backslide, rather than an improvement.
Chaka Fattah has one of the consistently best voting records of any Democrat in Congress over the past twelve years. He has also made helping the city's poor the centerpiece of his campaign to a far greater extent than any other candidate. However, despite all this, as the months dragged on in the campaign, he also slowly moved down my list of preferences (he started right near the top). For one thing, I am not impressed with any candidate who starts out with a large lead, but then rapidly sinks in the polls (he has lost more than half of his support), struggles to raise money (he has raised the least, despite strong connections with both Clinton and Obama), and define a personal image (I still don't feel like I have a sense of him as a person). It didn't help that as he was struggling in the campaign, he filed a lawsuit to have recent campaign finance limits revoked, and then started attacking Michael Nutter for not being black enough (both are just so "old Philly" to me). I think that the saying "you govern based on how you win" is reasonably accurate. Considering how his campaign has gone, if he does somehow win, I simply have no real confidence in Fattah being a strong mayor. It also leads me to further question what I already thought was his rather dubious his plan to sell the airport as a means of financing his anti-poverty programs, which will be extremely difficult from both a financial and political perspective. Finally, while many of his supporters have raised valid concerns about Nutter's controversial stop and frisk policy, consider that Fattah voted for the Patriot Act back in 2001, something which 62 of his US House colleagues did not do, and that his anti-crime plan is pretty similar to Nutter's. Given this, let's just say that I am skeptical that this attack, which is at least partially coordinated with John Street's allies, is not coming from a strong history of defending privacy rights, but instead from a last ditch attempt to get back in the campaign, and possibly help John Street take Fattah's place in Congress (such a deal has long been rumored). This is a real disappointment for me, as for much of the campaign I thought I might support him.
Dwight Evans is, right now, my second choice for mayor. Smart, progressive, strong labor ties, and, even though he has many "insider" friends, his insider connections are probably the best ones to have in Philly. However, Evans is also in the mid or low single digits in the polls. Had Evans emerged with a real chance to win, I might be endorsing him right now. Instead, given that this has primarily become a campaign between Nutter and Knox, and that I see big, big differences between Nutter and Knox, I will not be doing that. For what it is worth, and this might sound bad, but the Evans campaign was the only campaign that never personally contacted me. As such, he is also something of a mysterious unknown to me.
And so, this brings me to Michael Nutter. Is Michael Nutter entirely free of "the machine?" Like any politician in Philadelphia, of course not. However, he is vehemently disliked by the Street, Fumo and Dougherty machines, which does make him the most machine-free of the five major candidates. Also, by a long, long, way, he has done the most consistent and open outreach to local progressive and reformer groups. He really wants to listen to what progressives and other people outside the normal institutions of city power have to say. Speaking of progressives, is Michael Nutter a perfect, hardcore progressive? Nope. However, he is a progressive, and has done the most of any candidate to improve governmental transparency and accountability, as well as encourage broader, popular participation in city government. For example, he is responsible for ethics reform, campaign finance reform, and establishing the citizen's police advisory commission. That last part is particularly important these days, because I think it shows quite clearly that he is not about giving the police vast, unchecked powers over the citizens of Philadelphia. Also, right now it clearly seems to be a campaign that will come down to Nutter and Knox, and it makes a big difference that Nutter is elected instead of Knox, who has the potential to remake Philly in the image of Michael Bloomberg and Johnny Doc (ugh on both counts). Yet further, Nutter has run an extremely hard working, energetic, and smart campaign to rise from the back of the pack to a narrow lead, which I believe provides a further clue as to the type of mayor he will be. His proposals, while not always the furthest left among the candidates, have always seemed smart, well thought out, and the product of original, personal thinking. Considering the campaign he has run, and indeed his entire political career, I have every confidence that he has the ability to enact the changes he proposes, and to change his mind if the policies he tries are not working. He is a very smart, very hard-working, open, reform-minded, pragmatic progressive who I believe is absolutely the kind of change this city needs. And the kind of change he brings can start as early as Tuesday, if he is able to win among both white and black Philadelphia Democrats. That something no one has ever been able to do in a hotly contested primary in this city, but the most recent poll showed him poised to do just that. I strongly and happily endorse Michael Nutter for mayor, and for a new Philadelphia. Go Nutter!
And now, for everything else...
City Council At-Large: Seven of the seventeen members of Philadelphia city council are elected "at-large," aka, citywide rather than in local districts. The city charter mandates that no single party may control more than five of these seats. This is a useful check against one-party-rule, as otherwise Democrats would control all seven seats. Still, I wish some third-parties would get their acts together and kick out the two Republicans. Considering how few Republicans there are in Philly, that shouldn't be too hard, at least in theory.
This year, there are an unusually high number of challengers running for the five Democratic seats. There is probably only one available seat for the one dozen or so challengers to fight over, as Juan Ramos, a freshman with low name recognition and the lowest vote getter among incumbents in 2003, faces another person named Ramos who is higher up on the ballot. Personally, since I do not want my votes to be self-defeating where my votes for incumbents cancel out my votes for challengers, I have decided to only endorse challengers. The way I figure it, I will endorse and vote for the five progressive / reform challengers I like the most, and hope that one of those five receives enough support to sneak into the fifth and final spot.
Every Democrat can vote for five people on Tuesday, and here the five candidates for whom I will vote:
- Derek Green. Unlike some other candidates, I did not know Derek Green before the start of this campaign. However, I have met him on multiple occasions, seen him speak several times, and I could hardly have been more impressed. He has won the endorsement of numerous progressive organizations in the city, including Young Philly Politics, Philly for Change, and my own ward, the 27th. I think Derek has a good chance to win, but he could suffer from name confusion, as the city-council at large ballot also includes Bill Green (a Dougherty-backed challenger who scares me a bit) and Bill Greenlee (an incumbent who actually isn't that bad).
- Caryn Hunt: Of the five candidate I am listing here, Caryn is by far the biggest long shot. However, she has progressive cred, isn't tied into the machine, is strongly anti-casino and supporting her won't hurt the chances of the other candidates I list here. I know that endorsing someone for strategic reasons based on some sort of strange voting game theory isn't the most ringing endorsement to give someone, but hey, at least I am being honest.
- Matt Ruben: If you are looking for a candidate who represents progressive movement values of governmental transparency and broad participation in government, Matt Ruben is it. He is also receiving his Ph.D. in English and Urban Studies from Penn tomorrow, which is probably one of the main reasons I feel a stronger personal connection to Matt than to any other candidate running for any office in the city. He has a long record of grassroots politics, progressive causes, and community activism. He is also a very strong anti-casino candidate, and is a DFA all-star.
- Marc Steir: Founder of Neighborhood Networks, one of the key silent revolution and generally progressive organizations in the city. He also has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, and has done some important work on public transit and community development.
- Andy Toy: A local urban development expert, neighborhood activist, parks and arts advocate, and general city "connecter." Seriously, look at the incredible list of local organizations in which Andy has played has played an active and influential role. Andy Toy is someone who can pull the city together, and who has innovative ideas for change.
City Council District Races: There are ten local city council districts in Philadelphia. While not every district features a contested primary, such as the district where I live, Jannie Blackwell's District Three, this year most of them do. Here are the six districts where I have a favorite. Once again, all of them are challenging incumbents.
- District One: Vern Anastasio. Vern is taking on Frank DiCicco, a reliable member of the Vince Fumo segment of the Philadelphia machine. He has a clever, innovative campaign, and has a reasonable chance to win.
- District Two: Damon Roberts. Damon is taking on city council President Anna Verna, another close ally of Vince Fumo. Verna is around the age of 80, and her father actually held the seat before she did since time immemorial. The district has changed quite a bit since then, and is now majority African-American. A Roberts victory would shake up Philadelphia politics almost as much as a Nutter victory in the mayor's race. It would also provide new, energetic leadership far more in touch with the changing second district (part of which I represent on the state committee). Damon is, unfortunately, a bit of a longshot.
- District Four: Matt McClure. I don't know much about McClure, and I have even heard some negative things about him. However, he is challenging machine triumphalist, and overtly anti-blogosphere Carol Campbell. That is good enough for me.
- District Five: Haile Johnston. Halie Johnston is a first-rate progressive reform and community activist. I have been so impressed with Halie, that I once asked him if he thought that being elected to city council would actually reduce the amount of good he does for his neighborhood, because city council would take up so much time from his other activities. He told me that he actually worried about that a little himself, but on balance concluded that it would only serve to strengthen the many projects he has undertaken. I think he is right. When you look up "green,""sustainability," and "innovative local activism," in the dictionary, there will probably be a picture of Halie before long.
- District Seven: Maria Quinones Sanchez. Maria is competing for the seat once held by the ultra-corrupt Rick Marinao, who is now in jail. In 2005, Mariano thrilled Philadelphia residents by climbing to the top of city hall the day he was indicted, where many people thought he might jump (fortunately, he did not jump, and later claimed that he had no intention of jumping). Maria faces six-month incumbent Dan Savage, who was installed by the machine without an election (along with Carol Campbell and Bill Greenlee). Maria has received a wide range of establishment and reformer endorsements, and has a very good chance to win. If she loses, reform challengers might very well be shut out city-wide. A very big race to watch.
- District Eight: Irv Ackelsberg. Irv has a long, long history of progressive activism in Philadelphia, and is also the father of Dan and Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg, the two brothers who got Young Philly Politics up and running. I guess that makes him, quite literally, the local blogfather. I have heard rumors of a poll showing Irv well ahead in this campaign, but I don't know how solid those rumors are. It is certainly impressive that he has been able to marshal several hundred volunteers to work on a local city council campaign.
Judges: I don't like that judges are elected in Pennsylvania. If forced to choose among Democrats, I vote for the candidates who come highly recommended by the bar association, instead of just "recommended." For state supreme court, where people can make two votes, that means C. Darnell Jones and Debra Todd. For state superior court, that means Anne Lazarus, and then either Ron Folino or Christine Donahue. Some new local judges might not hurt either, but I'm not going to pretend to know enough to make an informed endorsement.
Row Offices: Even though these are the five elected offices in the city where the patronage jobs of the machine are the most plentiful, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to these campaigns. These elections should probably be moved to the same year as district attorney. Every challenger here is a real long shot, but it would be great if Michael Untemeyer was given a chance to clean up the mess in the Sheriff's office. Also, I support Blair Talmadge for city commissioner, an office I once considered running for myself.
Phew. I can't wait for this election to be over, which happily coincides with the student population leaving my neighborhood, University City, for the summer. Starting on Wednesday, it is going to get nice and quiet around here for a few months. Also, I think the endorsements of Neighborhood Networks and Philly for Change, are worth a look. This is a very exciting time in Philadelphia, and while I do not expect many of the candidates I listed above to win, I think that we can get Michael Nutter and at least two new members of city council. That is really all the foothold we need to start making big-time changes around here, since Philadelphia has a strong mayor system, and since it only takes two members of city council to hold a hearing. Onward to Tuesday!