by Karen Bojar
According to as yet unofficial figures provided by City Commissioner Al Schmidt, only 17 percent of Philadelphia voters fulfilled their civic duty in the May 15 primary election.
Although the Chestnut Hill/Mt. Airy/Cedarbrook wards, which comprise the 200th Legislative District, maintained their position among the top wards for turnout, their “high turnout” was a mere 35 percent in the 9th Ward, 33 percent in the 22nd and 31 percent in the 50th.
The hotly contested race for state representative in the 200th District, as well as the strong support for Mt. Airy’s Lt. Governor candidate, Nina Ahmad, contributed to the relatively high turnout in the 200th District.
In the 9th Ward’s second division, where I served as committeeperson, several voters told me they were coming out to vote primarily for Nina Ahmad, who they hoped would be the first woman of color and member of the immigrant community elected to state-wide office.
Although John Fetterman won statewide with almost 40 percent of the vote, Ahmad scored a strong second-place finish despite entering the race late with relatively little name recognition and a bad ballot position. In the five-way race, Ahmad was the top vote-getter in the 9th Ward with 51 percent, in the 22nd with 44 percent, and in the 50th with an impressive 62 percent.
However, the major driver of turnout was no doubt the contest for the 200th legislative seat.
In 2016 Chris Rabb defeated Tonyelle Cook-Artis, who was backed by former Councilperson Marian Tasco and current Councilperson Cherelle Parker. In 2018 Rabb, now the incumbent, faced Melissa Scott, who was also backed by Tasco and Parker.
This time, Rabb won with 52 percent of the vote compared to the 47 percent of the vote he scored against two challengers in 2016. The turnout was higher in 2016, with a contested presidential primary, but in both elections, the breakdown in each of the 200th District’s wards was similar, with the most striking change in the 22nd ward:
- In 2016, the 9th Ward vote went for Rabb by 78 percent, and rose to 82 percent in 2018.
- In 2016, the 22nd ward vote went for Rabb by 48 percent and rose to 59 percent in 2018.
- In 2016, the 50th ward vote went for Rabb by 28 percent and fell to 24 percent in 2018.
The results in the 22nd Ward reveal an east/west divide with Chris Rabb winning all 10 of the divisions west of Germantown Avenue and Melissa Scott winning 10 of the 19 divisions east of Germantown Avenue. Rabb’s 4 percent point lead over Scott translates into an edge of 647 votes, narrow enough to attract a challenger in 2020. Will we see a replay of this battle in 2020 or will the two sides finally bury the hatchet?
The Committeeperson Races
In addition to the contested races for Lt. Governor and for representative in the 200th Legislative District, the committeeperson races were another driver of turnout. For the past year, organizations such as the Caucus of Working Educators, Moving Philly Forward, Neighborhood Networks, Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Philadelphia Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Philly for Change, Reclaim Philadelphia and 3.0 have been running workshops on how to run for committeeperson. The level of activity and degree of enthusiasm was much greater in 2018 than was the case in 2014, suggesting that discontent with the undemocratic Democratic Party might be finally reaching a tipping point.
A surge of committeeperson candidates was expected. Although the overall number of candidates for committeeperson did not increase by much, apparently this time fewer incumbents were running. Thus, the mix of candidates in 2018 contained an increased proportion of newcomers, largely concentrated in the gentrifying areas on the periphery of center. The number of newcomers citywide might be smaller than expected, but there may be a significantly higher number of people with a deeper commitment to political change than ran in 2014.
City Commissioner Al Schmidt compiled a list of the wards in the city with the highest increase from 2014 to 2018 in the number of candidates filing to run as committeeperson. The Northwest Philadelphia wards, with their high numbers of older voters, were not among them.
Interest in committeeperson races has been highest in those neighborhoods, which have seen an influx of millennials. The recent uptick in voting and political participation among millennials will certainly have an impact on the political system. We will soon get some indication of the extent of their influence in the upcoming ward leader elections.
Neighborhood Networks is the organization most involved in recruiting committee people from the Northwest.
“On behalf of Neighborhood Networks , I reached out and supported 23 people who never ran for office before but jumped into the election for committeeperson in Wards 9 and 22. All but three were elected,” said Margaret Lenzi, networks steering committee member and committee person project organizer for Neighborhood Networks. “We hope their activism will reinvigorate the Democratic Party.”
Neighborhood Network’s 22nd Ward coordinator Susan Windle reported: “When we began, many of us had little idea what a committeeperson was and what they should be doing, but we learned, and we taught our neighbors. With the toxins raining down upon us from our national political scene, I found this intimate political engagement to be a powerful antidote to cynicism and despair.”
Neighborhood Network’s founder Stan Shapiro observed: “The most gratifying aspect of our campaign was how much it seemed to boost the morale of folks who ran for the first time, dispelling their previous feelings of political hopelessness. This is an energetic class, brimming with energy to make change and grateful for finding a way to participate. The challenge will be to keep them engaged if and when they run into the wall of apathy and downright hostility put up by the old guard. Many of them encountered this while canvassing and at the polls on Tuesday. New to the process, it often surprised them. But they persevered and hopefully will continue to do so.”
On June 4, committeepeople in each ward will meet to elect a ward leader for a four-year term. The 9th Ward has a long history of civil debate and fairly conducted elections. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case with the 22nd Ward. However, real change may be coming to the 22nd Ward; the incumbent ward leader is stepping down and there appears to be a wide open race for ward leader.
The newly elected ward leaders will then elect the Party Chair. The rumor mill is buzzing with speculation as to whether or not Bob Brady will seek another term. If not, will there be a party chair ready to welcome a new generation of party activists with a commitment to democracy and transparency? Stay tuned.
Karen Bojar is a longtime former committee person in the 9th Ward Democratic Committee. She is also the author of “Feminism In Philadelphia: The Glory Years: Philadelphia NOW, 1968-1982.”