by Karen Bojar

The good news from last Tuesday’s primary election in Philadelphia was that the 23% turnout was higher than expected, with some 80,000 more voters than the last municipal primary in 2017. The bad news is that, despite all the energy and enthusiasm the numerous candidates and their supporters poured into their campaigns, 77% of eligible voters chose not to participate.

The historically high turnout wards in the Northwest performed well with some divisions turning out above 50%. The Election Commissioners’ office has yet to provide demographic turnout information, so we do not yet know if the recent uptick in the percentage of millennials voting is holding.

Generational change is coming to Philadelphia City Council, with new Council at-large members Katherine Gilmore Richardson (35) and Isaiah Thomas (34). They join the three incumbents: Helen Gym, who came in first place with an eye-popping 107,148 votes, Allen Domb in 2nd place with 66,124 votes and Mt. Airy’s Derek Green who overcame a bad ballot position to come in third with 60,251 votes. The 8th District’s Councilperson Cindy Bass was also reelected, though she faced no challenger.

The party vs. the progressives: Who were the winners?

Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the relative strength of the Democratic Party machine, vs. the emerging groups of progressive challengers.

The defeat of longtime incumbent Jannie Blackwell by impressive newcomer Jamie Gauthier was certainly a blow to the machine, as was the loss of two row offices, which the party has historically controlled: Sheriff and Register of Wills. In judicial elections, party-endorsed candidates won only three out of six judicial slots for the Court of Common Pleas. One of the judicial candidates who won without party endorsement was Mt. Airy’s Tiffany Palmer who was rated “highly qualified” by the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Yet, despite these losses, some saw on balance a good night for the party. In contrast to 2015, when only two of five party-endorsed candidates for Council at-large won, the entire party-backed at-large slate won in 2019. The 2019 slate, however, included three strong incumbents who had been the victorious challengers in 2015, and in the case of Gym and Green, had support among progressive organizations.

The 2019 challengers also had political and institutional backing beyond that provided by the Democratic City Committee. Isaiah Thomas in particular had considerable support from unions and progressive groups.

Arguably, the party’s 2019 at-large slate was victorious because the party fielded stronger candidates. The 2019 slate was especially strong in the African American wards, in all likelihood due to the presence of attractive African American candidates – Gilmore Richardson, Green and Thomas. The contrast in 2019 vs. 2015 results is striking:

In 2015, city party leaders endorsed candidates Sherrie Cohen, Blondell Reynolds-Brown, Bill Greenlee, Ed Neilson and Wilson Goode Jr. Many wards did not enthusiastically follow. Sample ballots, which each ward committee distributes to voters for guidance, showed no regard for the city’s picks.

No wards carried all five endorsed candidates. Two wards carried four. Twenty-seven wards carried three. Thirty wards carried two. Six wards carried one. One ward carried no endorsed candidates.

In 2019, the party endorsed Domb, Gilmore-Richardson, Green, Gym and Thomas. Ward committee reactions were much different this time.

Twenty-eight wards carried all five endorsed candidates. Twenty-one wards carried four. Ten wards carried three. Seven wards carried two.

According to WHYY reporter Dave Davies, Democratic Party Chairman Bob Brady attributed the 2019 victory to the power of the party.

“The party is strong. We kept it together,” Brady said.

Like the Democratic City Committee, progressive groups such as Reclaim Philadelphia and its partner 215 Alliance had mixed results. Only two out of five of its candidates for council-at-large won: Gym and Thompson. Both, however, already had strong support beyond what was provided by Reclaim. Of their other three candidates for council-at-large, Justin DiBerardinis came in sixth, Erika Almiron placed eighth and Ethelind Baylor was way down in the pack with 2.06% of the vote.

Like Bob Brady, Amanda McIllmurray, political director for Reclaim, claimed victory.

“Last night’s election showed that our movement is on the rise. Four Reclaim endorsed candidates – Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas, Tiffany Palmer and Jennifer Schultz – won,” she said. “In neighborhoods where we canvassed, our slate of candidates won overwhelmingly.”

Despite its strength in parts of South Philadelphia, Reclaim does not have citywide influence.

Similarly, Neighborhood Networks celebrated the victory of two of its endorsed candidates – Gym and Green – while acknowledging that their other two candidates for Council at-large, DiBerardinis and Almiron, “all first-time candidates with no party backing came up just short of victory.”

Like Reclaim, Neighborhood Networks acknowledged that its influence was largely limited to one area of the city: the Northwest.

“In areas where PNN had a field presence, all of our candidates for these positions were winners,” the organization said in a release.

Neighborhood Networks is conflating “party backing” with Democratic City Committee endorsement. DiBerardinis may not have had City Committee endorsement, but had considerable backing from progressive ward leaders.

The Democratic Party is an increasingly fragmented network of ward leaders, committee people and activists sometimes moving in very different directions. The Democratic City Committee led by Brady does not control this network, and its power has been weakening over the years. As Wilson Goode in 2015 and Jannie Blackwell and Ronald Donatucci in 2019 discovered, longtime incumbency no longer provides ironclad protection.

Despite the fact that the at-large races were a victory for the Democratic City Committee, the overall picture is not so clear-cut. Reclaim and its allies had some disappointments in the at-large races, but it is playing a long game, and time will tell to what extent they can expand on their South Philadelphia base.

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