Support non-Democrats at your own peril, the Philadelphia Democratic Party warned its members. Now it has made good on that promise.
Support non-Democrats at your own peril, the Philadelphia Democratic Party warned its members in a letter written by chairman Bob Brady last year. And last month, Brady and his party made good on its promise. Eleven committee members in Mt. Airy’s 22nd ward and two in Chestnut Hill’s 9th ward were among those who were told they’d been kicked out of their positions, courtesy of Brady and the Democratic machine.
And those committee members, who are duly elected by constituents like any other elected official, lay the blame on petty politics. They’re also furious.
“It made me angry, but it also made me sad,” said one ousted committee member from the 22nd ward, Cynthia Albrecht. “You’re trying to make the city less corrupt, and it just feels like there's nothing you can do.”
The committee members say the party's ability to fight off a likely challenge from former President Donald Trump in November is at stake. According to them, their records for voter turnout are among the highest in the city – so kicking them out when Philadelphia’s performance may be decisive is a bad idea.
“I think [DCC chairman] Bob Brady and [22nd ward leader] Cindy Bass are more invested in their own power here within the city than whether Trump wins or loses,” said one of the 22nd ward’s ousted committee members, Alex Reusing, in a phone call with the Local.
The Democratic City Committee did not return messages the Local left with a receptionist for this story. Bass, the 22nd ward leader and the council member who represents Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and most of Germantown, also did not respond to a request for comment.
The committee members say they should be representing the immediate neighbors who elected them – as opposed to the DCC, which sees committee members as a tool to serve the party.
“This is the party saying ‘no, you work for the party first,’” said one of the 22nd ward’s ousted committee members, Ben Van Couvering. “And that’s not really what I signed up for.”
Rebecca Poyourow, a committee member who was removed from Roxborough’s 21st ward, accused the DCC of being “more concerned with kicking out some of the most effective get-out-the-vote advocates and staunchest allies” than churning out votes for Democrats in the upcoming election.
The rise of Philadelphia’s Working Families Party
City law mandates that of the 17 members of City Council, 10 represent distinct geographic districts and seven are elected “at large,” which means they represent the entire city. The law also mandates that of those seven at-large members, at least two must be members of a minority party.
Historically, that has resulted in Republicans, who are outnumbered by Democrats in Philadelphia by a 7-1 margin, being virtually guaranteed at least those two spots.
Not anymore. Working Families candidate Kendra Brooks won one of those seats in 2019, and last year, Working Families candidate Nicolas O’Rourke won the other. Brooks also won re-election, which left long-time 10th district councilmember Brian O’Neill as the only Republican on city council.
Both Brooks and O’Rourke were swept into office with the support of many progressive Democrats, who reasoned they were more likely to support a liberal Democratic agenda than Republicans would be.
“When I sent out my missive to constituents, I explained to them that there was no way that this would hurt Democrats, but it would hurt the Republicans,” said Albrecht. “And that was proven because the Republicans didn’t win while Working Families Party candidates and Democrats did.”
How committee members were removed
It is unclear who is behind the move – individual ward leaders or the DCC itself.
Ousted committee members in the 22nd and 9th wards each received letters from the DCC notifying them of their removal.
However, Poyourow, the lone expelled committee member from Roxborough’s 21st ward, received a signed letter directly from her ward leader, Louis Agre.
Agre said Poyourow was removed in part for her social media posts advocating for Working Families Party candidates, and for signing a letter – along with 100 other Democratic committee members – in support of Brooks and O’Rourke ahead of the Nov. 7 election.
“I really gave her every chance to obey the rules of the party,” Agre said in a phone call. “Rebecca was not somebody who just signed a letter or handed out a ballot. She had a fundraiser, posted on Facebook, posted on Twitter and went around the neighborhood canvassing for the Working Families Party.”
Agre said the decision to remove Poyourow was made by his ward’s executive board.
Poyourow said she wasn’t surprised by her removal given her activism on behalf of non-Democrats. Her bigger concern, she said, is “what it says about the Democratic Party in Philadelphia on the eve of the 2024 presidential elections.”
Jeff Duncan, leader of the 9th ward, told the Local in a phone call that Democratic Party rules require ward committee members to support Democratic candidates in a general election and that members who support the candidacy of a non-Democrat in a general election are subject to disciplinary action including removal.
“Chairman Brady sent a letter to all ward leaders explicitly stating this and requested that we share it with our members,” he said in a phone call. “It’s a basic and fundamental rule of the party that ward committee members cannot support candidates from another party over a Democratic candidate in a general election.”
Stan Shapiro, one of the two ousted committee members in Duncan’s ward, said he was “personally offended” by both his removal and the removal of his wife, Margaret Lenzi.
And, some committee members say, it seems hypocritical that the official DCC ballot didn’t seem to follow the rules it is now using to kick them out.
That ballot included endorsements for at least two Republican judges: Paula Patrick, who serves on the Court of Common Pleas; and Victor Stabile, who serves on the Superior Court.
“They are violating the exact same rule that they are weaponizing to oust committee members,” said Nathan Holt, a committee member removed from the 22nd ward. “It’s naked hypocrisy. A Republican judge. Unbelievable.”
Does the party have a point?
According to Mt. Airy resident and Democratic media consultant Larry Ceisler, if those committee people are working on behalf of people who are not running as Democrats, party leaders might have reason to balk. And Democrats funnel money through the ward system and into the hands of committee people who work to get out the vote, so there is money at stake.
“When some of the Democratic candidates get cut, that means Democrats aren’t getting the product they paid for,” Ceisler said.
Ceisler also doesn’t buy the idea that committee members in Northwest Philadelphia could be the determining factor in a presidential election. He gave committee members credit for their hard work on election day but said they were “not going to be the difference” in whether Pennsylvania goes for Trump or Biden.
Andrew McGinley, Vice President of External Affairs for Committee of Seventy, said that his organization’s stance is that “political parties have free reign to create their own rules and enforce them” with their own bylaws.
“They have to abide by the rules of the party that they’re in,” he said. “In 2019 there was some discussion [about potentially removing committee members]. Brady has been open about this.”
Not their first rodeo
It’s not the first time some committee members in the 22nd ward have tussled with their ward leader and the DCC before.
In June 2022, a court of common pleas judge issued an order directing Bass to include members of the 22nd ward’s open caucus, which sought to defeat Bass in that year’s ward leadership elections, in meetings after she had shut them out previously. Many of the 22nd ward’s ousted committee members are in that caucus.
In a separate lawsuit, Carla Cain, the committee member who ran against Bass for ward leader, sued Bass after she was removed from her position as leader of a civic group she created called the 22nd Ward Democratic Committee. Bass later won the suit.
Despite their removal, many of the ousted committee members still plan to keep engaging with their neighbors about elections and encouraging them to vote.
“We’re still going to do what we’ve always done,” said another ousted member of the 22nd ward, Michael Swayze. “We’re going to help our neighbors, provide them with information, recommend who to vote for and work to get out the vote in our neighborhoods. I hope that every person who’s been kicked out by their ward leader will still do the same thing.”