This November, candidates will partake in a gritty Philadelphia tradition. They’ll give out funds known as “street money” to partisan Election Day workers. In return, the foot soldiers will get out the vote. Street money has been painted as dirty, unethical and antiquated. Are its days numbered?
Maybe you’ve heard of street money, also known as “Election Day” or “get-out-the-vote” money. And maybe you’ve associated it with smoke-filled back rooms. Buying votes with cold, hard cash.
Lou Farinella is a staffer in Philadelphia’s Democratic party. He says that might have happened decades ago.
“You’d hear stories of, people would come out to vote and you’d give them a dollar,” Farinella said. “A dollar was a lot of money back then. You’d give them a shot of their favorite whiskey. Whiskey was popular way back then.”
But Farinella says those days are over.
“Election Day money is not used to buy a vote,” he said. “An elected committee person is standing outside for 13 hours. The Election Day money is compensation for their time.”
For decades, everyone from presidential hopefuls to City Controller wannabees have used that money to help get people to the polls. Philadelphia Democrats are famous for it, but Philadelphia Republicans rely on it, too.
Here’s how it works: Candidates cut checks to the local Democratic and Republican parties, which in turn cut checks to ward leaders. You can think of them as mid-level managers in the city’s parties.
Additionally, some ward leaders get money from candidates and political consultants directly. Then the money moves down the chain again, to committee people. They’re the party’s foot soldiers. They use street money to stump for the candidates, hand out sample ballots and shuttle voters to the polls.
How much does each committee person get? It depends. Various local Democrats say it ranges from $100 to $400 per voting division.
Is this extorting candidates? What would a good-government advocate think?
Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group in Philadelphia is a former editor-in-chief of the Daily News. He’s heard plenty of stories about street money.
“Best one I ever heard of was a guy who, on behalf of his father, told me that his job was to fill the family car with cash and drive it around town, and reach into the trunk and hand it out,” Stalberg said.
Stalberg says street money is OK — to a point.
“It tends to not be a lot of money for a good deal of work, and it’s hard for me to get real worked up about that,” he said. But, he adds, “It can get murky and troublesome.”The trouble starts, says Stalberg, when ward leaders and political consultants pocket the street money.
Jimmy Tayoun is a former City Councilman. He’s also been a ward leader and convicted felon. He says it’s not unusual for ward leaders to keep some of the money.
“If he could pocket it without it being shown, he’d pocket it,” said Tayoun. “More power to him. It’s extra money he’s got. What’s he gonna hold it up and turn it in and give it to Uncle Sam? Are you kidding?”
To be fair, Tayoun says that ward leaders need money for expenses like meetings and offices.
Street money is perfectly legal, but you do need to disclose it.
After a 2001 grand jury investigation of street money, three ward leaders were charged for failing to file campaign-finance reports. The money simply disappeared.
Street money itself is beginning to disappear from big elections. In 2008, President Obama’s campaign broke with tradition and didn’t hand out street money in Philadelphia. It probably won’t give out the money this year, either.
David Glancey, former chairman of the local Democratic party, says street money has “declined in its sense of effect and probably declined in its sense of importance.”
So, he says, it makes sense that Obama’s campaign hasn’t used it.
“They’ve studied what they want to do with their limited finances and said that’s probably not the best expenditure of our money,” Glancey said.
Street money might be fading in national elections, where candidates have more high-tech options. But in small, local elections — where it makes a difference if a neighbor knocks on your door and asks for your vote — it’s still a big player.
As Stalberg points out, traditions die hard in the city.
“Hardly anything changes in Philadelphia anyway,” he said. “So why would we expect this one to change?”