Technically, there’s a special election May 20 to fill the Philadelphia City Council seat vacated by Bill Green, who left to chair the city’s School Reform Commission. The truth: This is over.
The new councilman will be state Rep. Ed Neilson of Northeast Philadelphia. He’s a former political director of the politically powerful electricians’ union Local 98, and he’ll be chosen in a vote at a closed-door meeting Tuesday among the city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders. Because it’s a special election, there’s no primary election.
Why Neilson? Because of a political deal to avoid a bloodletting within the party.
Neilson’s legislative seat is disappearing due to redistricting. (Actually, the 169th is moving to York County, and Neilson isn’t following.) If Neilson wants to stay in the Legislature, he’ll have to run against another well-connected Democratic state legislator, John Sabatina Jr.
City Democratic Party chairman, Congressman Bob Brady says he’d like to avoid that fight.
“They’re both good legislators. They’re both relatively young,” Brady told me. “They work hard, and you know it’s a shame to have them have to lose the seat because of a redistricting issue.”
Brady put the word out, so other potential candidates have stepped aside and the ward leaders are uniting around Neilson.
Is this how we should choose our leaders?
This happens all the time in special elections, both here and elsewhere, but it’s a little weird that a City Council seat gets decided in a vote among 69 ward leaders.
City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who was a Center City ward leader before she was elected to office in 2011, recently put out an email noting that the ward leaders meeting will be neither open to the public nor documented in publicly available minutes.
She noted that ward leaders are not elected by voters (they’re elected by committeepeople who are elected by voters in each voting division) and that “in every other Pennsylvania county, such a Democratic ballot nomination would be made by a vote of the Democratic Committeepeople, the rank and file of the party, directly elected by the people.”
When the Montgomery County Democratic party recently met to consider endorsements, the meeting was open, and voting was open to all committeepeople.
I asked Brady if it was undemocratic for a few dozen ward leaders to pick a councilman.
“The ward leaders get elected by their committeepeople, that are elected by their people,” he said. “It’s the chain of command, and it’s our party rules, and we’ve been doing it way before I became the chairman many years ago.”
As for letting all committeepeople participate in the selection, Brady noted that the Philadelphia party has two committeepeople from each of 1,687 voting divisions. “It would be tough to find a place for that,” he said.
He added that he’s “a little miffed” at Singer piping up on the issue because “she’s a city commissioner and she’s supposed to be impartial.”
And, Brady said, “It was OK for her to be a ward leader and advocate for herself and try to get an endorsement … and now she’s sending out emails?”
I expect the likely Republican candidate, attorney Matthew Wolfe, and the new GOP leadership will wage a spirited campaign, but with a six-to-one registration edge, it’s hard to see the Democrats losing short of anything but a major scandal.
Neilson certainly has the qualifications to make a credible candidate for City Council. He’s a state legislator and a former deputy secretary of Labor and Industry under former Gov. Ed Rendell. But the real source of his power is the electricians union and its business manager, John Dougherty.
When Neilson takes his seat, he’ll join Bobby Henon as the second member in Council chambers who spent years as Doughtery’s political director. That’s quite a coincidence. Or not.