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Philly Democratic machine, progressives battle in primary Tuesday

Listen 5:16
Ward leaders line up for their checks at Democratic City Committee headquarters. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

Ward leaders line up for their checks at Democratic City Committee headquarters. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

Ward leaders gathered last Friday at the Philadelphia Democratic Party’s headquarters on Spring Garden Street for a decades-old tradition: They lined up to get checks for between $2,000 and $4,000 each to pay for Election Day field operations.

Within minutes, most ward leaders would convert the money to cash — “street money,” in Philadelphia political parlance.

That cash goes toward printing costs, food, transportation, and modest payments to poll workers. Those are the people who ensure sample ballots are handed to voters as they go to the polls Tuesday.

The money comes from candidates the party has endorsed in the primary, but that’s just part of the hundreds of thousands of dollars candidates will pay to get the attention of distracted voters.

Individual ward leaders and groups of ward leaders will offer special coverage at their polling places for a price — often $1,000 or more per ward, and freelance political consultants will offer to put armies of field operatives in neighborhoods they know, for a price.

It’s a strange marketplace where candidates can get separated from their money in a hurry, sometimes without much to show for it.

New players

But this year, progressive activists angered and energized by the election of President Donald Trump are in the game, endorsing candidates and putting field organizations in the street, hoping to create a seismic shift in city politics.

Reclaim Philadelphia is a group that grew out of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and its ranks swelled after Trump’s election. They say they’re about electing a government that works for people, not corporations.

Over the past two years, Reclaim has played a role in winning elections — District Attorney Larry Krasner’s victory in 2017, state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler’s win last year, and others. (Fiedler is a former WHYY reporter.)

So hundreds of people showed up at the group’s citywide meeting in February, including a couple dozen candidates for city office who were courting the group’s support.

Amanda McIllmurray is lead organizer for Reclaim Philadelphia. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

Lead organizer Amanda Mcillmurray pointed to candidates in the room with pride in her speech.

“They’re here because of the power we’ve built in this room, right?” Mcillmurray said.

“A few years ago, we had to beg candidates … to show up at our meetings. Now, all these candidates showed up without me asking them. I think that speaks to where we’re at today,” she said to thunderous applause.

In this election, Reclaim is partnering with another progressive group, the 215 People’s Alliance. They’ve endorsed a slate of candidates, including some the Democratic Party hasn’t, such as immigrant rights activist Erika Almiron, union leader Ethelind Baylor, and first-time candidate Justin DiBerardinis for City Council at-large.

Reclaim has formed a political action committee to fund its field operations, and candidates are paying the progressive groups thousands of dollars for their efforts, just like other candidates are paying street money to Democratic ward leaders.

Campaign finance reports show DiBerardinis has paid $10,000 to the Reclaim political committee. Almiron and Baylor have each paid $7,500.

Reclaim has also endorsed two Council at-large candidates backed by the Democratic City Committee – incumbent Helen Gym and challenger Isaiah Thomas. Gym has given $10,000 to the Reclaim committee, Thomas, $5,000.

The five Council at-large candidates have also contributed a combined $35,000 to the 215 People’s Alliance, according to campaign finance reports.

Those investing in the progressive groups think they’ll get real value for the money because their field workers have their hearts in the mission, and because Reclaim is doing targeted door-to-door canvassing before the election, not just handing out literature at the polls.

Other progressive groups are mounting field efforts support slates of candidates, including Millennials in Action, which focuses on turnout among African-American millennials, and Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, which has been active for years in Northwest Philadelphia.

Sudden impact?

Turnout is expected to be light in Tuesday’s primary, because the mayor’s race at the top of the ticket hasn’t generated great interest or advertising.

That could increase the impact of a targeted turnout effort aimed at energized voters.

Joe Corrigan, a political consultant who works for progressive candidates, says big things could happen in this election

“Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Philadelphia will tell us where the political power of the city lies,” Corrigan said. “Does it lie in the ward system of the Democratic City Committee? Or does it lie within a new generation of super-voting Democrats that are primarily women who have been roused into action by the election of Donald Trump?”

At the Democratic City Committee headquarters, Chairman Bob Brady, was asked if he thinks progressive groups will have a major impact in the election.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” the former U.S. Rep. said, “because we’re too strong. We do the right thing, we do it right. I think that we will prevail. We always do.”

Polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday.

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