Progressives gain in Philly’s Democratic Party organization

Karen DiLossi won a Democratic committee post in South Philadelphia on May 15.

Karen DiLossi won a Democratic committee post in South Philadelphia on May 15. (Dave Davies/WHYY).

The Philadelphia Democratic Party organization could be in for a jolt this year, thanks to the election of younger, more progressive activists to committee posts earlier this month.

It’s expected the wave of insurgents will take the leadership of two South Philadelphia ward organizations in elections next week, and other wards will find themselves with new voices advocating change.

The power brokers in the city’s Democratic machine are its 69 ward leaders. Each is chosen by the ward’s committeepeople, neighborhood-level party officials who are themselves elected every four years, two per voting precinct.

Committee elections were held in the May 15 party primary, and, in certain neighborhoods, there was an influx of first-time candidates moved to activism by the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Two weeks before the election, I ran into Karen DiLossi, 41, who decided to run in the 39th Ward in South Philadelphia. She’s a theater artist, wife, and mom who’s lived in South Philly for 10 years.

She said she was horrified to see Donald Trump elected president, and even more horrified to see he’d won a narrow victory in her neighborhood.

“When I found that my division, my little five-block radius, went for Trump by 10 votes, I felt I could get 11 more people there. I could get 15 or 20 people there, and that’s why I decided to run,” she said.

DiLossi visited Democratic voters in her voting division for weeks, and she won election with 53 votes on primary day.

Change is coming

DiLossi and other first-time committee hopefuls in Philly got advice from Philadelphia 3.0, one of several groups that made it a point to recruit and train new candidates for committee posts this year.

Among other organizations active in such efforts were Reclaim Philadelphia, Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Committee, and the campaign of Elizabeth Fiedler, a first-time candidate who won a four-way Democratic primary for state representative in South Philadelphia.

Jon Geeting, director of outreach for Philadelphia 3.0, said in an interview that about 250 candidates assisted by the group got on the ballot, and about 70 percent of them were elected.

That’s a small percentage of the more than 3,300 committee posts citywide, but in South Philadelphia and the river wards, the newcomers will have an impact.

Geeting said many of them have a more progressive policy agenda, and they don’t want to be told whom to support for office by their ward leaders, a traditional practice in the Democratic organization.

“People want more democracy within the wards. The want a role in endorsing candidates for state Legislature and City Council and all the other seats,” Geeting said. “And they want more of a role in influencing public policy, including bills in City Council and the state Legislature.”

Interviews with Democratic officials and activists suggest that insurgents will have the votes to capture two South Philadelphia wards, the 1st and 2nd, when organizing elections are held next Monday night.

Those wards include the area roughly between South and Mifflin streets, east of Broad.

In other wards, including the 39th where DiLossi was elected, gains appear to have been more modest.

But even in wards where traditional leaders keep their posts, they’re likely to have newcomers at their ward meetings, advocating change.

Matt Myers, for years the leader of Ward 39B (the 39th has so many Democrats, the party split in two for the purposes of organization), said he’s happy to see the new faces.

“The new crop that ran, I love them,” Myers said in a phone interview. “They’re anti-Trump people, and I tell them, ‘We’re all on the same page now.’ It’s long overdue to get some of these younger people involved.”

In the party primary, Myers and other party stalwarts supported Ward 39A leader Jonathan Rowan for state representative against Fiedler.

Myers acknowledged his ward committee sent a mailer attacking Fiedler in the closing days of the race, but said she’d run “a great campaign.”

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