Clout of the coffee can? Recent Philly elections suggest ballot position not that vital

 Former City Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr. is seeking a return to office this year. He drew 19th position in a 21-candidate field for Democratic city council at-large. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Former City Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr. is seeking a return to office this year. He drew 19th position in a 21-candidate field for Democratic city council at-large. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

As the vintage Horn & Hardart’s coffee tin returns to a place where it isn’t the center of attention, candidates for mayor, council, commissioner and other Philadelphia offices move wonder how/if the luck of Wednesday’s ballot position (PDF) draw affects their chances in May’s primaries.

If any lessons can be taken from the little ritual in City Hall Courtroom 676, it’s that candidates who want to be among the top names listed are not well served drawing their own ball from the coffee tin.

The mayor’s race

The three mayoral candidates who personally participated — Doug Oliver, Nelson Diaz and Lynne Abraham — drew fourth, fifth and sixth positions respectively.

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The mayoral candidates drew in the order in which they turned in their nominating petitions. Here’s the ballot order (the figure in parentheses is the order in which they drew from the can itself):

1. Anthony Williams (2nd)

2. Milton Street (6th)

3. Jim Kenney (4th)

4. Oliver (5th)

5. Diaz (3rd)

6. Abraham (1st)

For her part, Abraham told WHYY’s Tom MacDonald that she doesn’t see the sixth position as a bad thing.

“I think it’s a good spot on the ballot!” she said in the hallway outside the courtroom. “It’s the last name people are going to see, and they’re going to remember it. … I’m in it to win it, and that’s the end of the story. Once I put my name into something, I stay in it to the end.”

Oliver also waxed optimistic after drawing fourth of six.

“At the top of the ticket, people are paying a lot of attention and ballot placement doesn’t matter as much as it would if there were 20 of us running,” he said. “Oliver is a strong name, but Oliver also represents a strong issue which is a different perspective on the city of Philadelphia. Anybody looking for that is going to look for my name.”

What’s it all mean?

If you sit down with City Commissioner Al Schmidt to look back at recent mayoral races without an incumbent, the potential impact of today’s little lottery seems to shrink.

In 1991, eventual winner Ed Rendell was fifth in a five-candidate field.

In 1999, John Street drew the No. 1 slot in a four-person field.

And, eight years ago, Michael Nutter had the third slot out of seven positions.

Council positions

Ballot position is viewed as more important in City Council at-large races that don’t draw the same amount of attention as the mayoral race.

On the 21-candidate Democratic side, the incumbents did not fare well: Blondell Reynolds Brown (8th), Bill Greenlee (7th), Ed Neilson (18th) and W. Wilson Goode Jr. (21st).

Atop the ballot are Derek Green, who worked in City Councilwoman Marian Tasco’s office, and Jenne Baccar Ayers, daughter of the city’s former fire commissioner. Education advocate Helen Gym will be 17th on the ballot while former Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr. is 19th.

“I was lucky today, I guess because I have a last name that’s Green and St. Paddy’s Day was yesterday. It worked out for me,” said the top-position candidate. “By being in the No. 1 position, that’s the first name people will see. It helps me get my message out.”

On the Republican council at-large side, incumbents David Oh and Denny O’Brien drew first and fifth position in the seven-candidate field.

The ballot order, of course, is dependent upon the outcome of petition challenges which start being heard on Friday.

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