Now and then you’ll see a rich guy like Governor Wolf or Philadelphia realtor Alan Domb start a political career by dumping a ton of money into a campaign at the right moment and winning public office.
Events this summer got me wondering: could you also start a political career really cheap by jumping into an obscure, low turnout special election and mobilizing a few hundred voters at the right moment?There aren’t many elections more obscure than a special election for a state house seat in August, but we have four of them coming next month in Philadelphia and Delaware County. Imagine it: voting will happen on Tuesdays when most people will have no idea there’s an election. How hard could it be get your friends and relatives out and steal a seat when nobody’s looking?
Harder than you think
The special elections are to fill vacant seats. Two are empty due to scandal. State Rep. Ron Waters resigned his seat in West Philadelphia (plus Yeadon and Darby in Delaware County) after he was caught taking cash in a sting operation. Ditto for State Rep. Michelle Brownlee. Her North Philly seat is now up for grabs, along with a district in Northeast Philly vacated by State Rep. John Sabatina, who moved up to take Lt. Gov. Mike Stack’s former state senate seat. All those elections are August 11th.A week earlier, there will be a special election in Delaware County to fill the seat of Republican Joe Hackett, who resigned somewhat mysteriously four months into his third term.In a special election, there are no party primaries, so the Republican and Democratic candidates are chosen by ward leaders, and usually the party with a big voter registration edge wins easily.
Chance to buck the machine
In two of the four races, there are independent candidates, and that’s where it gets interesting. In that West Philly seat, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, the party’s candidate is Joanna McClinton, a staff attorney for State Senator Anthony Williams, who just lost the mayoral primary. Tracey Gordon, a long time community activist from Southwest Philly is also running (on the Tracey Gordon party ticket).Gordon has an interesting history. She fought the Democratic party over its refusal to seat her as a committeeperson and eventually got the post. She served as deputy city commissioner under Stephanie Singer, and ran for that office unsuccessfully in the May primary.She thinks her name recognition and community support give her a real shot. She says electing the party candidate, McClinton, would be “giving Tony Williams control over another seat.”I spoke to McClinton, who hardly sounds like a party hack. She grew up in a single parent home in Southwest Philly, went to LaSalle and Villanova Law school and worked as a public defender for seven years. She says she’s travelled abroad, studied public policy, been involved in community service, knows how Harrisburg works and why it matters, and is nobody’s puppet. She also says she knocking on every door she can and isn’t taking anything for granted.
The battle in Delco
The Delaware County seat leans Republican, which would seem to give the GOP candidate, a labor leader named Pat Mullen, the edge. But the Democrat is Leanne Krueger-Braneky of Swarthmore, who ran and made a decent showing last year. And there’s a third candidate, a Penn-Delco school board member named Lisa Esler, who’s described as a tea party activist. She isn’t on the ballot, so she’s waging a write-in campaign. That’s a hard way to win an election, though it has happened. There’s also the prospect she’ll attract enough conservative Republicans to give the Democrat, Krueger-Braneky a better chance.
Look at the recordOn average, there are about 41,000 registered voters in a state house district. To test my hypothesis that that a few hundred votes might win a state house seat in a low-profile race, I checked the results of some special elections in recent years.There aren’t that many special elections called on days other than general or primary elections, but when they are, I found there are more votes than you might think. In the special election to fill U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle’s northeast Philly state seat in March, more than 6,300 votes were cast.State Rep. Maria Donatucci won a February, 2011 special election in South Philly with just 1,679 votes, but it was a one-sided contest, while the Boyle seat was a hotly-contested race with personal grudges in the mix and labor unions deeply involved. It also gave Philadelphia its second Republican state representative, Martina White.So while the numbers are aren’t large, the results suggest that even in the most obscure election, insiders care about a state house seat, and if it’s contested, they’ll fight for it.
The Other two
Democrats are favored in the two races that don’t have independents. In the In the northeast Phily seat, the Democratic candidate is Ed Neilson, a former electricians’ union official who failed to win renomination to his City Council seat, which he won in a special election (the Daily News says they call him “special Ed” around city hall. He’s running in August against Republican Timothy Dailey.
In the Brownlee’s former district in North Philadelphia, Democrat Donna Bullock is running against Republican Adam Lang. Registration favors the Democrats in both races, but the city Republican party Executive Director Joe DeFelice told me his people are contesting the races, and if voters are smart, they’ll look his way.
“I feel it would be in people’s best interest to support the Republicans, since we control both the senate and the state house by overwhelming margins,” DeFelice said, adding that maybe the city wouldn’t have to hire a Republican lobbying firm to talk to the legislative leadership if they had a few more Republicans in the city’s delegation.
Again, why now?So why are we having elections in the dog days of August anyway? That’s the call of State House Speaker Mike Turzai, who could have held the special elections in November, which would save tax dollars and get far more voters involved.The argument for doing it earlier is that you want to give constituents in those districts representation in the legislature as soon as possible. After all, big decisions are being made in Harrisburg these days.It’s also fair to note that Turzai is a Republican, and if those Philadelphia votes were held in November, they would give Democrats in those districts a reason to vote in an otherwise less-than-exciting general election.And you many know that there are some high stakes judicial elections this fall, as Republicans and Democrats battle for control of the state supreme court. So Democrats at least see a partisan motive for Turzai in not juicing Philadelphia turnout this fall.