While some unhappy with the Donald Trump presidency took to protest marches over the weekend, others are considering a different kind of commitment to political change. Last week, a surprisingly large number of progressive Democrats gathered in Center City to learn the basics of running for local office.
The event, billed as “How to Run for a Neighborhood Office and Win,” was organized by a newly formed group called the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Committee.
I decided to drop by and see what the response was.
Word of the event was posted on Facebook and spread by word of mouth, and 400 people showed up.
This, I thought, is interesting.
It seemed most of the crowd was under 40. After they heard from a panel of experienced political hands on how to run for local office — and why they should — moderator Melissa Robbins asked how many thought they would actually run.
I walked over to a woman who’d half-raised her hand, and asked what brought her there.
“Well, I was very disappointed with the outcome of the national election,” she said, “and I felt I could no longer sit on the sidelines of the Democratic process.”
Sarah Hansel, a 30 year-old attorney who lives in Northern Liberties, said she’d think about the two local offices that were discussed in the meeting.
How it works
This year, there will be elections for the neighborhood boards that run elections. And next year, there will be elections for the most local of party offices — the neighborhood committeeperson.
Brett Mandel, who’s run for city controller twice, explained that power in the city Democratic Party rests largely in the hands of 69 ward leaders.
They’re, in turn, elected by neighborhood committeepeople, two per voting division.
Mandel explained that if enough good people become committeepeople, and they elect good ward leaders, the party can become more democratic and more devoted to progressive ideas.
But several on the panel said the party is ruled by an old guard of ward leaders who will resist change.
You can win a neighborhood committeeperson post with as few as 10 votes, if it’s vacant. If there’s an incumbent, perhaps one loyal to the incumbent ward leader, you’ll have to run a campaign.
Ben Waxman, who nearly knocked off an incumbent state representative last year, told newcomers they shouldn’t expect to win with texts and Facebook posts.
“Get ready to lace up your boots, and get ready to knock on doors,” Waxman said. “The other thing that I will say, for my fellow millennials: You’re going to have to talk to some old people if you’re going to win an election. You’re going to have to talk people who aren’t just part of your social bubble.”
Karen Bojar, a committeewoman for 30 years, said she’s not running for re-election, because it’s time for new, younger voices in the party.
“Many of the committeepeople and ward leaders in the Democratic Party, and I think the Republican Party as well, are in their 60s, 70s, 80s,” she said. “There will be generational change. And the generational change is an opportunity for political change.”
Running, then serving
While the prospect of winning a ground-level post in the party seemed appealing and within reach to many, there’s another side to becoming a committeeperson.
If you win, you have a four-year term, and veteran 34th Ward committeeman Omar Sabir said it’s less about lofty political debate than serving the community that elected you.
“You know, it’s a 24-hour job, because you actually have to deal with constituents,” Sabir told me in an interview after the event. “You actually have to do work. They knock on your door at all times of the night, saying. ‘Can you call the state representative … can you do everything?’ You see them at the grocery store.”
Sabir, by the way, is a committeeman in the Overbrook ward of the party chairman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.
Sabir said progressives’ belief that party leaders are corrupt and self-serving is mistaken. They aren’t perfect, he said, but the party is generally run in an open and democratic way, and he’s excited to see the energy the newcomers bring.
How many of the 400 who showed up will actually follow through and run?
Toniko Cobb, a 31-year-old teacher I spoke to, said she’s considering it.
“I would like to help my neighborhood, and I would like to work on education,” she said. “Everything begins at the bottom and has to work its way up. Change begins from within.”
Elections for party committee posts aren’t until next year in Philadelphia, so she’ll have some time to think about it — and time to start knocking on doors.
Meanwhile Joe Driscoll, one of the organizers of the committee, said the group will have a meeting soon to formalize its structure and elect officers, and it may form a political action committee.