Why Philly ward leaders matter

City of Philadelphia Wards & Divisions Map (left) State Sen. Larry Farnese

City of Philadelphia Wards & Divisions Map (left) State Sen. Larry Farnese

State Sen. Larry Farnese’s political career is now in jeopardy after he allegedly used campaign cash to buy support in a Philadelphia ward election in 2011.

The allegations may seem like a puzzling move, but being a Philadelphia ward leader is no small prize. Historically, they’ve wielded considerable political power, especially when it comes to elections.

Ward leaders get out the vote through their committee people and other ward leaders when they forge alliances.  Enlisting Philadelphia ward leaders can make a big difference  in heated primaries.

In some wards, the candidates with ward support can influence what buttons voters in the ward push at the polls.

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“The ward leader is kind of a critical captain or lieutenant in the local political structure,” said David Thornburgh, president of the elections watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

Not surprisingly then, if you’re a lawmaker seeking re-election, it can be extremely advantageous to be a ward leader. You don’t have to have it to win, but it can make things a lot easier, particularly in the city’s more powerful wards such as the eighth in Center City, where Farnese ran into trouble.

“The more you help people who live in your district, and particularly the people who are politically active, in turn, they’ll support you, in most cases, when you seek re-election, when you seek another office,” said Terry Madonna, political science professor and pollster and Franklin and Marshall College.

Farnese allegedly made a $6,000 donation to a college study abroad program to benefit the daughter of Democratic committee woman Ellen Chapman.  Proscutors say he did it in exchange for her support in the ward election. Chapman was going to back another candidate, according to a federal indictment announced late Tuesday.

Farnese allegedly used campaign cash to carry out the scheme.

Farnese, 47, and Chapman, 62, are both charged with bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, and other offenses.

In a statement, Farnese’s lawyer Mark Sheppard said his client is “100 percent innocent of these novel charges and expects to be fully exonerated.”  He also asserts Chapman never voted in that ward election.

In 2015, NewsWorks had 1812 Production’s Jennifer Childs suit up as the “South Philly stoop lady,” Patsy. When she “ran into” WHYY’s senior political reporter Dave Davies at the Acme at 10th and Reed, she didn’t let him out of her sight until she had a chance to ask him some burning questions about city politics — specifically, a discussion about ward leaders and the inner workings of Philadelphia elections.

Check out the video below.

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