Hundreds of Delaware County Democrats gathered in an auditorium at Upper Darby High School Wednesday evening to watch a debate — and to sort out a dilemma.
The party has to decide whom to endorse for Congress among the 14 candidates on the primary ballot. All but one showed up at the debate to seek the party’s support.
In 30 years of covering campaigns, I’ve never seen a field this large actually make the ballot.
This debate wasn’t just for voters who happened to show up.
It was open to the public, but it was organized for the 800-plus members of the Delaware County Democratic Committee who’d like to unite around a candidate.
It would be easier for them if half the candidates had nothing to offer — just people on a pointless vanity trip.
But it didn’t feel like that. Though many of the candidates are political unknowns, they came across as thoughtful and committed. All had something in their policy ideas or life stories to recommend them.
The committeepeople I spoke with afterward were impressed at this living laboratory of democracy — and also a bit daunted.
“You know, it’s hard enough to go to the supermarket and make decisions about what kind of milk you want,” said Florence “Penny” McDonald, who chairs the Yeadon Borough Democratic Party. “But when you have 14 people — and for the most part they all sound very good and convincing — it’s hard.”
A moment in time
This dilemma comes at a special moment in time for the Delaware County Democratic Party.
For decades, the party was a battered, frustrated minority in a county ruled by a powerful Republican machine.
But demographics and political currents have steadily shifted, and Democrats are winning township and countywide elections.
And now they have a chance to send one of their own to Washington.
Why are there so many candidates?
Several emerged last year, inspired in part by the election of Donald Trump. When incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan dropped out of the race after a sexual harassment scandal, it encouraged others to enter the race.
Finally, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court created a new congressional district giving Democrats a heavy advantage in the general election. It put a congressional seat readily within reach.
Recognizing that opportunity, committeewoman Natalie Jordan said she and other party leaders have a big responsibility.
“It really highlights the job that committees do in Delaware County, because a lot of our constituents are going to say, ‘Well, who should I vote for?’
“And, at minimum, we should at least be able to name ’em all,” she said with a laugh.
The candidates include seven men and seven women. Three are elected officials; 11 are white, two are black, and one is Asian-American. Many are first-time candidates, and most are not well known.
They did their best with limited time Wednesday to make an impression with policy ideas and their personal stories.
I won’t even begin to try to convey the substance of the sprawling discussion, but the party hopes to post a video of the event soon.
Delco vs. Philly?
There was an elephant in the auditorium – the candidacy of Rich Lazer, who lives in South Philadelphia.
Many in the party want someone from Delaware County to get the congressional seat, but Lazer is from the small portion of the city that’s in the district.
Lazer is a former deputy mayor for labor in Philadelphia. He has the backing of Mayor Jim Kenney and, more importantly, building trades unions led by the big-spending Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
They’re expected to spend a lot of money on an independent ad campaign for Lazer.
Committeewoman Rachel Amdur of Havertown told me she isn’t bothered by Lazer’s address, but she doesn’t want a congressman who gets into office with big spending from a super PAC.
“Because [once in office] he now owes the person who funded him,” Amdur said. “He now has somebody behind him saying, ‘I paid you, I did this for you.’ So, for me, that’s a big detraction from him, regardless of where he lives.”
Besides Lazer, the field includes state Reps. Margo Davidson and Greg Vitali, Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, Dan Muroff, Molly Sheehan, Shelly Chauncey, Ashley Lunkenheimer, Lindy Li, David Wertime, Mary Gay Scanlon, Larry Arata, George Badey, and Theresa Wright, who didn’t attend the debate and whose nominating petitions are under challenge.
The roughly 825 party committee members are invited to gather Sunday evening to consider an endorsement.
Under party rules, that would require the votes of 55 percent of those present — a tall order with 14 candidates in the field.
The primary is May 15.