Rage Against the Democratic Machine
On March 11, the City of Philadelphia held a special election to fill the vacant at-large seat on City Council that was formerly occupied by Bill Green. Green resigned from Council in order to become Chairman of the School Reform Commission. State Representative Ed Neilson ran unopposed and received the unanimous support of the voters.
What’s that you say? You vote in every election and you didn’t hear about this race? Don’t worry, the Democratic ward leaders made this decision for you. But you will be given the chance to certify their selection on May 20, when the formality of an actual election takes place. If past is indeed prologue, you will confirm their choice, because in this town the Democratic machine reigns supreme.
In this particular City Council contest, the Republican candidate and the potential Independent contenders must overcome not only the Democrats’ overwhelming voter registration advantage, but they also need to contend with the increased Democratic turnout that will be generated from the party primary for the gubernatorial nomination. While incumbent Tom Corbett is a lock for the Republican nomination, a gaggle of Democrats are fighting for their party’s nod. Not even the late Frank Rizzo would be able to beat such odds
If you are wondering how Representative Neilson vaulted into a position of inevitability, do not bother scouring his record. It does not matter what he has done or will do. What matters is that Neilson is an incumbent who lost his position in the State House due to redistricting; he would have needed to challenge a Democratic colleague in a consolidated district in order to retain his office. A primary fight would have pitted various party factions against one another. And in the game of electoral musical chairs, the Party makes sure that everyone has a seat when the song stops.
If you find this grand exercise in collective self-interest abhorrent, you have only yourself to blame. Yes, you, the Philadelphia citizen. The reason why the Democratic machine has not rusted along with every other relic of the Industrial Revolution is because the oil of voter apathy has kept this apparatus running smoothly. The machine exists to raise money and to support its preferred candidates, who are not always the best candidates. It is dominated by special interest groups whose goals might not always coincide with the best interests of the city. For example, patronage dens like the city’s four row offices, which includes the Sheriff and the Register of Wills, continue to exist because they benefit the Party, not the people. If the city eliminated these offices, Philadelphia taxpayers would save $15 million per year.
Philadelphia has reached a critical juncture in its history. The dire financial situation of the School District threatens to exacerbate further the educational prospects of our poorest children. The city’s enormous pension liability could bankrupt the city and decimate the retirements of scores of municipal workers if the problem is not addressed in a substantive manner. Philadelphia’s vanishing middle class must be rebuilt. The tax code must be restructured in order to entice businesses to settle in Philadelphia. Residents’ public safety concerns must be assuaged in order to stem the decline of neighborhoods like Tacony, Holmesburg, Mayfair, and Lawncrest.
These are just a few of the challenges our civic leaders must tackle. The days of ward leaders operating in the dark and conducting their own coronations must end. While Ed Neilson could very well become an excellent Councilman, there exist too many elected officials who rose to their positions because they shook the right hands and whose political skills extend no further than an ability to spout the same pandering inanities which voters have heard for decades.
In order to change the system, more citizens must engage in the electoral process. To that end, I encourage any reform-minded individual to participate in ward politics. Attend local civic association meetings and get to know your neighbors; you might find that you are not alone in your frustration with the status quo. Reach out to your ward leader and express your interest in running for committeeperson; most likely, you will find your offer warmly received. If not, run anyway, and encourage others to do the same.
Ultimately, one cannot change the game by hurling criticisms from the sidelines. The city will see reform only when enough of us enter the field of play and getting directly involved.
Tim Reilly works at a small beer distributor in Northeast Philadelphia. When he’s not rotating kegs, he writes on occasion. Check out his blog, Idle Observations, at http://observationswhileidle.
The views and opinions expressed in this article of those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Young Involved Philadelphia. Young Involved Philadelphia is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information provided by the author of this article.