In Case You Missed It: Ward Politics 101
After an abortive attempt to expand federal housing in Michigan, Edmund Bacon returned to his hometown of Philadelphia. Bacon was a visionary thinker and urban planner whose work still influences how cities are designed. Disgusted by the corrupt machine politics that could undermine his planning reform efforts, Bacon hoped his return to Philly would be temporary. Instead, he stayed, joining other reformers to create the City Policy Committee, a grassroots movement of young Philadelphians that was instrumental in Philadelphia’s political reform movement.
Last night, over 125 young Philadelphians learned how to infiltrate Philly’s political ward system and reform it from the inside at YIP’s Ward Politics 101.
WHYY’s Dave Davies provided an overview of the ward system and started the night by remarking, “I’m impressed, astonished and inspired there are so many of you here.” After Davies provided the overview, a panel of speakers (City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, former Director of the City’s Office of Federal Affairs Terry Gillen and Committee of Seventy’s Patrick Christmas) provided some of the dirty details on how to really get elected as a committee person (Ed. note: Jim refuses to write “committeeperson” as one word, like like this is goddamn German oder etwas, and only barely stomaches the plural “committee persons”, although both are used in most documents.)
What’s a ward, anyway? And why do they matter?
According to Davies, “ward politics is how we elect a lot of people in this city.”
Philadelphia is divided into 66 wards, each a geographical region of the city divided into a number of voting divisions (there are about 1500 in all). Every four years (during gubernatorial elections, like this year), the registered voters of each party elect two party members per division to a ward committee. In theory, the newly elected ward committee then selects a leader. In practice, many ward leaders act less like democratically elected officials and more like, as Davies put it, “feudal lords and barons of our political landscape,” using their power and influence to control who is elected to the ward committee.
The main job of a committee person is to promote voter registration and to get registered voters to support the ward’s endorsed candidate.
To this day, ward leaders are given patronage jobs to dole out to committee persons and control election-day “street money”, which is cash given to the wards by the candidates to hand out to campaign “volunteers” and pay for food and other election day expenses.
As Davies noted, the ward system has produced both saints and sinners. While some are corrupt, others are working to improve the system from the inside. All ward leaders, however, hold a considerable amount of power in their party (and, for Democrats, power in the city itself).
Every election, each ward committee decides which candidates it will endorse. Those endorsements are absolutely vital in primaries and smaller elections where most voters are unfamiliar with the candidates. In other words, the ward system derives its power from voter ignorance and laziness, and a political system that puts up for a vote many positions that are appointed almost everywhere else (like judges). The ward system acts as a vetting process for the voters who have neither the time nor inclination to make informed decisions on political offices that will have little direct effect on their lives.
When asked during our Q and A session, Gillen estimated that “95%” of the races in Philadelphia – city council, judicial elections, state representatives and senators, etc. – are controlled by the Democratic Party ward structure. Gillen challenged the crowd to get involved, to “buck the system”, which she described as “teetering”, and thereby create a more open and progressive system.
How Do I Become a Committee person?
The first step to becoming a committee person is getting on the ballot, which you can do by getting 10 signatures from your party’s registered voters in your division. You can only get these signatures during the nomination petition period, which lasts for three weeks (this year: February 18th – March 11th). If you get 10 valid signatures, you will be on the ballot. Then it’s just the simple matter of being one of the top two vote recipients in your division on primary day.
Well, that’s the official process.
The real first step: to talk to your ward leader. He or she will know whether or not there is an opening (many committee person positions are left vacant) and may even be able to appoint you. If no one else is running against you, getting elected is no sweat, obviously. Otherwise, running for committee person is, in the words of Stephanie Singer, “exactly like running for President… just smaller.”
If you do need to run an actual campaign, then you’ll need a street list, which provides a list of the registered voters in your division (go to the City Commissioners for that). Then, get way more than ten of them to sign your nomination petition – 10 valid signatures is what you need, but you can expect those signatures to be challenged. One attendee last night, Tracey Gordon, recounted her fight over signatures (h/t to Jake Liefer for the link).
Once on the primary ballot, you need to campaign. While having your ward leader’s support helps a ton, it is neither necessary nor sufficient. Singer noted the hurdles young Philadelphians face but noted that millennials “have the power of the Internet and social media: the power of information is challenging the ward system more than anything.”
First committee person, then the
world ward leader!
On the night of the primary, after the committee persons are elected, the new ward committee elects a ward leader. In some wards, this is a truly democratic process. In others, the ward leader is so powerful and entrenched that its fait accompli. According to Terry Gillen, there are three to four wards every cycle where there is a big battle for ward leader. This is a political process not unlike any other that requires currying favor and convincing your peers that you’re the best person for the job. These elections can be incredibly tight – Gillen recounted how Michael Nutter famously flew in a supporter who was vacationing out of state to ensure he won his ward, and that she only won her ward by three votes.
When Ed Bacon stepped up, he oversaw the rebirth of Center City and laid the foundation for the vibrant city we love today. Our generation can learn from his example. Stephanie Singer argued that political power goes to a group in this city when three elements align: its identifiable as a group, it votes and it has a leader. Young Philadelphia is easily identified and we’ve shown in major elections that we can vote. All we need are leaders.
About Edmund Bacon, who did so much more than sire Kevin.
About elections and the ward system, generally:
Philadems.org – a partisan website providing information on Committee people and election results, maintained by Stephanie Singer. Despite the name, includes information on Republican wards as well.
Detailed Ward and Division Maps – Find out which ward and division you are in.
2010 Primary Election Results – Go to your party’s “Executive Committee” to find out who your division’s committee person is.
About how to get elected as a Committee Person:
Philadelphia Committee Person Resource Group – a Facebook page “open to any current or aspiring committee people & ward leaders in Philadelphia” where you “can share resources, advice, tips & encouragement.”
How to run for Committee Person – Manual by Committee of 70. Contains a list of all the Democratic and Republican Ward Leaders and their phone numbers.