There are only two major cities in America still run by a political machine of the Gilded Age–Philadelphia and Chicago.
Political machines should not be confused with political parties. People often get lost in this subtle difference. 19th century Philadelphia was rife with Republican party bosses and a strong ward system that not only cared how voters voted but all City services were dispensed through the ward system, including contacting the City for help–a responsibility once handled by Republican committee people spread out to two men for every four blocks.
Philadelphia underwent a political earthquake in the early 1950s as American soldiers sent off to Europe and the Pacific returned home at the end of World War II. A large number of male citizens, all young and disconnected from the City’s political system arrived en-masse. These soldiers spent years interacting with other soldiers from areas of the country that were not Philadelphia. As they returned the Republican political machine in Philadelphia was at its most corrupt with various mobs in control of virtually all parts of the city. It was filthy, corrupt and ugly. It was time to clean it up.
That effort was mostly successful.
In the wake of a long string of scandals Philadelphia residents propelled ex-Republican activist Joe Clark into City Hall. Soon after came Richardson Dillworth who brought Philadelphia’s age of highly-active central planning and the visions of Ed Bacon. The feeling at the time was electric; armed with a shiny new Home Rule Charter Philadelphia was going to clean up the dirt and re-invent itself.
It was fleeting. At the end of Mayor Tate’s reign in 1972 all the players and heavy hitters under the Republican political machine had become Democrats and the corruption and scandals resumed at the same pace as before. All doubts about that were removed under mayor Frank Rizzo.
Today’s political machine suffered.
For the first time ever a core individual at the heart of Philadelphia’s political machine was booted out of office. Chaka Fattah weaved himself into the fabric of Philadelphia’s political life in the late 1970s. By 1988 Fattah had established enough clout that he could create protegés–other candidates loyal to Fattah whom ward leaders would endorse and committee people would help elect. Voters across Northwest and West Philadelphia were attracted to the story of his mother, Fatimah Fattah and her activism combating youth gangs on Master Street under her brand, the House of Umoja.
By the late 90s Fattah’s influence had grown into what political observers now call The Fattah Organization. Philadelphia’s style of political machine is maintained as a family-affair, akin to a type of feudal monarchy. It’s part of the reason why machine politics has endured for so long while other Northeast cities like New York threw it off a long time ago. Tammany Hall died when Boss Tweed was taken down. Philadelphia’s machine system is comprised of a dozen factions and splinter-factions, passing power through familial connections and long-lasting friendships.
The Fattah Organization was among the largest. Outside of Congressman Fattah a whole network of neighborhood non-profits were set-up or run by former Fattah staffers. Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. is a member. So is Councilwoman Cindy Bass. With its leader facing the prospect of prison and Fattah Jr. expressing no interest in politics the Organization is certain to shrink or even die completely.
Make no mistake–Fattah’s likely replacement Dwight Evans is not an outsider. He is the leader of the Northwest Coalition which comprises all the top supervoter wards in Philadelphia. Evans has been a power broker and a mediator between various factions of the city’s political machine going back to the early 1980s. Evans is part of the machine.
Electing Evans however flies in the face of how Philadelphia Democrats typically vote. Philadelphians re-elected John Street as mayor even in the midst of the pay-to-play scandal with scores of voters believing that a nefarious Federal plot was created to bring down the mayor. Loads of voters were sad to see former State Senator Vincent Fumo go and would have gladly re-elected him even while in prison.
More importantly: Fattah had the backing of the Philadelphia political machine and its ward system. One of the first to endorse was Congressman Robert A. Brady, Fattah’s colleague in the U.S. House. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Local 3 also endorsed. AFSCME endorsed. The Philadelphia Tribune, an African-American local newspaper endorsed him without question.
Philadelphia donors however were far more skeptical. Nobody was giving substantial amounts of money to Fattah–campaign finance laws allow political candidates to use their money to pay for legal fights. It’s certain that attempts were made to round up a legal defense fund for Fattah so he could campaign, but it failed. Fattah was left to abuse his franking privileges as a member of Congress to send subliminal campaign ads disguised as info-mailers.
The Philly political machine has far less power in presidential election years. Fresh young voters and first-time voters oblivious to how the machine works have always been the weakness of the system. Witness:
Mr. Bell here is holding in his hand a ward sample ballot–long a staple diet handout of party ward leaders. Some states and jurisdictions ban the sample ballot as a form of electioneering, but in Philadelphia you cannot have a political machine or a successful closed primary without sample ballots, so they remain.
Of course there is nothing illegal about doctoring up your own sample ballot as there is nothing “Official” about any sample ballot handed out, as official-sounding as a sample ballot might be. Every year there are mini-ward leader fights and witch hunts and intrigues when multiple versions of sample ballots are anonymously dropped off at voter residences.
In presidential years sample ballots matter very little. New voters look at sample ballots the same way you’d reflexively accept a palm card on the street and not read it. You know you’re headed to the polls to cast your vote for Bernie Sanders–who gives a fuck what it says on that “official” ballot? It’s bogus.
Here’s the rub: sample ballots are critical in non-presidential years. You may have taken 10 minutes out of your life once in four years to go vote–machine supporters turn up at every election every year, and those sample ballots are critical in those low-turnout elections. Next year’s election will only feature the District Attorney and City Controller as star races. Last year was the Mayor, all of City Council, the Sheriff and the Register of Wills.
Did you remember seeing sample ballots at the polls last year then, too? No? Well, you must not have voted here then because several million sample ballots in hundreds of varieties are circulated every election cycle and have been for eons.
The Boyle Empire Has Failed to Grow
State Rep. Kevin Boyle and his brother Congressman Brendan Boyle have hit a rough patch. The fresh Democratic brothers of the Northeast have tried since 2012 to build a coalition in the Northeast with them at the center of it. This year Kevin Boyle while retaining his state seat in Harrisburg attempted a run for the Pennsylvania Senate against John Sabatina, Jr., the incumbent and son of long-time Northeast ward leader John Sabatina, Sr.
The Boyles have had aspirations of controlling more than the seats that they hold. They ran campaign staffer William Dunbar against State Rep. John Taylor, once head of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee. That failed.
This year I uncovered the Boyle brothers at it again with yet another Boyle staffer Fran Nelms who they put up as a Democratic candidate hoping to run him against State Rep. Martina White. He also failed. Boyle loyalists were flooding the comments on Philadelinquency incensed that I put up that article.
I also learned on election night that Team Boyle was so upset that they considered finding a way to take down Philadelinquency.
Kevin Boyle’s attempt to propel himself to the Pennsylvania Senate failed. The Northeast isn’t ready for a new Boyle empire.
The Methuselah of Harrisburg Has Been Forcibly Retired
Speaking of the Northeast, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen who represents Oxford Circle and Castor Gardens and is the longest-serving legislator in the Pennsylvania General Assembly is also on the outs. The name Cohen is recognizable–it’s one of the most politically liberal families in Philadelphia. Mark Cohen is the son of the late David Cohen who directly participated in the political transformation of Philadelphia from a Republican city to a Democratic one and was a City Councilman for 25 years.
The Cohen family has always had some connection and relationship in Philadelphia politics since the days of Mayor Joe Clark. Last year Mark Cohen’s sister Sherrie Cohen tried a run for City Council-At-Large for the position once held by her father.
By next year there will be no Cohen left holding a non-judicial elected office.
What does this mean for the future?
Philadelphia’s “tale of two cities” nature has separated younger voters from their machine-connected elders.
Machine politics in Philadelphia rests solely on familial-based connections. Only through the family can you pass the machine from one generation to the next. Loads of transplants from immigrants to ex-suburbanites moving into Philly have disrupted that continuum and it’s made it a bit more difficult for the city’s political machine to pass its genes to the next generation.
In the 1950s the dramatic transformation that led to Philadelphia switching political parties was shaped by forces beyond its control but the residents themselves did not change. That made quick work of resurrecting the machine in less than a decade. This time around it is the residents themselves that are changing.
This is what I feel is the source of the divide between Oldhead Philly and New Philadelphia. The strong criticism of New Philadelphia and gentrification by a lot of oldheads is partly motivated by power–the fear of it being lost. The odor of fear is strong sometimes at community meetings in places like Fishtown, Point Breeze, Mantua, Kensington. Old Philadelphia hates change for good or for bad. Old Philadelphia despises it. Change creates uncertainty that leaves a sour note.
And yet–Philadelphia is changing. The built environment is remarkably different from when I first entered the city in 2003 and now the changes are showing up in subtle ways in the city’s politics.
Philadelphians expressing disapproval strong enough to vote someone out in the manner Chaka Fattah was on Tuesday is a complete turnaround from how most Philadelphians would have behaved at the polls 15+ years ago. You do not vote out the neighborhood son, even if he’s a scoundrel, even if he’s being charged. You support the neighborhood son no matter what and you do it to the bitter end.
We are galaxies away from a municipal political system that’s competitive like New York City has had with its own local political parties or the sunbelt cities where political parties ascend and fall out of favor frequently. New and old alike I don’t think could stomach that.
Still, you cannot help but notice the tectonic plates shifting a little bit. The Philadelphia I know from when I moved here would never dare show a household to the door. Today there are no more Rizzos, no more Streets, no more Goodes. Tomorrow there will be no more Cohens and no more Fattahs.