Philadelphia’s famously corrupt Democratic machine seems determined to outdo itself. Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah is in prison. Disgraced Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams faces an impending corruption trial, after taking down a string of city politicians for bribery himself. Former state Rep. Leslie Acosta pleaded guilty to corruption. The city’s Traffic Court imploded amid widespread case-fixing accusations – and the list goes on.
The loss of public faith and political power is enough to leave Democrats wondering if the local party has a future at all: How could a political machine laced with such deep-seated corruption reform itself? But former Gov. Ed Rendell says he has an answer – dilute the influence of local ward leaders.
“Given what’s happening, we have to take a deep look at what we’re doing,” Rendell said. “We have to get rid of the rule that ward leaders automatically get the party endorsement or that they automatically get to choose who’s running for an open seat.”
Rendell said he and other Democratic leaders were planning to host an intervention with U.S. Rep. Bob Brady about the state of the local party.
“Bob Brady has done a terrific job holding together one of the last relevant big city organizations,” Rendell said. “But even he’ll tell you we have too much corruption and too many ward leaders on the ballot. After this primary a lot of us are going to sit down with Bob about where we have to go.”
But the former governor may want to bring some protective gear because Brady says he’s not in the mood for meddling. The congressman called Rendell a hypocrite.
“(Rendell) liked the power of the ward leaders when they were endorsing him for governor and mayor,” Brady said. “Tell him to get over it.”
Rendell proposed manifold reforms. He suggested that potential candidates should win party endorsements through a simple vote from committee people – the more numerous party foot soldiers underpinning the 66 political wards in Philadelphia – rather than leave the decision to the ward leader alone. He also suggested putting ward leaders back up for re-election every two years, instead of every four years, to help prevent entrenchment – some ward leaders have served for decades.
Rendell said the party should also abstain from doling out endorsements to candidates who have failed to win backing from outside groups – such as judicial candidates who haven’t secured a recommendation from the Philadelphia Bar Association.
He said it was a matter of survival for local Democrats, who have seen cratering voter turnout in city elections.
“It is incumbent upon the party to open up beyond the traditional ward leader-dominated system,” he said. “I think it would bring a lot of younger people, newer people into the system. Some of those committee people slots are vacant right now.”
He said the petty interests of ward leaders – the ranks of which range from former Mayor Michael Nutter to ex-con Carlos Matos – contribute to corruption as they use the party organization for their own benefit instead of recruiting better candidates.
“They all want their little places of control. It’s very hard to keep the organization strong given all the corruption,” Rendell said.
He pointed to the chaotic 197th District special election for a state House seat as a prime example. Acosta, who had previously held the seat, was handpicked by ward leaders and then pleaded guilty to corruption charges. But Acosta still persuaded the same ward leaders to pick her replacement, Freddie Ramirez, a candidate who quickly lost a residency challenge.
Eventually, 43rd Ward Leader Emilio Vazquez simply ran as a write-in candidate himself, with no Democrat listed on the ballot.
While Vazquez won, it was an embarrassing saga that laid bare the disorganization within the local political machine – leaders in the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee mostly watched from the sidelines as the messy race unfolded. Brady weakly pledged that – worst case scenario – the Democrats would beat a Republican special election victor in 2018.
Alison Perelman, who heads dark money political action committee Philadelphia 3.0, concurred.
“It was an easy win, but they nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” she said. “That was probably as close as you can come to losing a race where you have a nine-to-one party registration advantage. It would be a fascinating idea to get all the committee people together at the convention center and see what they say about the direction the party is going.”
She endorsed many of Rendell’s suggestions, probably with good reason: Perelman’s group wants to channel post-Trump voter outrage by encouraging residents to run for committee person slots to foster bottom-up change to the party structure.
“I would say that Philly Dems are outraged,” she said. “There’s a sense people are moving away from the party because of these actors. But it seems highly unlikely that in the absence of new actors that folks are going to start acting differently on their own.”
But Brady rejected outside interference over corruption issues, saying the former governor had “skeletons in his closet” and calling Perelman “a rich girl with nothing better to do.” He savaged their notions of “reform” as naivety.
“We choose candidates together. My committee people would pick the exact same candidate as me,” he said, of devolving control from ward positions. “And there’s not a chance we’ll go back to ward elections every two years. We’d have chaos every two years. I changed that rule myself.”
Of fiascos like the 197th District, Brady said there was little the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee could do.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “You have to go by the ward leaders who live there, since they know the district the best. I didn’t know who Freddie Ramirez is. He seemed like a nice man, but how did I know he didn’t live there? I’m not going to go flush the toilet and find out who lives there.”
He was doubtful that internal rule changes would or could accomplish anything.
“The Republicans have the same rules, the Greens have the same rules,” he said. “We all play by the same rules.”
Both Brady and Rendell went out of their way to note that corruption was not, despite all appearances, just a problem in Philadelphia or with Democrats, pointing to convictions of former Republican state House Speaker John Perzel, the resignation of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin and the Bonusgate scandal. Rendell said his administration was largely free of corruption during his term as governor – the later trials of his chief of staff John Estey and state Treasurer Rob McCord notwithstanding. Yet both were at a loss to explain the recent wave of corruption scandals that had gripped the party and the city as a whole.
While Brady was happy to criticize Rendell and Perelman’s incremental reforms, he had little to offer when asked how the local party could clean up its act. He supported ranked-choice voting for judicial elections over the current lottery system, but offered few other ideas.
He acknowledged that voter turnout had suffered in recent years.
“Voters are disenchanted and they think they don’t count,” Brady said. “Our turnout is a disgrace, but we do everything we can to get people out. We spend a lot of money. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Ryan Briggs is a reporter at City & State PA, where this article first appeared.