Political Machines: They’re Really Useful!

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Running for a Philly committeeperson seat this year has gotten me extra interested in ward politics, so you know I’ve been loving this 19th Ward fight in Pittsburgh between Pete Wagner and challenger Anthony Coghill.

Chris Potter at PGH City Paper has a typically smart take on the whole thing, but I wanted to riff on this section because I think Chris is missing something important:

I asked Peduto a few months ago whether he had a plan for a committee push. He denied it then, and denied it again in Trib follow-up story. Still, it’s not as if Kelly’s theory is absurd. Years ago, Peduto allies did try stage a (largely unsuccessful) effort to pack the committee with progressives. More recently, Peduto’s allies helped engineer a party endorsement for Deb Gross in a City Council special election last fall. And as I noted in a piece about this year’s committee battles, Peduto allies – namely political field-general Matt Merriman-Preston and go-to election attorney Chuck Pascal – have been visible in petition challenges in all three wards.

But you can see the logical error in Kelly’s quote, right? If Peduto didn’t even bother seeking the endorsement as a challenger, why would he crave it as an incumbent? His allies on council obviously don’t need the party’s backing either: Last spring, Peduto ally Natalia Rudiak won re-election without the party endorsement, in a district that includes Ward 19 itself. (Another staunch ally, Bruce Kraus, has never had the endorsement.) So how important is the endorsement to the progressive coalition, really?

Moreover, the city’s Democratic committee has 32 wards: If you were going to take the committee over, would you only be active in three of them? Even granting Peduto a base in some East End neighborhoods – where his protégé Dan Gilman did earn the party endorsement last year – that seems a pretty passive-aggressive approach.

The city party endorsement wasn’t that important to Peduto or Rudiak or Kraus because the Democratic machine, in its current state, is weak. The people who are participating in it are mostly old and not so power hungry anymore. Lots of the seats are empty. And the party just isn’t unified or energetic enough to credibly deliver wins to endorsed candidates.

What I think Chris is missing though is that the bones of the thing are still strong, even if the muscles are weak.

A unified, organized ward can be a very powerful thing. The committeepeople who are doing their jobs correctly are like the “Political Friends” of the neighborhood. Most people aren’t political junkies and are tuned out of politics for most of the year, right up until Election Day when it’s time to ask the Political Friend who is best. If you are providing this information to a significant number of primary voters in a voting district, then you have a decent amount of political power to swing votes. If all of a ward’s committeepeople are united behind a single candidate, that adds up to a lot of political power.

Fill in all those committeeperson seats with motivated ideologues and busybodies who have the discipline to play as a team and put aside small factional disagreements when it counts, then you will have a political machine whose endorsement is worth seeking. I would guess that the goal isn’t just to take over wards but to make the city party relevant again – with a revamped platform in sync with Bill Peduto’s political agenda.

Chris’s argument gets back on track when he says that the Peduto people are probably just taking sides in fights that would have played out even if they had chosen not to engage, and the high number of empty seats suggests that (unless a sizable write-in campaign push is coming) the Peduto allies are targeting their efforts narrowly rather than making a big citywide play. You could say that’s unambitious, but just thinking about what I’ve seen here in Philly, it’s just kinda hard and time consuming to motivate a large number of real live human beings to run for even tiny political offices. Chris knows Pittsburgh politics better than I do, but targeting three key wards doesn’t actually seem that unambitious to me.

This entry was posted in Elections.

One Response to Political Machines: They’re Really Useful!

  1. How often are the committeeperson elections? Every two years? Maybe they’re starting small and looking to expand as they go?