Forget reform. It’s time for the state Democratic party to kill off its worst enemy: The Philadelphia machine.
by Jim Saksa
Democrats have dominated Philadelphia politics ever since Joe Clark’s election as mayor in 1952. Before that watershed contest, a Republican machine controlled every election for nearly a century.
Coincidentally, if you average the birth years of all the ward leaders available on Philly Ward Leaders, you also get 1952.
So, in more ways than one, Philadelphia’s political machine is 63 years old.
And boy does it show.
Maybe it’s the ward leaders’ inability to connect with their (almost always) younger neighbors—according to Pew, only 23% of Philadelphians are over 55—but the City Committee isn’t what it once was.
At 63, it’s time to retire. Not just the ward leaders: the entire machine needs to call it quits. And because it would be ridiculous to expect the Democratic City Committee to voluntarily walk away, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party should show the machine the door, and shove them out if necessary.
Political machines once rewarded their cogs based on performance. In his Philadelphia: a Brief History, Lehigh University historian Roger Simon succinctly explained how a well-oiled machine worked: “At the local level, ward leaders received patronage in direct proportion to the number of votes they delivered.” Admittedly, Simon was writing about the Republican machine that dominated for a century before Philadelphia’s big switch in 1952, but the point remains: machines work when they reward performance.
Besides the endemic corruption it tolerates and the voter cynicism it breeds, this is the machine’s largest failing, and undoubtedly its largest purely political failing: many of Philly’s ward leaders suck at their primary job—getting out the vote—but the machine still rewards them with patronage jobs and electoral backing for cushy political offices.
Besides the endemic corruption it tolerates and the voter cynicism it breeds, this is the machine’s largest failing: many of Philly’s ward leaders suck at their primary job—getting out the vote—but the machine still rewards them with patronage jobs and electoral backing for cushy political offices.
Consider Anthony Clark, leader of the 28th Ward and a City Commissioner. Famously, while serving as chair of the Commissioners, which oversee elections and voter registrations, Clark failed to vote for five elections in a row. That’s not Commissioner Clark’s only failing as an election official—he’s also a notorious no-show at the office, which pays him $134,000 a year, and was recently fined $4,000 by the Philadelphia Ethics Board for improperly securing a raise for his brother, who just so happens to work for the City Commissioners. Continue reading