Low turnout among Philadelphians could jeopardize Joe Biden’s re-election chances

More than 500,000 Democrats in Pennsylvania’s bluest city did not vote in last month’s primary election.

Turnout in Philadelphia, a perennial problem for Democrats, is certain to be higher in November. But the number of urban voters who go to the polls could enhance or decrease President Joe Biden’s re-election chances.

With six months until a high-stakes presidential election, the turnout challenge for Democrats is compounded by waning enthusiasm for Biden, including some within the party protesting against him, generational and ideological divisions within the city party, and lingering tensions over how local communities will party is conducted.

That has led to frustration among some committee members in Philadelphia, who say they are concerned about the effectiveness of the party’s voter turnout operation and its longtime party boss, Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady.

Big city Democratic machines are not what they used to be, largely due to the reduction of political patronage in city governments. AND Brady holds local district leaders in high regard, which means the strategy — and vigor — of the party’s voter turnout efforts vary from district to district.

But as Philadelphia’s share of the statewide Democratic vote continues to decline in recent elections, Brady’s critics are calling for a more cohesive, citywide strategy that would leverage her greatest asset: thousands of elected Democratic committee members who are trusted in their districts .

“What is Bob Brady’s plan to increase attendance?” asked Fred Dedrick, a West Mount Airy committeeman. “The numbers were terrible, even for a primary school, and attendance continues to get worse. What happened to this army of party people who should have defended their neighbors?”

The debate reflects long-standing divisions that recently flared this winter when some progressive members were fired.

Brady responded that the party is running one of its most solid campaigns in years, spearheaded by the Biden campaign in partnership with party district leaders.

“We’re doing everything we can,” Brady said. “We are working in full connection, which never happens. [The Biden campaign] we employed all our people, local people. They’re not bringing in anyone from Arizona who wants to know where to get a good cheesecake.

Through it all, Biden’s team is characterized by calm.

“The general consensus is that whatever family dispute is going on within the Democratic Party in Philadelphia will be put aside to get President Biden over the hump,” said Kellan White, Biden’s campaign leader in Philadelphia.

“We will be talking to everyone because we need their help to get to the vote, otherwise we will all lose in November.”

“You’re sending a signal that you don’t want our help.”

On the Wednesday afternoon before primary day last month, Democratic district leaders, committee members and elected politicians gathered for a weekly “pizza with the chairman” open house.

Brady, a former congressman who has chaired the city party since 1986, sat at the head of a table where tiny groups gathered. His cell phone, one of the most valuable political Rolodexes in the city, was constantly ringing.

Brady, 79, is perhaps the region’s best-connected Democrat. He often greets Biden on the tarmac in Philadelphia during the president’s visits, and that’s a lot.

“He gets angry when I’m not there,” Brady said.

But Brady’s old-school style is often criticized by younger, more progressive party members and tech-savvy organizers eager for modernization.

“There are those who think I’m the big bad wolf of the big bad party,” Brady said from his office decorated with photos of him and former Democratic presidents. “Come talk to me. The door is open.”

Some people don’t feel welcome. This year, about 20 committee members were removed after signing a letter supporting Progressive Labor Party candidates for City Council over Democratic candidates. Two members of the Working Families Party won seats long held by Republicans and all five Democrats were still headed to victory. This affected only a handful of the 3,400 city committee members, but it increased tensions over the functioning of the party.

“We’re doing our job while the Democratic Committee is failing to get people to vote … and is purging really hard-working people,” said Rebecca Poyourow, an ousted committee member in Roxborough, where she co-founded an initiative to enhance turnout in her area. “You’re sending a signal that you don’t want our help,” she said.

Andre Carroll, a Democratic candidate for state representative who previously worked on the Labor candidate’s campaign, said Democrats need to focus on building a diverse coalition.

“The thing about politics is that we need to do a better job of increasing participation, and every time we remove people from office, we go in the opposite direction,” he said over lunch at Brady.

Others defended the overthrow. “I have been a district leader for 28 years and I always do what the president asks me to do,” said Angel Cruz, who leads a district in North Philadelphia.

Cruz represents one of the lowest turnout districts in the city. In Brady’s district, elementary school attendance was 21%. Some say there should be consequences or incentives for district leaders to enhance turnout.

But Brady insists party leaders are not guilty. City in recent years it has lost residents to the suburbs and voter apathy is complex to overcome.

“We can only do the best we can,” Brady said. “They have to show up. We are giving them every reason to show up, and the numbers in every election are terrible.”

“There is not necessarily an instruction manual”

The main criticism of the city party from some elected committee members is the lack of an instruction manual for selecting voters.

“If there is a coordinated approach to voter engagement and registration, there is a ready army of people that can be mobilized,” said Second District commission member Laura Boyce. “This could be more effective than upcoming external campaigns, or at least really complement them.”

In 2021, after meetings with party leaders, Boyce sent a list of recommendations, including a newsletter and monthly training sessions on voter engagement, voter registration software and canvassing. None of them were ever implemented.

Philadelphia has 66 districts were divided into divisions, each of which elects two Democratic and two Republican committee members. Neighborhood representatives act as captains of political blocs and have historically helped ensure residents have access to city services or jobs. Today, that role may seem more nebulous. A committee member’s activity may depend on his or her relationship with the district leader and whether the district is “open,” allowing for more autonomous management. than closed city districts.

Tim Lynch, an eight-year commissioner in Northeast Philadelphia’s 56th District, pays for pamphlets and distributes them in his district before the election, but there is no precinct or city-wide coordinated effort.

“If a committee member wants to do something on his own, God bless you,” he said.

Gianni Hill, an adviser to Brady, said the decentralized system of district leaders comes with different approaches and some resistance to modern technologies and ideas.

“Many people believe that there is a magic tool that will turn the 3,400 committee members into magic field organizers, which is unrealistic,” Hill said.

Hill, a 23-year-old first-year law student whom Brady calls “Mighty Mouse,” is working with the Biden campaign to enhance turnout in the city.

“There is an increasing increase in technology and data-driven decisions and functions today,” Hill said. “I think we have to deal with different tensions, and one of them is clearer communication.”

“Democrats, we are very worried.”

Despite all the anxieties, contemporary presidential campaigns are largely conducted independently of city and state parties. Biden’s campaign in Philadelphia is no different.

The campaign is already opening field offices across the city – an early stage of implementation compared to 2020, when Pennsylvania’s director was hired in August.

Trump, who has a drastically different strategy but also much less campaign money, does not have an office in the state.

The Biden and Sen. Bob Casey campaigns convened a room of district leaders, elected officials and junior organizers from North Philadelphia two days after the primary.

Sharon Vaughn, a district leader, scolded voters protesting Biden. “They had the nerve to put in the word ‘unaligned. What kind of news is this? You should have stayed home if you weren’t going to vote for a Democrat.”

Oscar Lopez, Casey’s former intern and recent college graduate, offered an opposing perspective.

“A lot of young people don’t see this as a place where they have a voice, and that’s why many didn’t show up two days ago,” Lopez said.

After the event, Casey said the rally represented the need for a Democratic coalition in November and dismissed some of the hand-wringing.

“Democrats, we are very concerned,” Casey said. “And that’s good, because if we fail, the stakes are very high.”

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.

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