With no top-down endorsement from Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee, the seven Democratic district attorney candidates have spent untold hours in the past several weeks conducting interviews, currying favor and cutting checks to the city’s ward leaders and committee people in an effort to emerge victorious from the May 16 primary.
If you live in Philly proper, you live in one of the city’s 66 geographical units called wards. Each of these is made up of divisions, which are run by committee people from each party. They’re the ones working your local polling place on Election Day, often handing out little pieces of paper called “sample ballots” that offer undecided voters a template for the voting booth.
Through hundreds of phone calls and comment requests, sources close to each ward told Philly Weekly which way 61 of the city’s 66 wards are leaning in the race. All told, a few names will appear more often than others on those coveted sample ballots.
Jack O’Neill, a former assistant district attorney with heavy backing from labor unions, leads the pack with more than 11 wards, most of them consolidated in Northeast and South Philadelphia, pushing his name on Election Day. Next is the city’s former managing director, Rich Negrin, who has the support of at least nine wards spread throughout the city. Ditto for real estate investor Michael Untermeyer, who has an added edge via support in wards that are splitting their endorsements between him and other candidates.
Quality can be a better friend than quantity, however. The number of registered Democrats in each ward ranges from 5,000 to 25,000. More importantly, voter turnout in those wards sits anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, depending on the election. Large wards with a high percentage of guaranteed voters are the biggest prize.
Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner also carries at least nine wards into the primary, but two of those hail from the politically powerful and voter-rich Northwest Coalition. At least eight wards have pledged for prosecutor Joe Khan, including the high-turnout 9th Ward and the large 21st Ward. Defense attorney Tariq El-Shabazz may have only half a dozen or so wards, but one of them, Germantown’s 22nd Ward, routinely boasts a strong showing at the polls from its 15,000 registered Democrats. Only one candidate, former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, failed to secure a ward endorsement at the time of this report.
At least eight wards are splitting their nod or offering no endorsement at all. Many wards invited candidates to interview with their committee people, who then vote internally about who to push on Election Day. But sources say that division among committee people is not uncommon, even in wards with majority endorsements. City Councilman Bill Greenlee, who steers the 15th ward, said that the majority of his committee people voted to support Negrin, but he won’t penalize those who are fervent Khan supporters from pushing his name on sample ballots in their divisions.
Another five wards have yet to deliver an endorsement or otherwise declined to divulge that endorsement for fear that publicizing it could attract get-out-the-vote efforts from opposing camps on Election Day. While some ward leaders were transparent about their chosen candidate, others kept their cards close to the chest or did not return calls from a reporter's. Some of these confirmations come from sources close to the ward’s selection process.
Even with such fractured support, there are some discernible trends among the data.
O’Neill’s ward support stems from predominantly working-class and white areas of the city where the building trades unions – eight of which are backing him – carry a lot of clout. He and Untermeyer split favor throughout Northeast Philadelphia. The River Wards are largely pushing for Khan. And a cadre of five progressive wards that internally refer to themselves as the “reading and writing wards” – a reference to their higher per capita educational attainment – have split between Khan and Krasner.
The supposed “racial math” of Philadelphia elections figures less clearly. Three predominantly Latino wards in the city have pledged their support to Negrin, whose parents fled to the United States from Cuba, but another went with Khan, whose father immigrated here from Pakistan. The city’s predominantly black wards lean toward El-Shabazz, the only African American contender in the race, but many of them are backing older white candidates like Krasner and Untermeyer.
To be sure, voters are influenced by a matrix of factors. But veteran political analyst Larry Ceisler says no candidate can discount ward-level support in a low-turnout, off-year election like the upcoming primary.
“This is really a different type of race,” Ceisler said. “The fact that there’s no incumbent. The fact that there are independent expenditures. The fact that this is a DA’s race where issues have been brought up that really were not discussed before. But at the same time, it’s a low-turnout race where ward leaders and committee people can be very effective.”
Two large independent expenditure groups have dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of political ads onto the airwaves in the last two weeks. A PAC funded by billionaire George Soros has reportedly cut a $1.4 million check to boost the Krasner campaign, while another PAC linked to Local 98 leader and power broker John Dougherty has been pushing O’Neill.
Television is a campaign’s biggest expense, but ward support also comes at a price.
In Philly’s age-old political tradition of “street money,” campaigns contribute cash to the Democratic City Committee, which then trickles the money down to ward leaders to fund get-out-the-vote efforts for the party’s chosen candidate in both local and statewide elections. Some Democratic ward leaders have historically broken off from the pack due to diverging political agendas, just as committee people sometimes break from their own ward. But without the party’s endorsement to follow in this off-year election, wards are left to broker their own fees to get out the vote. The price tag for these services is determined by metrics like a ward’s voter turnout and number of “supervoters” – those who tend to turn out in every election.
Foot soldiers may be paid between $50 and $400 for get-out-the-vote efforts, depending on the money in the race. Some powerhouse ward leaders also double as “election consultants,” taking fees in excess of $10,000 on top of the five-figure sums that their wards receive to pay their foot soldiers. These consulting fees – paid for by outside PACs or sometimes directly by campaigns – are reported long after the election is finished. Few specifics have been given about what exactly ward leaders provide in exchange for the money.
Multiple sources say that the cost of certain wards’ support has been inflated in the current election, thanks to the fierce competition. But many ward leaders and committee people also spent a good deal of time with the seven candidates to hear their vision for the DA’s office before making an endorsement.
Still, with just days until the election, the ward support offers no indication of a clear frontrunner. None of the campaigns would provide details on their efforts to woo the city’s ward leaders, but insiders say that it has been a cutthroat race behind the scenes. In an election where a best-case scenario will mean no more than 13 percent voter turnout and a plurality will win the nomination, it’s simply a case of supply and demand.
“In any election, I’d rather have ward people and committee people for me than for my opponent,” Ceisler said.
Max Marin is a staff writer at Philadelphia Weekly, where this article first appeared.