Larry Krasner, firebrand civil rights attorney, clinched the Democratic nomination for district attorney with surprising ease. Political neophyte Rebecca Rhynhart bested a three-term incumbent city controller of Philadelphia with broad support from the Democratic party.
Amid the torrent of factors that influenced the election – the progressive policy fever, the parade of big-name endorsements, the hundreds of favorable and unfavorable news articles, six-figure (and, in Krasner’s case, seven-figure) ad campaigns funded by independent political groups and, eventually, a nice voter bump in an otherwise low-turnout election — Philly’s ward system played perhaps the most ambiguous role.
Think of the city’s 66 wards as the ungreased cogs of the so-called Democratic machine. Each ward has a leader (or two) who steer hundreds of committee people. It’s their job to turn out votes and work the polling places in each division on Election Day. But they also make endorsements, accept money from campaigns and political action committees, and push candidates on sample ballots in every corner of the city. If the machine is running smoothly, the party endorses candidates and the wards churn out support for said candidates.
But the Democratic City Committee didn’t make an endorsement in the DA’s race, sparking a seven-headed melee among the candidates to win favor among the city’s wards – one at a time.
A Philadelphia Weekly report published a week before the election indicated that wards were split between the seven Democratic DA candidates, meaning no particular candidate held a lion share of endorsements. Krasner, who won the election with 38 percent of the vote citywide, had the confirmed support of maybe a dozen wards come Election Day.
But after the final tally, the veteran civil rights attorney won the majority vote in 47 of the city’s 66 wards – more than two-thirds of the city, geographically speaking. He even won the majority vote in wards that had gone on record as firmly backing his opponents.
Weeks before the election, committee people from the high-turnout 9th Ward in Northwest Philadelphia voted to endorse former prosecutor Joe Khan. On Election Day however, Khan took home 38 percent of the vote in that ward, losing to Krasner’s 41 percent.
It came as a shock to 9th ward leader Dan Muroff, who has since stepped down from that role to run for Congress.
Muroff noted many of the city’s more liberal wards were divided between Khan and Krasner. But even with a get-out-the-vote operation he called “second to none” among Philly wards, the bulk of voters in Muroff’s ward still went with Krasner.
“Every single endorsement we’ve ever made (in my tenure as ward leader) has won in the 9th ward – with the exception of Khan in this district attorney’s race,” Muroff said. “I think that itself is pretty telling.”
It wasn’t just Krasner, either. Former prosecutor and real estate tycoon Michael Untermeyer, who loaned his campaign $1.25 million from his own pocket, had secured support from just as many wards as Krasner, according to PW’s report. On Election Day, though, he took just 8 percent of the vote citywide, and, while he won a number of scattered divisions within various wards, he secured the majority vote in just two of them.
Rich Negrin, the city’s former managing director who was endorsed by a number of police unions, won several Northeast wards that were reportedly leaning toward other candidates. Suffice it to say, results like these just raise more questions about the wards’ actual power to turn votes in a competitive race.
“I’d rather have them with me than not,” Larry Ceisler, a veteran political analyst, said of ward leaders and committee people. “But I think that this district attorney’s race was just very unique. If you’re coming out in this DA’s race, you have a decent idea of who you want to vote for.”
Ceisler argues the ward system is most effective at turning out the vote. But when it comes to who those people vote for, wards are far more influential in low-information (think judicial races) than they are in, say, a high-profile DA or mayoral race.
The city’s demographics are also a factor now, Ceisler noted. Wards that a decade ago had fairly uniform voting blocs are now melting pots full of immigrants, transplants and native-born residents with diverging political views. Imagine what Frank Rizzo, Sr., would think upon seeing his South Philadelphia neighborhood side with the FOP-bashing Krasner.
“Could Larry Krasner have even been elected even four years ago against Seth (Williams)? I don’t think so. Eight years ago? I don’t think so,” Ceisler added. “You had this perfect storm of elements.”
Despite Krasner’s post-victory objections, Ceisler believes the $1.5 million donated by billionaire George Soros played a big role in the race. He also credits the “Trump effect” among Democratic voters who yearn for more involvement, which benefited both Krasner and Rhynhart.
If the Democratic machine’s ward system should have helped anyone coast to victory, it would have been three-term City Controller Alan Butkovitz. The race had few television ads and only two debates. Butkovitz, a longtime ward leader and dexterous politician in his own right, even had the Democratic party’s backing.
Now look at the ward-by-ward breakdown of the race. Rhynhart trounced him, taking 51 of the city’s 66 wards with the majority vote. Rhynhart also took 39 of the 47 wards that went for Krasner. And in many of the 15 wards that Butkovitz did win, the margin of victory was by 10 percent or less.
Even in Butkovitz’s own 54th ward in lower Northeast Philadelphia, 44 percent of voters chose to give him the boot.
Incumbents are unseated from time to time, with or without the city committee’s affection. Rhynhart noted that muscular endorsements from the Laborers District Council union, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Inquirer bolstered support for her campaign across the city. And it’s not like she didn’t try to win over the wards.
“I went to every ward that would have me and maybe even more than that,” Rhynhart said. “I pushed against the Democratic machine in this election … And I do think that the traditional machine isn’t representing people to the degree that it perhaps should, and I think that’s what part of what my victory means.”
Max Marin is a staff writer at Philadelphia Weekly, where this article first appeared.