Philly City Councilman Johnson adds ‘ward leader’ to his resume

Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, shown here discussing the 25th Street Viaduct Improvement Project.

Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, shown here discussing the 25th Street Viaduct Improvement Project.

Citing health concerns, Harold James ended his tenure Monday night as the Democratic leader of the 36th ward in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. Fellow ward leaders and committee members voted to pass the torch from James, a former state representative, to another public figure in the neighborhood, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.

Pennsylvania law prohibits an elected official from holding two offices at once. In short, you can’t double dip from the state treasury.

But an elected, unpaid position as a ward leader? It’s practically a tradition here in Philadelphia.

Johnson is the 15th elected Democrat who also represents one of Philadelphia’s 66 wards.

Collectively, ward leaders and their committee people pack a big punch in local elections. They’re the ones working outside polling places on Election Day, pushing candidates in down-ballot races and allocating “street money” to foot soldiers who help get out the vote.

Ward leaders push their party’s official slate of endorsements to voters. However, historically, in primary elections where Democrats and Republicans run against their own kind, ward leaders take endorsements into their own hands.

Let’s say someone wants to get involved in ward-level politics. Who would dare make political rivals with their own councilman who they’d have to work with going forward?

Reached by PW on Tuesday, Johnson chuckled at that very question.

“For me, it’s all about public service,” he said. “At the end of the day, beyond the politics, it’s about my empowering my constituents and my committee people.”

At peak capacity, there is at least one Democratic and Republican leader for each of the city’s 66 wards. These ward leaders form their party’s city committee.

These doubly elected officials represent a range of offices: State Sen. Anthony Williams, State Sen. Larry Farnese and State Rep. Angel Cruz; Ron Donatucci, who is the Register of Wills, City Commissioner Anthony Clark, and City Controller Alan Butkovitz, not to mention appointed high-ranking officials like Lt. Governor Mike Stack.

Johnson joins the company of fellow Councilmembers Bobby Henon, Bill Greenlee, and Jannie Blackwell, who are also ward leaders in their respective districts. Former Councilwoman Marian Tasco remains a highly influential ward leader as part of the Northwest Coalition, which played a big role in getting Mayor Jim Kenney elected in 2015.

“I’m looking forward to sitting down with [my colleagues] to compare notes about how they approach being councilmembers and ward leaders,” Johnson said.

Adding in former high-ranking officials, the Democratic ward machine is a veritable who’s-who of city politics over the decades, from former Mayor Michael Nutter to former battleaxe City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione.

Even Harold James was a state representative twice over. His most recent stint in office came when he, coincidentally, replaced Kenyatta Johnson through a special election. James pleaded guilty in 2015 for his participation in a conflict of interest scandal known as “Giftgate.”

To that point, ward leaders play their most powerful cards during special elections to fill vacant seats, when ward leaders can handpick the party’s nominee amongst themselves—behind closed doors to boot.

Additionally, ward leaders also vote to elect the chair of their party’s city committee. For the Democratic City Committee, that’s Congressman Bob Brady; for the Republican City Committee, it’s Joe DeFelice.

Both Brady and DeFelice? You guessed it. Ward leaders.

Max Marin is a staff writer at Philadelphia Weekly, where this article first appeared.