June 17, 2010

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Power play gets physical at 22nd Ward meeting

The spring Primary Election is usually a time of hope in Mt. Airy. After all, it is a place known for qualities like progressivism, equanimity and compromise. But following the 22nd Ward Democratic Committee’s reorganizational meeting on June 7, held at the Germantown Home on Sedgwick Street and Germantown Avenue, some committeepeople were concerned that the local political climate has taken a turn for the worse this year.

One strong hint at this downturn was the reported physical ejection of a newly elected committeeperson from the meeting for asking too many questions.

“It was rude, it was brutish – it was astounding,” said Maurice Sampson, another newly elected committeeperson for Division 6. “It was almost as if there was a danger in having any of us talk.”

“I’m shocked and awed,” said Division 3 committeeperson Gloria Gilman. She was laughing in disbelief. “It was really disturbing. I think a lot of us had nightmares about it.”

“I felt like I was at Tammany Hall,” said Lila Bricklin, the 10th Division committeeperson.

The 22nd Ward covers East and West Mt. Airy between Stenton and Wissahickon avenues north to south, and Mt. Pleasant Avenue and Johnson Street west to east. Each of the ward’s 58 possible Democratic Committee division seats was up for election in May for four-year terms.

The meeting on June 7 was the first time all of the newly elected committeepeople got together. Their task was to decide who among them would hold the offices of the ward, including the all-important ward leader position. Some of the new committee members hoped that this lowest-level political office in the city would be an example of politics at its purest, perhaps embodying some of those famous Mt. Airy ethics. They were disappointed.

“It was unbelievable,” Gilman said. “For many of us this was our first meeting with the Democratic Party, and we hoped that it was going to be a civil process. I knew that this ward had a history of autocratic rule, and I knew that there was a battle between Cindy [Bass] and Ron [Couser], but I did not know that it would be a return to 1920s politics.”

That battle was, indeed, for ward leader, a position held for many years by East Mt. Airy resident Vernon Price, a former aide to 8th District City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller.

Price vacated the post in January after taking a job with District Attorney Seth Williams, and Couser – committeeperson for Division 25 – was voted in unanimously, according to him, to fill out the term, which ended with the May primary.

Couser had no challengers then. This time was different.

Committeeperson Cindy Bass, Division 22, recruited enough open support among returning and newly elected members to challenge Couser, who, by his own account, has been a committeeperson since the 1980s.

But Bass, the senior policy advisor for U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah and a recent candidate for City Council in the 8th District, has also long been involved with committee level politics, and some say Monday’s events were just what happens when two political insiders go head to head.

Bass might have been seeking the ward leader seat to help strengthen her position to run again for city council against Miller, who has long been the leader of the 59th Ward. Bass declined to comment for this article.

“It gets a little testy,” said John Milianico, who has held the 22nd Ward’s 7th Division spot for 18 years. “That’s democracy I guess.”

Still, most of the complaints about the meeting seem to center on the fact that, although a vote for ward leader was indeed held, and Couser won by 27 votes to Bass’ 22, the way that vote was handled was decidedly undemocratic.

“I think there was already a determination as to who would be the ward leader and they did not want to have any open debate or discussion,” said Joe Tucker, a Division 3 committeeperson.

Several people complained that the meeting was chaotic, the procedures were unclear, and the only force of order was what Sampson called, “Ron’s Rules of Order,” that is, the shouted commands of Couser. And several said that when the important votes were taken, it was without discussion, debate or explanation, leaving many confused about what was going on. Even longtime Division 2 Committeeperson Ralph Pinkus was not happy with the way things went.

“I was disappointed that the meeting wasn’t conducted in a more orderly fashion,” he said.

But to Couser the issue was simple. If there was a problem at all with Monday’s meeting, it was because several of the newly elected committeepeople just did not know how things were supposed to go.

“There were people there that wanted to do it a different way,” he said. “The way that was not correct. And I wouldn’t do it that way.”

Alexander Talmadge, a former candidate for District Attorney, was apparently one of those people. He made a motion for speeches prior to the ward leader vote. Couser shouted him down, several said.

Gilman was another victim. Following the vote, which several said was done in a confused manner, she asked Couser if she could be recognized.

“I raised my hand and was called on and made a motion to invalidate the vote because people did not understand what they were voting on,” she said.

And before she could even finish that motion, Couser declared her out of order, several committeepeople said, even though he had just recognized her.

Couser had no recollection of Gilman’s motion, he said. And as to Talmadge’s request and others like it he said: “It was not an open debate or open discussion meeting. It was a meeting to reorganize the ward. It was not a meeting for people to stand up to talk.”

Couser’s position might explain why Joe Tucker’s effort to try to slow things down with requests for clarity about the meaning of the many votes being carried out produced such a strong response. According to many, a man designated by Couser as sergeant-at-arms shoved Tucker out of the room, at Couser’s request, and locked the door behind him because he was asking too many questions.

“He was physically pushed out of the room,” Gilman said.

Several of the committee people in attendance identified the sergeant-at-arms as George Howell, a committeeman for the 27th Division. Attempts to reach Howell before deadline were unsuccessful.

Following Tucker’s removal, pandemonium prevailed.

“And then the whole room exploded,” Sampson said.

“It was total chaos,” Gilman recalled. “There was pushing and shouting.”

Couser’s recollection is different. He did not instruct Howell to remove Tucker. “All I asked the guy [Tucker] to do was come to order, and he refused to do so, and I asked him to leave.”

And when asked what happened immediately after that, when others saw the forced removal of Tucker, Couser said, “I don’t know.” 

Couser did know one thing. Those complaints about the way the meeting went were simply the gripes of sore losers – supporters of Cindy Bass – who don’t want to move on.

“They had their day – they had an election,” he said. “It’s over with. The winners are the winners and the losers are the losers. And now they have to get together for the good of the community and the good of the ward and go forward.”



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