“Philadelphia Battlefields: Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City” by West Mt. Airy author John Kromer is a must read for anyone interested in Philadelphia politics. Its detailed observations and thoughtful analysis are likely to be of interest to political scientists and historians, and with its clear, jargon-free prose “Philadelphia Battlefields” is accessible to the general reader.
Kromer draws on his extensive experience as city housing director from 1992 to 2001 and as a veteran of numerous political campaigns, including his own run for Sheriff in 2011. He describes his book as primarily a study of what he calls “insurgent” campaigns—“how ambitious individuals succeeded in long odds elections by employing creative campaign strategies…and by understanding the political opportunities available in the social and economic environments in which their campaigns were taking place.”
The book is also the story of the decline of the Philadelphia Democratic Party machine, which has fragmented into competing factions, thus providing opportunities for insurgent campaigns. The party has become increasingly less able to deliver for endorsed candidates in primary elections or to get out the vote in general elections. Kromer complicates this story, noting upsets and internecine battles during periods when the party was supposedly at its strongest, and arguing that even in its weakened condition the party continues to have influence in low-profile races.
“Philadelphia Battlefields” begins with an in-depth analysis of Rebecca Rhynhart’s upset victory in the 2017 city controller race. Her opponent was a two-term incumbent with the solid support of the Democratic Party establishment, yet Rhynhart won decisively. Kromer raises the possibility that her victory was “the first solid evidence that the Democratic Party’s dominant role in Philadelphia politics was finally coming to an end.”
Kromer than turns to the history of the 20th century Democratic Party in Philadelphia, which he argues began with the 1951 election of Joseph Clark as Mayor and Richardson Dilworth as District Attorney, bringing to an end almost a century of Republican Party rule and ushering in an era of municipal reform. However, as Kromer demonstrates, the reforms were undermined by the continuation of one-party rule, with the Democratic machine replacing the Republican machine.
Unlike the municipal reform movement, which did not significantly change the distribution of wealth and power in the city, the Black Political Forum led by Hardy Williams, Wilson Goode and John White Sr. brought about real social change, building a movement for Black political empowerment independent of the Democratic Party. Kromer analyzes the early career of Chaka Fattah, whom he characterizes as a “political entrepreneur” who “developed a creative and effective approach to building power as Philadelphia changed.” In 1982 Fattah built a political campaign for a state house seat drawing on the resources of organizations based in the Black community, and defeated party-endorsed incumbent, Nicholas Pucciarelli. Kromer considers other insurgent candidates (Tom Foglietta, Ed Rendell, Maria Quinines Sanchez) who defeated party- endorsed candidates; all in different ways took advantage of the erosion of the power of the Democratic Party machine.
In addition to analyzing the strategies of successful insurgent candidates, Kromer also profiles several of the civic organizations providing support for their campaigns and educating voters about candidates’ stands on issues. Kromer credits Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) with training nearly 600 volunteers who became the driving force behind the 1951 election of reformers Dilworth and Clark, and for spearheading the Rizzo recall movement in the 1970s.
In his analysis of 21st century politics, Kromer focuses on three organizations: POWER, which provides political education for low-income communities; 3.0, an organization of centrist and liberal Democrats; and Reclaim, a socialist organization that grew out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. Both Reclaim and 3.0 provided training and support for a new generation of political activists; despite their differences, both groups are committed to transparency and democracy in the ward system, and both were heavily involved in recruiting candidates for the 2018 committeeperson elections.
Kromer analyzes the impact of Reclaim on the second ward, which has become a model of ward transparency and democracy with its carefully drawn bylaws and endorsement procedures. Reclaim member Nikhil Saval was elected ward leader in 2018 and then, in a remarkable upset, Saval defeated a three-term incumbent to win a seat in the PA Senate. “Philadelphia Battlefields” went to press before the victories of Saval and fellow Reclaim member Rick Krajewski, who defeated a 23-year incumbent to win a PA house seat. The victories of Saval and Krajewski differed from the upset victories of most other candidates profiled in the book in that they saw themselves as part of a social movement that had grown out of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Many young progressives running for office have serious criticisms of the Democratic Party for its lack of transparency/democracy. Kromer poses the question: Is the system the problem? Or is it the people running it? He notes the structure has potential for genuine representative democracy and that most committeepeople “are highly reflective of the community they represent.”
However, Kromer acknowledges that most wards are not democratically run “open wards”; committeepeople do not have the right to vote on endorsements or on ward policies and procedures and there exist no internal party rules protecting the rights of committee people. In this sense, the system is the problem. He notes that it is far easier for resource-rich wards such as the second to operate an open ward than it is for low-income wards. The second ward can afford to forfeit city committee’s financial support in order to endorse its own slate of candidates and can raise its own funds for Election Day materials. This is much more challenging for low-income, low-turnout wards.
Philadelphia’s political system is changing — generationally and demographically. Progressives seeking to reform the ward system have much to learn from Kromer’s thoughtful analysis of the city’s political history and current political landscape.
Karen Bojar is an author and former Democratic committee person. She lives in Mt. Airy.