Mt. Airy author to discuss local political 'Battlefields'

by Pamela Forsythe
Posted 10/22/20

Political junkies, this one's for you. John Kromer, West Mt. Airy resident and author of “Philadelphia Battlefields,” will discuss his book via Zoom, sponsored by Big Blue Marble …

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Mt. Airy author to discuss local political 'Battlefields'

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Political junkies, this one's for you. John Kromer, West Mt. Airy resident and author of “Philadelphia Battlefields,” will discuss his book via Zoom, sponsored by Big Blue Marble Bookstore in West Mt. Airy, on Monday, Oct. 26, 7 p.m.

Cynics might say that Philadelphia elections are preordained, but Kromer's new book disagrees. In “Philadelphia Battlefields: Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City,” Kromer analyzes how upstarts have repeatedly outmaneuvered party machinery.

Ed Rendell did it. In 1977 the future Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor was an assistant district attorney running for the top spot against an unpopular incumbent. F. Emmett Fitzpatrick had the endorsement of the Democratic City Committee and the backing of Mayor Frank Rizzo, who was even less popular than his district attorney.

When no challenger to Fitzpatrick emerged, Rendell entered the race. With little money but sensing dissatisfaction among rank-and-file Democrats, the campaign relied on disillusioned committeepersons, whom the campaign persuaded to distribute Rendell literature. Those connections, plus relentless canvassing, helped Rendell win the primary and seal the victory in November.

Democracy can be undercut when a single party dominates election after election. Incumbents can become comfortably entrenched, protected by arcane rules, disengaged voters and low turnout, all of which can be found here. Yet Kromer demonstrates many instances in which motivated underdogs have prevailed over the existing power structure.

In 2017, for example, Philadelphia’s off-year election was overwhelmed by voter outrage stoked by the 2016 presidential results as well as the recent indictment of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. Constituent anger worked to the advantage of Larry Krasner, one of seven DA candidates in the open primary. Anger also galvanized support for women candidates at all levels, including political newcomer Rebecca Rhynhart, running for city controller against the incumbent, Alan Butkovitz.

Voter sentiment aside, Rhynhart ran a canny campaign. Similar to Rendell’s divide-and-conquer strategy, her team persuaded several of the DA candidates to list her on sample ballots, a tacit endorsement which was handed to voters as they arrived at the polls. “Because the election for district attorney was attracting the most attention … and because the Democratic Party had not endorsed any particular candidate for DA,” Kromer writes, “many voters were likely to pay the most attention to information associated with the candidate they supported for DA. Because campaign workers for multiple DA candidates were distributing sample ballots that also promoted Rhynhart’s candidacy for controller, the benefits for Rhynhart were likely to be significant.”

The book examines political upsets going back to the 1950s when the Republican Party ran Philadelphia and was the target of reformers. The Grand Old Party dominated in the first half of the 20th century, and until 1960 registered Republicans in Philadelphia outnumbered Democrats.

As he deconstructs upset campaigns, Kromer, who served as the city director of housing in the Rendell administration, offers a tutorial on the structure of Philadelphia government. In his estimation, it’s “an excellent model for representative government.” Really.

Philadelphia consists of 66 elective wards that, though geographically contiguous, don’t necessarily correspond to neighborhoods. Wards are made up of divisions, which are realigned after each census and consist of 100 to 1200 voters. Currently, there are 1,692 divisions.

Each division has a polling place and may have up to four elected committeepersons, with no more than two from the same party. Kromer describes committeepersons as “unpaid party representatives responsible for informing voters about the party’s candidates in each election and responding to voter requests for information and assistance.”

In 1979, Chaka Fattah and Curtis Jones devised an ingenious way to become better known as they ran for two of the three slots on City Commission, the board that supervises elections. Every day, under the guise of college reporters, they called the campaign of mayoral candidate Charles Bowser for his scheduled appearances. Then they followed the same route to chat up the crowds and media who’d come to see Bowser.

Though neither man won, each established political credibility for the future. Jones is currently in his fourth term on Philadelphia City Council. Fattah served in the Pennsylvania House and Senate, and for 21 years in the US House of Representatives, until being convicted in 2016 of corruption.

Political malfeasance is a recurring theme in Philadelphia, a product of single-party domination, patronage, blind loyalty, reflexive endorsements and quasi-public agencies that are not subject to the ethical standards imposed by Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter. All of which leads citizens to believe that there is little point to voting.

Philadelphia has held five mayoral elections in the 21st century: 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. Only once (2003) has voter turnout exceeded 30 percent. That’s a shocking number. It reveals a chasm of opportunity for candidates who can break through voter apathy and should energize potential disruptors from the Northeast to the Navy Yard.

To register for the Oct. 26 Zoom event, visit bigbluemarblebooks.com/events. This article is being reprinted, with permission, from The Broad Street Review.

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