Monday, March 20, 2006

Self-Inflicted Wounds in Philadelphia

As the Democratic primary approaches in Pennsylvania on May 16, Philadelphia progressives are preparing for self-immolation.

In the U.S. Senate race, two liberals are vying with Bob Casey for the Democratic nomination to face Rick Santorum (R-Opus Dei) in the fall. I had attended a Move On election post-mortem in Mt. Airy, northwest Philly, in November 2004, at which participants discussed possible directions for the organization, and the overwhelming choice of the several dozen attendees at my meeting for the top organizing effort in the near future was defeating Santorum. Now Neighborhood Networks, a citywide organization formed in summer 2005 by frustrated Move On veterans wanting more local focus and more bottom-up, grassroots-led direction, is in the process of deciding what to do about the choices in the primary to pick Santorum's opponent. Obviously, Casey, an opponent of abortion, gay marriage, and gun control, doesn't share Neighborhood Networks' socially liberal platform (not yet adopoted, but here's a taste); just as obviously, he's the party's preferred candidate, and has a healthy advantage in fundraising, experience, and name recognition.

Recently, the steering committee and ward leaders met at a retreat, partly in order to decide what recommendation to make to the local ward committees (which would make any actual endorsements). The crucial part of the report that my ward's membership got back read:
The question was the wisdom of endorsing the stronger of the two alternatives to Bob Casey, Chuck Pennacchio, a candidate closer to our political values/policies. Some people argued that it was too risky to support Pennachio given that, with Casey's money and name recognition, he may defeat Pennachio in the primary. At first some were hesistant to take this position, but by the end, a majority argued that given what was at stake in national politics, that we needed to draw a line in the sand and help Pennachio to get elected as Casey's positions are not likely to make much difference in congress.
Now that has got to be one of the stupidest things I've read in quite some time. Not on the reporter's part - I'm not blaming the messenger here. But for those who actually took the apparent majority position...... gaahhh.....

Casey's positions wouldn't make much difference? My last post dealt that very argument, which is as wrong as wrong could be and could only be asserted by a smug, insular, straight middle class liberal whose concern for the less fortunate stops at the merely rhetorical. I don't want to beat it into the ground here, but suffice it to say that it's not the view of the poor people who are going to be cut off Medicaid after Santorum helps pass the $13 billion in Medicaid cuts that Shrub just proposed; or the view of the gay rights advocates at the Human Rights Campaign, who just endorsed Casey because of his firm support for domestic partnership benefits and his opposition to a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; or the view of low-income workers who will need Social Security in the future rather than the fee-ridden, disaster-prone Chile-style privatized system that Santorum remains eager to advance; or of the labor community.

But let's not just talk about the merits. Let's talk about practicality and effectiveness. Casey "may" defeat Pennacchio? We need to "help Pennacchio to get elected"? If I may again quote the Master, 'that's the craziest f#!@ing thing I've ever heard.' Bob Casey Jr. has instant name recognition; is the son of a still-popular two-term governor; has been elected to statewide office multiple times; has raised $6 million; is a Catholic from Scranton; and is currently leading Santorum in the polls. Chuck Pennacchio is a liberal professor who teaches in Philadelphia, has never held office, and has raised $88,000.

I shouldn't actually need to go on any further to make the point, but I will. A liberal professor from Philadelphia? Who no one's ever heard of? Who's never won a single race (although he's worked on campaigns before)? Who hasn't even broken six figures, while Rick Santorum has raised $13 million? You're going to help him win? Who's out of their minds here?????

It's not that extreme dark horse candidates never win - they do, of course, once in a blue moon, but only when the front runner self-destructs. That still might happen in this race, but there's no reason to expect it to happen - the two frontrunners are both experience campaigners. Santorum, in particular, had made it abundantly clear that he was to the right of the Keystone state political mainstream in 2000, yet he still won an easy reelection victory over a guy who'd actually been elected to Congress before; he's a known quantity in Pennsylvania, not someone who's suddenly going to be exposed by the $9,100 Pennacchio has left in his account. The only serious, intelligent motive for working for the Pennacchio campaign at this point would be to send a strong signal of disgust to the party leaders for picking Casey, and try to use this campaign to start to build a progressive campaign that might succeed in future elections. That's not necessarily the worst idea in the world, but the delusion that Pennacchio might actually "win" the fall election does not bespeak serious, intelligent contemplation. Perhaps Pennacchio can use the contacts and experience he gains in this round to become a serious candidate for some lesser office in 2008 - that would be great, because, to be clear, I'd much rather have someone with his policy positions representing me than either of the two frontrunners. But first he's going some learning to do - such as recognizing that, contrary to what he subtly implies on his blog, it's simply not the case that Pa. Dems keep losing because they nominate social conservatives. True, Ron Klink in 2000 was a social conservative, but Lynn Yeakel in 1992 was a firm liberal, and Arlen Specter's still sittin' there voting for tax cuts for the rich.

Meanwhile in the 175th state house district, a totally useless incumbent machine Democrat, Marie Lederer, is retiring. The official machine party nominee to replace her is her longtime chief of staff, Mike O'Brien. Now, the 175th - the fightin' 175th, of course - covers much of Queen Village, Old City, and Northern Liberties, parts of the city that have seen recent influxes of young people who are presumably much less tied to the machine and the ward leaders that make it run. But the district also includes Kensington, Fishtown and Port Richmord, old-fashioned 'river wards' where the machine racks up big totals. In Philly, the machine wins nearly every time. Nevertheless, there've been signs of a split in the party hierarchy recently, raising the possibility that O'Brien won't have unified party support (although all but two ward leaders voted to endorse him at a recent meeting, I hear). Presumably, he also lacks Lederer's name recognition.

So there's something of a chance for a true outsider progressive to pick up this seat. The 175th, fortunately, isn't like Pennsylvania generally - you don't have to deal with a couple hundred miles of right-wingers from Lancaster to Somerset in order to get anywhere. To actually win, though, you'd almost certainly need a unified progressive effort, working for a single challenger to O'Brien.

And what's happening? Three challengers, of course, none of whom is willing to drop out and throw their support to the other - and at least two of whom are progressives with nearly identical stances. One, Anne Dicker, is a young cofounder of a promising and impressive 3,000 strong grassroots organization called Philly for Change. The other, Terry Graboyes, is a longtime veteran of Philly progressive politics and appears to have racked up a number of valuable endorsements. A third candidate, Peter Fiorentino, doesn't appear to have a similar resume. Graboyes claims to have the support of several city council members, and to have raised $50,000; Dicker is exploring the possibilities of a strategy to bring out voters who normally sit out non-Presidential elections, and turn the tide by overcoming the ward-directed votes of the usual suspects. Both offer the prospect of intriguing energy and new blood in Harrisburg. Both are also doomed to fail.

Get formerly apathetic voters motivated about a state house race on a Tuesday in late April? Split the progressive vote and still beat the ward leaders' favorite candidate? Here again, maybe - but only if something freakish happens. To be clear, both Dicker and Graboyes sound like women with their hearts in the right place - at a meeting on Saturday, they both expressed their concern with preserving abortion rights and raising the minimum wage. Here's hoping they weather the inevitable drubbing that awaits Philly progressives in April 2006, and go on to build something bigger and better in future years.

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