With two months to go in the election, can Democratic Party candidates rise above the mediocrity of one party rule?
by Jeremy Nowak
What is the incentive to do things differently in a one party system that too often rewards loyalty over performance?
Can the next mayor rise above the accommodations of one party rule to change the basic operating assumptions of government? Or will we read about the transgressions at Licenses and Inspections ten years from now, just as we did ten and twenty years ago?
First, let’s be clear: The Republican Party in Philadelphia has no chance to win a citywide election based on party registration and the national brand of the party, particularly with African American voters. The city’s Republican establishment seems fine with losing as long as it maintains a small share of patronage through the parking authority and the courts. Moreover, the two most competitive Republican candidates during the past fifty years were former Democrats: Frank Rizzo and Sam Katz. If Katz or Bill Green ran as independents this fall, their chances of winning would increase dramatically if the Republican Party disappeared. But it won’t; a reliable but diminishing number of Republican votes will siphon votes from an independent.
The Democratic Party decides who is next. Political reform is now less about new ways of doing things and more about bringing new constituencies into the fold: LGBT voters, new immigrants, the bicycle lobby.
One party rule is not unusual in urban politics. Chicago and Boston have had Democratic mayors for 85 straight years. That’s a run that would make Mexico’s PRI, which held national power for a mere 71 straight years, blush with envy. But in Philly, we excel at it. During the past 138 years, Philadelphia has had two streaks of one party rule. The Republicans ran the city for 75 straight years between 1884 and 1951 and from 1952 until today we have been a Democratic town: 63 years and counting.
Philadelphia’s Democratic Party reform movement led to the election of Joseph Clark as mayor in 1952 followed by the estimable Richardson Dilworth. This ended a Republican patronage machine with a colorful and often corrupt history.
But the golden era of reform was short-lived. By the late 1960’s the reform-minded Democratic Party was becoming a more insular ward- based system. Mayors Tate and Rizzo represented the rise of row home Philadelphia, with heavy support from working and middle class neighborhoods that felt cut out by the Republicans, but were also alienated from the seemingly more well-heeled good government Democrats.
Then came the emergence of African American political power in the 1970’s, a disruptive force to the party of Tate and Rizzo. In fact the first serious African American candidate for mayor, Charles Bowser, bucked the party in the 1970’s and ran as an independent.
Through Bowser, African American leaders signaled that the party better make room. African American wards and electoral power became increasingly mainstreamed; three of our past four mayors have been African American.
Since those days, the battle within the Democratic Party has been about the distribution of appointments, nominations, and contracts among social groups bound by neighborhood, ward loyalty, money, and ethnic or racial affiliation. Continue reading