Phila. Democrats make a quiet decision

State Sen. LeAnna Washington leaves court after her arraignment on corruption charges in Abington last week.
State Sen. LeAnna Washington leaves court after her arraignment on corruption charges in Abington last week. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 17, 2014

Philadelphia Democratic ward leaders had a cozy, closed meeting last week with party chair U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and unanimously selected City Council's next at-large member, State Rep. Ed Neilson. It's a wonder they didn't release white smoke.

Ostensibly, there's a special election May 20 to select a successor to Bill Green, who quit Council to helm the School Reform Commission, but it would be foolish to believe voters have much say. Special elections are aptly named: They're special for party leaders but not anyone else.

Try to recall how many Republicans have been elected to top city positions in modern memory. In Philadelphia, Democrats outnumber Republicans by six to one, not that many people turn out for these elections. In May 2010, only 19 percent of registered voters bothered.

Neilson received the nod after his state House district miraculously moved from the Northeast to York County and he would have been forced to run against Rep. John Sabatina Jr., another loyal son of the party. (Literally: His father is a longtime ward leader.) Neilson once worked as political director for powerful Electricians Local 98 chief John Dougherty. When Neilson takes his seat in City Hall, there will be more former Local 98 political directors (two) serving on Council than Latinos or Asians.

Before the meeting, Brady said he would do "whatever's best for the party," and noted, "No matter who we pick, somebody won't be happy."

Know who's not happy? Voters like Jon Belisonzi of Bella Vista. "I just feel like no one is representing me, the taxpayer," he told me. "I feel they're representing city employees and unions and keeping what they have intact. I just feel so powerless." Join the club.

LeAnna "I am the f-ing senator" Washington entered the state Senate through a 2005 special election. Last week, she was charged with using legislative staff to raise campaign money, a specialty of the House - and Senate. "I do what the f- I want, and ain't nobody going to change me," she told a former aide who questioned using taxpayer money for a birthday fund-raiser, according to grand jury testimony. "I have been doing it like this for 17 years. So stop trying to change me."

At that moment, I wanted to break out singing Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are."

(Washington may have company in having allegedly violated ethics laws, sources said. Four Philadelphia Democratic state representatives were allegedly caught on tape accepting cash in an undercover operation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, according to an Inquirer investigation, but the probe was shut down with no charges filed.)

You would think, given the epidemic of former state elected officials convicted of using taxpayer-funded staff for campaign activities, that Washington would have known better.

But, no.

Washington, a champion of the elderly and victims of abuse, arrived in the General Assembly a public paragon of ethics. She was the rare legislator who not only voted against the infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise but refused to accept it. She also sponsored a 2010 ethics bill that specifically banned the sort of activities she is now charged with allegedly "doing it like this."

Additionally, it's not clear that Washington's constituents (and I am one) are receiving adequate representation. During the last two years, the blanking senator was absent in Harrisburg almost a third of the time, including for crucial votes on Medicaid expansion and voter ID, issues on which Washington had adamantly expressed her views. Perhaps that's why she has two challengers in the Democratic primary.

Washington should have known better, and apparently did. As the investigation advanced, she allegedly confided to an aide, "I'll probably have to resign."

Dear blanking senator, take your advice.

In 2014, Philadelphia still has a well-lubricated Democratic machine, but voters are not powerless. Noise and action are necessary. In a special election, even one that coincides with a closed primary, all voters - including independents - can vote for any at-large Council candidate. Republican Matt Wolfe is a declared candidate, and independents who gather at least 1,785 signatures by April 8 can qualify to appear on the May ballot.

"We have an incredibly antiquated system," said Ellen Kaplan of the election watchdog group the Committee of Seventy. "I would like to see open primaries, which would result in more competitive elections like those in New York City and Los Angeles."

Kaplan also advised, "but the option that works best is to participate."

215-854-2586 @kheller

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