Phila. Democrats await outcome of Kane sting flap

"What are we supposed to do? We don't know the whole story." - U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, city Democratic chairman
"What are we supposed to do? We don't know the whole story." - U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, city Democratic chairman
Posted: March 24, 2014

Four of Philadelphia's 26 state representatives are running for reelection under a cloud, implicated in a crime by the state attorney general but not charged with anything.

The legal limbo, arising from an aborted sting operation, vexes leaders of the dominant city Democratic Party, who say they don't want to appear tolerant of corruption but also are reluctant to abandon their colleagues.

The consensus: Sit tight.

Only one of the four House members has any opposition in the May 20 primary. And no Republican filed to run in any of their districts.

"This is the poster child for what's wrong with one-party rule," said Zack Stalberg, president of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

"What are we supposed to do?" asked U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city Democratic chairman. The four have not been charged, he said, and it is not a crime for state elected officials to take cash or gifts in any case, if duly reported.

Besides, Brady said, "We don't know the whole story."

Attorney General Kathleen Kane shut down an investigation in which an undercover informant taped the representatives allegedly accepting cash and money orders. She said the case was too flawed to withstand a trial. But she also said in a news conference that the legislators had committed crimes.

According to people familiar with the long-running investigation, State Rep. Ronald G. Waters accepted payments totaling $7,650, Rep. Vanessa Brown took $4,000, Rep. Michelle Brownlee $3,500, and Rep. Louise Bishop $1,500.

The Inquirer disclosed the existence of the sting operation and Kane's decision last Sunday.

Bishop has said she did not know lobbyist Tyron B. Ali, the state's confidential informant, and never accepted cash or gifts. Brownlee has said she did not recall taking anything. Waters has said Ali may have given him something for his birthday, but he could not remember details. Brown has declined to comment, but her lawyer has said she did nothing wrong.

Brady said he had spoken with Bishop, who represents his Overbrook Park neighborhood in the House, but none of the others. "She's a reverend. I believe her," he said.

Waters, Bishop, and Brownlee face no challengers in the Democratic primary. Isaac N. Patterson V and Wanda Logan have filed to run against Brown in the 190th District.

The filing deadline has passed - anyone who wanted to challenge an incumbent legislator in the primary had to turn in 300 valid signatures from registered Democrats in the district. Aside from Patterson and Logan, no one did.

"These representatives have an excellent chance of getting reelected unless they can't stand the spotlight and resign," Stalberg said.

Candidates can withdraw from the primary ballot by Wednesday.

After the primary, a nominated candidate can resign from the ballot up until Aug. 11. In that event, or if a candidate dies, the city Democratic committee of ward leaders would choose a replacement.

It also would be possible for an independent candidate backed informally by the party to win a spot on the fall ballot. But in Pennsylvania, such candidates face a high bar. To run for the House, an independent must garner signatures from registered voters equal to the highest vote-getter's total in the district's last general election.

No one's predicting any such drama just yet.

"You have to let it play out at this point," said John J. Dougherty, business leader of the politically potent Local 98 of the electricians' union and Democratic leader of the First Ward in South Philadelphia.

"It doesn't sound well or read well for the party, but everybody's innocent until proven guilty," Dougherty said. He added there was "no place for corruption."

The House districts in question, which are in West and North Philadelphia and a bit of eastern Delaware County, are so solidly Democratic that all four legislators faced no opposition when they last sought reelection, in 2012. Waters and Bishop have been unopposed in their last three races.

Then there's State Sen. LeAnna Washington (D., Phila.), whom Kane's office charged this month with illegally using state resources and staff to raise campaign money. Washington, who is fighting the charges, faces opposition in both the primary and the fall.

Joe DeFelice, executive director of the Philadelphia GOP, agreed with Stalberg: too many years of one-party rule.

"People get complacent, they get comfortable, they get lazy and arrogant," said DeFelice, a lawyer who was named in May to the Republican post. "Frankly, we haven't done much to challenge them."

He said the old days of his party's scrambling to get any warm body to fill a slot on the ballot were over. Party leaders want to recruit strong candidates who believe in Republican principles and build strength over time, he said.

"Democrats set up the chess pieces in this game, and they have 30 pieces to our three pawns," DeFelice said. "The new role for us is going to be to flip the board and play a new game."

Of course, revolution is easier said than done in a city where registered Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans by about 6.5 to 1.

Philadelphia voters, in any case, don't have a recent record of rebelling against corrupt or comfortable elected officials, Stalberg said. Probably the closest example is the early 1950s, he said, when the Republican machine that had ruled for decades was challenged by reform-minded Democrats.

As for the legislators named in the ill-starred sting, Brady said it was unfair to leave them hanging. "They ought to have a chance to defend themselves," he said.


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald www.inquirer.com/bigtent

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