Most newcomers lose to party and union backing

Posted: May 23, 2014

In Philadelphia, political underdogs usually have a tough time getting much traction without the requisite endorsements and donors, especially in low-turnout elections.

Tuesday's primary - with a modest turnout estimated at 20 percent - held to that form, with upstarts around the city making minimal progress against the establishment.

Meanwhile, candidates with money and support from Local 98 of the Electricians did particularly well, burnishing the union's position and reputation a year away from the next mayoral primary.

John J. "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, business manager of Local 98, was effusive Wednesday at his usual postelection lunch gathering at the Palm.

"We put our money where our mouth is, and we put our thousands of people there, too. That's an old-school mentality," Dougherty said. "I have one foot in the past, but we've got two in the future. Our . . . campaigns were run off a handful of iPhones and high-tech gadgets. So we're prepared, and we're only getting better."

Local 98 scored one huge victory Tuesday - State Rep. Brendan Boyle won the Democratic nomination for a seat in Congress - and one tough loss with Allyson Y. Schwartz, who finished far behind Tom Wolf in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

"Tom Wolf ran a tremendous campaign. The commercials were awesome, some of the best we've seen in years," Dougherty said. "We all know what a commercial can do for you, as per Mayor Nutter."

Nutter, whose 2007 commercial featured his charming, then-12-year-old daughter, Olivia, confounded conventional wisdom by winning a five-way primary against candidates representing the city's traditional power bases.

That sort of feat has proved tougher to pull off in lower-level races.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez and her husband, Tomas, put together a slate of four candidates to run against party- and Local 98-backed candidates for the nominations in three state House races and one state Senate district.

Only one prevailed - Jason Dawkins, a former staff member in the councilwoman's office, who knocked off a one-term state representative in Frankford.

Tomas Sánchez, who ran for a state Senate nomination, said that Tuesday was just the start of an effort to build an organization that can challenge the establishment.

"This was never about how other people would interpret what we were doing," he said. "We have a long-term strategy that will become apparent more and more over the years."

He said that the Democratic Party still reflexively backs incumbents in the interest of party unity rather than seeking the best candidates, and that money remains a "distorting" influence in city politics.

"We showed people that we have courage," Sánchez said. "I see this growing. ... I'm not happy with the leadership in my community."

In Point Breeze, developer Ori Feibush helped spur an insurgency of candidates to be committee people, the party foot soldiers who pick the ward leaders.

Had enough of his candidates won, Feibush, who plans to run next year against City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, could have seized control of the 36th Ward, a stronghold of his real estate business.

But Feibush said "the majority" of his candidates lost - calculating the exact number would take some time, he said, because of write-in votes.

Still, he said he was not discouraged.

"It was an unbelievably positive experience," he said. "We had the opportunity to meet hundreds and hundreds of neighbors, and we made the other side work harder, too."

He said the races were competitive throughout the neighborhood, which has been grappling with the changes that come when development brings a wave of wealthier neighbors into a once-struggling area.

"I think the process worked as it was supposed to," Feibush said. "This was a very healthy exercise in the democratic process, and I think everyone was energized by it."

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, longtime chair of the city's Democratic Party, could not be reached Wednesday for his analysis of the election, but party-supported candidates performed well, as usual.

In particular, the party backed State Sen. Christine Tartaglione in her successful race against Sánchez and Daniel Savage, the Local 98-backed candidate.

Dougherty was philosophical about that defeat and a handful of others.

"Look," he said, "if I won them all, I wouldn't have to worry about pulling wire anymore."


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@troyjgraham

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