Open Wards are on the rise in South Philly

Prior to May’s elections, there were just five open wards in the city — all of them on the Democratic side.

In the wake of May’s citywide ward leader/committee post elections, several ward leaders in South Philly have announced the planned transformations of their wards into “open wards,” wards in which committee people vote on who the ward endorses in local elections. In closed wards, which are far more common in Philadelphia’s ward system, the ward leader makes the sole decision about who the ward endorses.

For those who don’t know, the basic concept of Philadelphia’s ward system is this: The city has 69 (or 66, depending on how you count them since wards 39, 40 and 66 are all divided in half — 39A and 39B and so on) wards divided all throughout the city limits. Each ward is subdivided into roughly five-square-block districts, each of which have their own representatives — called committee people — in charge. There are Democratic and Republican ward leaders and committee people in each ward, and both parties work independently of each other.

Prior to May’s elections, there were just five open wards in the city — all of them on the Democratic side. They were the 5th, 8th, 9th, 27th, and 30th wards. The 30th ward, which became an open ward in 1998, is the most recent to become an open ward. The other four became open wards at various points in the ’60s and ’70s. As a result, the city has only had five open wards since 1998.

According to Karen Bojar, an expert on Philadelphia’s ward system and author of Green Shoots of Democracy Within the Philadelphia Democratic Party, there are plans among ward leaders to add five more open wards to that list since the last election: the 1st, 2nd, 18th, 48th and 51st — all of them Democratic. There are currently no open wards on the Republican side in the city’s ward system, or plans to create any.

Three of those wards — the 1st, 2nd and 48th — are in South Philly. Most ward leaders of open wards see them as a fairer and more democratic way of going about elections in Philadelphia’s electoral system.

“I believe in the process of giving everybody a voice in the ward,” said Anton Moore, the Democratic ward leader of the 48th ward who was elected in May. “If they’re out there organizing, then they should have a seat at the table.”

“We had explicitly among ourselves agreed to some principles, one of which that committee people would vote on endorsements,” said Adams Rackes, the recently elected Democratic leader of the 1st ward. “No one makes any decisions alone. We want to be working together.”

Rackes stressed financial transparency is another component to his open ward and his ward utilizes a “steering committee” model in which there are nine officers (ward leader, ward chair, 1st, 2nd and 3rd vice chair, secretary, assistant secretary, treasurer and assistant treasurer) within the ward. The steering committee model is predicated upon the fact that there’s less of a formal leadership within the ward and more of a select group who “steers” it in the direction in which the collective will of the people in the ward chooses for it to go.

“It’s a fair amount of work and we want to divide the responsibility and accountability for it,” Rackes said.

Recently elected Nikil Saval, who is the newest ward leader for the 2nd ward, echoed the sentiments of Rackes and Moore.

“I would say the committee people are closest to their neighbors,” he said when asked why their input matters. “They won elections by knocking on doors and speaking to their neighbors and they represent their neighbors and they’re accountable to them.”

Saval said the endorsements of open wards are “stronger” because they better reflect the collective will of registered Democrats in a given neighborhood.

The Review reached out to the Democratic and Republican ward leaders in each of the voting wards that are not considered open wards for comment as well. On the Democratic side, ward leaders Jonathan Rowan of ward 39A and Matthew Myers or 39B wouldn’t say they were considering letting committee people vote on endorsements, but each maintained they value the input of their committee people. None of the other Democratic ward leaders returned phone calls or emails.

On the Republican side, 30th ward leader Joe Maiellano told the Review he wasn’t familiar with the concept of open wards, but was open to considering utilizing it in his ward.

Vince Minniti, Republican ward leader for ward 39A, said he would potentially be open to doing the same, but needed to learn more about the subject first.

Theresa Dintino, Republican ward leader for the 48th ward, wouldn’t say whether she was willing to consider letting committee people vote, but maintained all of her committee people get to have their voices heard when considering endorsements.

None of the other Republican ward leaders returned phone calls or emails.

Despite increasing support for open wards among the progressive left wing of the Democratic Party, not everybody thinks the model would work in every ward.

Carol Jenkins is the Democratic ward leader of the 27th ward, which is an open ward. However, she doesn’t think all the other wards should follow her ward’s model. She stressed her voters and committee people are highly educated, which isn’t always the case for voters in other wards.

“[Every] ward could not possibly act like the 27th ward because they don’t have the same type of voters,” she said. She believes that in certain cases it’s the ward leader alone who knows best. She cited the 39B ward, which is led by Matthew Myers, as an example.

“Matt Myers knows a lot more about these candidates,” she said. “I suspect that at the end of the day that his leadership is more necessary.”

She concedes things may not be as democratic that way, but democracy doesn’t always lead to what she believes are the best results, she explained.

“Donald Trump was just elected in a democratic manner so it’s not always a good result,” she said.

Not to mention, she said, the logistics of it can be difficult.

“Saying that committee people are always able to make a good decision, I’m not sure that’s always the case, and I think it’s pretty idealistic to say that it is — especially in the city with the differences in the neighborhoods,” she explained. “In large wards, you open up spats and you never come to a consensus. You may never get a simple majority. You may never get a majority. If you’ve got 90 people trying to come to a decision on who to endorse and you’ve got 52 people on the ballot, it can’t be a long drawn out arduous process. Logistically it becomes very difficult to do.”

Jon Geeting, who is both the director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0 and committee person in Fishtown’s 18th ward (which is in the process of becoming an open ward), disagrees.

“I don’t think Carol is an elitist person to be clear, but I think that is an elitist argument,” Geeting said. “To know about the seat at all, I think you have to be pretty plugged in. People get recruited to these things by friends and they don’t know the full rundown, but if you’re doing it, you know something about local politics. … We don’t bar people from voting just [over] their ability to understand politics.”

Criticism was lobbed by Geeting and others at Mike Boyle, Democratic ward leader for the 5th ward (a ward that has been an open ward since the ‘60s/’70s), by some for his handling of replacing Mike O’Brien, the 175th State House district incumbent candidate who dropped out of the race last month after winning the primary in May. When situations like this occur, it’s up to the ward leaders in the affected wards to come together to vote in a replacement candidate within 30 days. In Geeting’s opinion, this would have been enough time to allow for a collective vote among all the committee people in the five affected wards the 175th State House district covers (these wards are all or part of the 2nd, 5th, 18th, 25th, and 31st wards). Many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party feel it would be more in keeping with the concept of an open ward to also let committee people vote on replacement candidates when one drops out of a race after the primary like O’Brien did. But that’s not what happened.

Because Boyle’s ward has the most districts in the 175th district of all five affected wards, he had the authority to call off the vote and reschedule it for another time after ward leaders had the chance to gather votes from committee people if he wanted to, according to Geeting. Saval and Theresa Alecea, Democratic ward leader for the 18th ward, both made a motion to delay the vote, but it was defeated. Boyle, along with Peg Rzepski (leader of the 31st Ward), and Tommy Johnson (leader of the 25th Ward) voted against allowing more time.

Saval called the five-day time period to organize a vote “totally inadequate.”

Boyle, however, maintains that doing what Saval suggested would have been breaking the rules.

“City committee rules say when there’s an opening for an office like this in a state rep race, the ward leaders in that district meet to discuss who to recommend for the candidate that stepped aside,” he told the Review. “The rules state that it’s the ward leaders, so I don’t have the authority to contradict the rules.”

In response to the failure of delaying the vote and allowing for a vote among all the committee people (interesting fact: this is actually what the city Democratic Party’s bylines previously stipulated until 2014, before it was changed to the current process), Saval organized a vote among his own committee people, and based his vote as a ward leader for O’Brien’s replacement upon the will of his committee people. However, because the vote among his committee people failed to result in a simple majority, Saval abstained from the vote replacing O’Brien. The other four ward leaders all voted for O’Brien’s chief of staff, Mary Isaacson, who ultimately became the Democratic Party’s new nominee in the Pennsylvania’s 175th State House district. She’s running uncontested.

An important question is how much does this all matter anyway? How much influence does a ward’s endorsement have over who gets elected in the first place?

Jonathan Tannen, a research scientist, statistician and urban demographer previously employed by Econsult Solutions, conducted research on this very topic for Econsult’s blog. His data found an individual ward’s endorsement has a +0.9 percentage point marginal effect on an endorsed candidate’s vote total, which is more of an effective than ballot position has or an endorsement from the Philadelphia Inquirer has. However, Tannen notes in the blog post that “we shouldn’t make too much of this analysis [because] the limitations of the data are significant.” However, “the analysis provides at least suggestive evidence that ward endorsements may have the most power of all [the other potential factors].”