Feuding Philadelphia Democrats Threaten Biden's 2024 Chances

(Bloomberg) -- A war within Philadelphia’s storied Democratic political machine threatens to cost President Joe Biden the blowout victory he’ll need in the city if he hopes to win reelection.

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Leaders of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party have been feuding with progressives and organizers on the party’s left, amid disagreements over policy, the requirements of party discipline and the mechanics of engaging voters to get them to the polls.

It’s a dispute Biden can ill afford. Public polls and party operatives detect low enthusiasm for the 81-year-old president, concerns about his age and the uneven benefits of his economy, and increasing anger about the administration’s support for Israel in the war in Gaza. The president’s struggle to energize critical blocs of young and Black voters comes as his opponent — former President Donald Trump — has set his sights on courting those groups.

For Biden, the battle for Philadelphia — just a short drive from his Delaware home — embodies the same generational and political schism tormenting the Democratic Party nationwide, including in crucial cities like Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee.

The president will assuredly win the city, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans roughly 7 to 1. But Biden needs a substantial margin of victory in Philadelphia to counter Trump’s advantage in Pennsylvania's conservative rural counties. The former president’s path to reclaiming the White House gets much easier if he can splinter the Democratic vote or do slightly better than 2020, when he won 18% of the city.

Trump’s efforts were on display Saturday during a small but enthusiastic rally at Temple University in North Philadelphia, his stump speech tailored for the crowd.

“As I used to say about a group that likes me very much,” Trump said, repeating a line he has used to appeal to Black voters, “what the hell do you have to lose?”

Party Infighting

At the center of the fight is 79-year-old Bob Brady, a former congressman who has known Biden for decades and run the Democratic machine since 1986. He’s a throwback to urban political machines of old, both in his gruff, unapologetically transactional style and in his own longevity.

Opposing Brady are a faction of progressives who say the party isn’t doing enough to grow its membership among younger voters, and who condemn the old-school machine system as inherently corrupt.

“The Democratic machine is the Wizard of Oz — they have no real power,” said state Representative Chris Rabb, a Democrat who represents a majority-Black district in Mount Airy, in the northwest of the city.

The organization is “archaic,” said Rabb, who unseated a party-backed incumbent in a 2016 primary and has sparred with party leaders ever since.

“They don’t know how to reach the significant subset of the electorate who are new or inconsistent voters,” he said.

Party leaders say publicly that the fears are overblown, the polls are off, and that Philly can carry Biden to victory statewide.

“Every four years they say this, and every four years Philadelphia turns out,” said Lou Agre, a ward leader for the neighborhoods of Roxborough and Manayunk who also serves as president of the Philadelphia Metal Trades Council.

Insurgents in Philadelphia have pressed for new blood in the party’s leadership ranks and on the city council, pushing policy leftward on economic and social issues, and challenging what remains of a top-down urban political machine, according to people on both sides. Brady and other party leaders have responded by ousting those deemed disloyal.

“Bob Brady and Philadelphia Democratic ward leaders are willing to lose the war to win the battle,” said Nate Holt, a veteran campaign operative expelled from his local party committee post earlier this year after supporting a primary challenge to a Democratic incumbent.

Mobilization Efforts

In a brief phone interview, Brady dismissed the notion that the party’s internal struggles could affect turnout.

“Not at all,” he said. “In fact, the opposite is true.”

Brady conceded that Democrats are concerned by polls suggesting tepid support for the Biden ticket, but said the party is sharing its expertise with the Biden campaign and convening ward leaders and committee members — including at weekly “Pizza with the Chairman” events — to mobilize support.

“We’re worried about it, and we’re doing something about it,” Brady said. He estimated that the coordinated efforts will turn out a margin of victory of 490,000 to 500,000 votes in the city for the Biden ticket.

“That will take care of the rest of the state,” he said. “We always do that.”

The chairman used a similar line in 2016, telling Politico that Clinton would “win the city overwhelmingly and win with enough of a majority to overcome other parts of the state.”

That didn’t happen. Even just equaling Barack Obama’s 2012 results, grassroots organizers like to remind volunteers, Clinton would have carried the state, and with it the 2016 election.

Trump Inroads

Despite Biden’s Pennsylvania victory, the 2020 election had another worrying sign for Democrats: Voter turnout dropped in some majority Black Philadelphia precincts that are traditionally Democratic strongholds.

Trump’s return to the city for the Temple rally was a pointed geographic jab at the Biden campaign’s continued woes among Black voters.

Inside the Liacouras Center on North Broad Street, the signals were mixed. The arena was only partly full, with the upper deck empty and drapes covering some sections of seating, but the crowd was happy and boisterous as it waited for Trump.

The event kicked off with a fist-pumping invocation from Todd Johnson, the Black pastor of the nearby First Immanuel Baptist Church.

Trump lightly tailored his stump speech to his surroundings. He name-checked the liberal Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a bete noire of conservatives in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, drawing boos.

“Crime is so much up,” Trump insisted, contradicting stats that show falling violent crime, including in the city. “If you walk down certain streets here, you have a 50-50 chance of never seeing your home again,” he added later.

The Biden campaign’s primary response to Trump’s forays has been a collective eye roll. One high-ranking person on the campaign in Pennsylvania said polls showing Trump making significant gains among Black voters aren’t borne out by what the campaign is seeing on the ground.

“It’s no secret that the African American vote is critical to this election,” said Kellan White, another Biden senior adviser.

The party needs to do more to persuade voters to turn out this year, said Salaah Muhammad, the state organizing director for the Working Families Party. His group is trying to encourage voters to come out in support of state and local candidates, in the hopes they can drive up turnout even among voters who don’t like Biden or his policies on the economy and Gaza.

“It’s not enough to just say we’ve got to vote against Trump,” he said.

The Biden campaign has touted the opening of offices outside Philadelphia’s Center City, in Roxborough and the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Brewerytown — nearer to voters the campaign is hoping to lure off the sidelines. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned in the city in late May, joining a group of clergy and explicitly appealing to Black voters.

The city should expect to see more campaign visits from prominent Black surrogates, said Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor.

“One person will unite us and wipe away any of those family difficulties we’ve had, and his initials are D.T.,” Rendell said.

The Biden campaign hopes its offices can function as “community hubs” over the summer and fall, White said, helping voters with everyday concerns and “not just parachuting in with Hennessy and cigars.”

But skeptics like Rabb say that’s an old-school approach that won’t mean much.

“Generally speaking, they sit in front of polling places, and hand out leaflets with their sample ballots,” Rabb said, referring to city Democrats. “They don’t have money. They don’t use technology. They don’t involve young people. They have no earned trust from communities.”

Progressives say the existing ward system prioritizes protecting incumbents, rather than driving voter turnout or engaging new voters to participate in elections.

On a warm day in early June, Tanchanika Austin was standing in the lobby of her apartment building in Brewerytown, a few blocks away from where the Biden campaign had celebrated the opening of its North Philadelphia campaign office weeks earlier.

Austin, 42, plans to vote for Biden, but said she has friends and family who remain apathetic, convinced their participation won’t matter. Neither Austin nor two other people in the building lobby had heard about the local office.

Austin said she thought that fear of Trump seeking revenge on his political opponents could motivate voters like her. “I’m scared,” she said in a follow-up conversation. “It’s like everybody who was not for him, he’s going to make them pay for it.”

But Austin also mused that Biden could have stepped aside to let Harris run in his stead, and said that the Democrats needed to do more to engage with residents who aren’t motivated to vote.

Old-School Leadership

Brady became chairman of the city’s Democrats in 1986, the middle of a turbulent era that saw the election of its first Black mayor, the ravages of crack cocaine, a furious attempted return to power by the proto-Trumpian former mayor Frank Rizzo, and the notorious police fire-bombing of a Black separatist compound that razed two blocks of row houses in West Philadelphia, a few miles from Brady’s own home.

Brady has maintained firm control over the Democratic City Committee and its system of ward leaders and divisions, which political consultants and organizers say continues to function like a version of its old self — an opaque network of patronage and influence overseen by a small circle of insiders.

Since his retirement from Congress in 2018, Brady has also raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees, federal filings show, including about $120,000 a year for Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp.

Brady has taken victory laps in some recent battles where the more centrist party leadership has prevailed over left-leaning challengers, arguing that the party remains the most critical defender of the interests of working people and minority communities.

“For those who have written this party off as a relic of the past, a dinosaur no longer relevant to electoral politics in Philadelphia,” he wrote after his preferred candidates prevailed in Democratic primaries in May. “Let me say this: the dinosaur roared.”

Biden has more directly involved the city party than Obama and Clinton, according to campaign officials and the party. White, the senior adviser helping direct Biden’s turnout efforts, said the campaign and the city machine are working well together.

“I talk to Bob Brady and ward leaders every day; they understand the assignment,” White said.

In Roxborough, in the city’s 21st Ward, Rebecca Poyourow and her neighbors began an independent effort to canvass their fellow residents and guide them on mail-in balloting in the early months of the pandemic, out of growing concern that the existing party structure wasn’t doing enough to increase turnout in the coming presidential race.

Poyourow’s voter outreach eventually landed her on the wrong side of Agre, the region’s ward leader, and she was expelled from her position as a Democratic committee person earlier this year.

In an interview, Poyourow said her group is focused on “giving our full effort” to mobilize voters.

“The city committee’s not going to save us,” she said. “We have to save ourselves.”

--With assistance from Gregory Korte.

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