Carol Campbell Passes Away

Carol Campbell has passed away:

Carol Ann Campbell, a legendary force in the local Democratic Party, has passed away.

She died around midday at Methodist hospital. The cause is unknown, but she’d struggled with lung illnesses and was recently on a ventilator.

Campbell was the daughter of Edgar Campbell, former City Councilman, ward leader and Clerk of Quarter Sessions and often referred to as the Dean of Black Politics in the city. Carol Campbell took over the leadership of the fourth ward in Philadelphia when her father died in 1987

Campbell served as a ward leader and as secretary of Democratic City Committee for years. In the fall of 2006, Campbell was appointed by the Democratic Party to lead the Fourth District, after Mayor Nutter vacated the seat to run for the city's top office. She lost her re-election bid in the May 2007 Primary Election to Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.

Our condolences to her family and friends.

RIP Carol Campbell

My prayers are with the family, sad to hear this!

Ms. Campbell and me

I didn’t know Carol Campbell that long. But it seems like I had a long history with her.

She was the main reason I lost to Rosita Youngblood in 2004. I had been campaigning heavily door to door in the divisions of the 49th ward, which had been shifted from Mark Cohen’s district to Rosita’s after redistricting. The people in the ward liked Mark Cohen a lot. And I frequently joked that while Rosita probably knew how to get to this part of the district, she rarely was there.

I had contacted the committee people in the ward and gotten their support. At some point Rosita found out, complained to Carol Campbell, who contacted Bob Brady, for whom the 49th ward leader, Shirley Gregory worked. The committee people who were my friends were told that they would lose their city jobs if they helped me. And that was the end of that. One of them was nice enough to tell me when I called, “I’m sorry but you can’t call me anymore and please don’t let us be seen together.”

Other ward leaders in the district didn’t like Rosita and would have helped me, or helped me more, except that they feared Campbell.

I learned all about Campbell’s power too late. Of course I was mad at her. But I was madder at myself for not understanding enough about how politics worked to make as strong a run for State Representative as I might have.

My next go round with Campbell was when SEPTA was trying to get the Girard Avenue Trolley started but was blocked by Campbell. The story was that, to make room for the trolley run, parking on one side of a street in her ward had to be eliminated and she was opposing that.

I was trying to show SEPTA that some serious community organizing could help them improve service. So I called Campbell to see if I could better understand her objections and find a resolution. She never returned my call. Eventually I called Bob Brady and asked him to intercede. He worked things out. I never heard back from Campbell, but I was told that at the meeting with SEPTA, she complained that SEPTA never called her. But she supposedly said “that nice Marc Stier reached out to her.”

The next time I interacted with Campbell was during the Minimum Wage campaign. We were trying to get the then Speaker of the House, John Perzel, to let the bill come to the floor as we knew we had the votes to pass it. The strategy of the minimum wage coalition was to ask Pat Eiding, the president of the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia to reach out to Perzel given that the AFL-CIO had endorsed Perzel. To make that more effective, Tom Cronin and I started to talk about doing civil disobedience in Perzel’s district office because he wouldn’t allow the bill to come to the floor, something I blogged about. I’m told that Eiding told Perzel that some of the more crazy members of the Minimum Wage Coalition were planning civil disobedience and that this helped convince him to allow the bill to come to the floor where it passed. .

At that time, and unbeknownst to anyone else, I called Carol Campbell and asked her to intercede with Perzel. I had known she had had a good relationship with Perzel and thought it might help. She said she appreciated my efforts to help the group she always referred to as “the little people” and said she would call Speaker Perzel.

Then, when Campbell received the Democratic nomination for City Council in a special election, I was the one who called her to ask her to come to speak at the Philly for Change meeting We talked for about four hours and went over our history together. I told her that she had taught me a lesson during my campaign for State Representative and she laughed and explained what she had done. Then we talked about the 15 Trolley and she explained that the issue had nothing to do with parking and everything to do with the “despicable” impact of the Callowhill SEPTA depot on the neighborhood. I remember that she was particularly worked up about the trash and the “foul language” that SEPTA workers regularly used in this neighborhood.

When we got to talking about the Council race, she told me that I should support her because she would “look out for the little people” and mentioned some ideas she wanted to pursue on helping the disabled (Campbell was in a wheel chair for many years.) And she told me she would opposed the Trump casino at Hunting Park and Wissahickon Avenue something her predecessor did not do. She then explained in pretty concrete terms how she would get money for various projects in the district from the state.

When I questioned her about Rosita Youngblood’s support of Perzel, she told me that “John Perzel helps my constituents more than Bill Deweese and that she could trust Perzel but not Deweese.” Then she gave me some examples of things that Perzel had done for people in the fourth ward, including getting them certain medical benefits or a place in a hospital. Everything she talked about involved some kind of transactional benefit, some particular good for some particular person.

When I said that Perzel supported public policies that hurt, or at the very least, didn’t help her constituents, she went right back to talking about the individuals he had helped.

And then she said something that struck me. “I know my kind of politics is going out of style. Your kind of politics is different and is the future. But my kind worked in my time and still helps people. You are going to have to figure out how to help individuals, too.”

During the special election I got an email from people in the fourth district complaining about the “machine backed candidate Carol Campbell.” I wrote back saying that while her politics was not my own, Campbell might surprise some people by her work for progressive economic aims.” That email got back to her and the next time we talked she thanked me for it.

From that time on, I made it a point to talk to Ms. Campbell from time to time, mostly because I wanted to learn how the machine worked from her. And I think she grew to like me. Mostly that was because I showed her some respect and she appreciated my attempt to understand her kind of politics and where it came from. And, from time to time she would tell me, “You should be on council because you do care about the same people I care about.”

When I did run for Council at large, Campbell said she couldn’t help me much because as secretary of the party and a nominee herself, she felt she had to carry the City Committee ballot in her ward. But she did give me advice from time to time and suggested some ward leaders who might be willing to help me. A few did. She never asked me for a dime. And she told me exactly how much the ward leaders would expect from me and told me not to let them get any more.

My ward leader, Lou Agre was supporting Campbell for City Council and Bob Brady for Mayor. And he was helping me in my race a great deal. As a candidate who was seeking the support of ward leaders, I didn’t want to get involved in any other race and I also knew that I would have other things to do besides working my polling place on election day. So I just told Lou to find a replacement for me as a committee person for the primary. We both knew that my division was not likely to go for either Campbell or Brady but when asked at City Committee I could honestly say that in my division the ward ballot with Brady and Campbell would be handed out. I didn’t add, “but not by me.”

Someday I’ll tell the story of how, on Election Day, I was supposed to have a small army of poll workers handing out a complete ballot as well as bullet ballots with my name on it in every African American ward in the city. But for reasons having nothing to do with me that I won’t go into here, things went wrong, and that small army never materialized. We figured this out by about ten o’clock, immediately stopped payment on the check that was supposed to pay for that army. Then I called another progressive candidate who was also on that ballot and advised him to stop payment on his check as well.

Luckily for me, the check had not been cashed. But a very important part of my campaign was gone.

There didn't seem much we could do about that. Then, in the early afternoon, I called Ms. Campbell and told her what happened. She commiserated with me. And in a take charge voice she said, let me see what I can do to help you. Call me back in twenty minutes. I called back in twenty minutes. And she said, can you get about five thousand bullet ballots? I said yes. And then in a firm voice gave me the names and phone numbers of six African American ward leaders who would carry those ballots and told me how much it would cost for each of them to do so. I told her that I had tried to get the support of five of the six and they had either turned me down or not returned my calls. Ms. Campbell said they would help me now.

I called the ward leaders. And Ms. Campbell turned out to be right. My campaign worked incredibly hard for a few hours to print more bullet ballots, and then distribute them to these ward leaders, along with a very small cash disbursement, except in the case of the ward leader who had already agreed to support me and who now agreed to push me heavily in the last few hours of the election at no extra charge.

This all happened too late to do much good. It didn't replace the army we had lost. But I could see from the returns that Ms. Campbell’s efforts on my behalf made some difference.

Campbell finished out her term on council and did do a lot of good transactional things for the 4th district. And she left as a legacy a few laws that provide support and for the disabled.

A lot of people in the city warned me about Campbell saying that she was dishonest or dangerous. That certainly wasn't my experience, although in my first interactions with her I saw that she could be a formidable foe. I never knew her to tell me anything but the truth.

I’ve long been critical of machine politics and the often uninspired and uninspiring political officials it brings us. But as I’ve learned more about politics, I’ve tried to understand why machine politics exists, who it serves, and why it survives. I’ve seen that the machine does help people if not in an ideal way than at least in ways that are worthy of some respect. If we are honest, we would recognize that the broad public policies we progressives support aren’t always perfectly fair either, however, and don’t always generate the support we progressives need to hold power. So one thing I’ve learned from Ms. Campbell is that we progressives have to figure out when the justice of good public policy has to be supplemented with the mercy, and political appeal, of a more traditional, transactional kind of politics. I think we can do that, without compromising our ideals.

But in the end, as Campbell knew, her kind of politics was becoming less and less important. After the Primary Election in 2007, which we both lost, I asked Ms. Campbell why she helped me. She just laughed and said, “I told you I thought you would bring a lot to Council. You are smart, you know a lot about public policy, you care about helping the right people and you respect other people even when they look at things differently than you do.”

I pointed out to her that after she had spent so much time teaching me how “her kind of politics worked” she had basically given the kind of answer I would give about why she supported me as she had helped me out without getting anything in return.

She laughed again and just said, “But you really would be a good member of City Council.”

It is ironic that, in the end, Carol Campbell, who never apologized for her kind of politics and never seemed to totally grasp any other kind, turned out to be capable of transcending that politics and embracing something a lot closer to our politics.

And, while I don't want to get any other progressives in trouble, I eventually learned that she had done something similar for other candidates.

I’m going to miss our conversations and her advice. May she rest in peace.

thanks for sharing

We tended to view her as an obstacle and/or the enemy on many issues -- interesting to hear more about her as a political force and as a thoughtful person. Indeed, our force for change brings loss as well as gains...


"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
— Margaret Mead

Marc, Those were some


Those were some awesome words and an excellent composition on the machine and relationships. The paragraph below stuck out to me since it seems to show a conflict of interest if I read it properly: City workers are often party ward leaders as well? Based on the lengthy exposition on who calls whom, it stands to reason that if a few ward leaders want something in their favor, all they have to do is "make a few calls" and its done. Sounds very Mario Puzo to me since their is an imbalance of power in these multiple relationships.

"I had contacted the committee people in the ward and gotten their support. At some point Rosita found out, complained to Carol Campbell, who contacted Bob Brady, for whom the 49th ward leader, Shirley Gregory worked. The committee people who were my friends were told that they would lose their city jobs if they helped me. And that was the end of that. One of them was nice enough to tell me when I called, “I’m sorry but you can’t call me anymore and please don’t let us be seen together.”"

Obama 2008

Your penchant for understatement is amazing

That's all I have to say. Oh and this.

MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

There are lots of exempt employees

in the commissioner's office, sherrif's office and registrar of wills office.

And when it comes to jobs, it is not just their own that committeepeople are concerned with but those of friends, relatives, neighbors, etc.

You are not accusing me of understatement, Sean, are you? That really would be a first.

And speaking of how complicated these relationships are. I'm still friendly with the committee person who told me not to be seen with her in 2004. I had gone to a birthday party for her granddaughter that year. And except for the few weeks before the election, we've remained friendly. She helped me out during my council campaign, for example.

Marc, no worries

I know on that above all else you are simply reporting pragmatic realities of how Philadelphia actually works and I'm just stating how profoundly and obviously out of synch those actual practices are with the ideals of an apolitical civil servant class set out in the City Charter.

I liked very much your story about how Carol Campbell's little talk about her style of politics differed from yours and that yours was the future but that she always tried to help people. It humanized Carol Campbell's intentions nicely even as it underscored for me that the "politics of the future" can't arrive soon enough for me personally. I know that the "old way" is operated by people with good intentions but Geroge Bush and John McCain many would tell you are also men of good intentions. There is a very tired old cliche about good intentions and the road they pave you may be familiar with.

Working with politics the way it is often a path of compromise but its also important to not lose track of the big picture in terms of how it should work.

MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

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