A victory for the underestimated

Yesterday in a lot of areas of Philadelphia, what I have no better or less cliched term for than the good old boys club was out in force. In areas where demographic change has left majorities and significant minorities without real representation, even historic enmities were set aside in the interest of preserving power in the hands of those who have long held it. In some races this was successful.

But I want to explicitly recognize the races where it wasn't.

Maria Quinones Sanchez, my boss, won reelection by over 20 percent without the support of most ward leaders or the city's democratic party machine. This is the same party that tells aspiring candidates to wait for open seats, because the party always supports its incumbents. Except in this case, when the incumbent is Puerto Rican and a woman and actually representing historically under- and unrepresented communities, and the challenger is deeply connected to that old boys club.

That framing may sound like oversimplification, and it's true that the election in the Seventh District was not only about race and gender and culture and class. But race and gender and culture and class mattered - they made Councilwoman Sanchez an outsider even as an incumbent. Speaking very personally, to me the deeper truth this uncovers is that you (women, disempowered minorities, progressives, poor people) will not win by playing their game. You will think you are one of the boys, and then when it actually matters - when power is challenged, when they can get away with it - ranks will close.

Maria won, handily, because she provides real representation to communities throughout her district and they cared enough to come out and vote for her. It's a direct rebuke of all of the worst of machine politics, and I hope people come to see it as an inspiration and a model.

I want to also say something about another dramatic victory by another woman who was shamefully underestimated, Blondell Reynolds Brown. Assessments of Councilwoman Reyolds Brown's chances painted her as weak, her seat at risk. Men I often hear talking - men who are involved with or follow local politics, and it's always men - almost uniformly imply that this is because she is somehow not a strong legislator, not 'effective'.

This is based on nothing. It's based on a tired, tired trope where men are allowed to judge women on their appearance as much as their performance and ideas and where an attractive women will always have her accomplishments undercut by insinuations that she did not get where she is on her own merits. And it's true that a lot of people in local politics at all levels did not in fact get there on their own merits. But it matters that the label gets stuck only sometimes, only to certain people, and looking at how and why involves facing how invidious sexism can be. I predict every man who talks to me about this post denies that sexism has anything to do with it. First take a couple minutes and seriously think about some of Councilwoman Reynold Brown's work supporting elderly people and children, on health and safety and the environment, and think hard about why you are comfortable assessing her priorities and work below every other male incumbent at-large Council member.

Yesterday she beat every single one of those at-large incumbents and candidates to come in first.

Congratulations Blondell and Maria. Let's keep proving people wrong and redefining what political power means in this city.

great post!

wow Jennifer this is excellent.

Totally right on.

Thank you for saying this, I love it!

Susan Gobreski


Awesome, glad you wrote this Jennifer. It's so true.

Thank you guys

for the positive words and support. Let's just hope Brady is still checking in to see what the kids are talking about....

These are good outcomes and

These are good outcomes and I think you have really hit something here. It would be difficult to say why exactly Councilwoman Brown finished first, there is no mistaken that she did and, if she were to run again in 2015 (and without any other issues), the notion that she is weak shouldn't hold water.

Wow - it's been almost 2 years since my last post!

A great post, Jennifer!

Maria’s decisive victory and Blondell Reynolds’s Brown strong showing are some of the high points of the election. I’d also add the decisive victories of Stephanie Singer for City Commissioner and Cindy Bass in the 8th Council district. We have some very talented strong women in local government. And yes, their talents are sometimes not fully recognized because of deeply entrenched sexism.

What is especially encouraging about Maria’s victory is that she did it in opposition to the Democratic Party city machine. Unfortunately, the closed structure of many wards has made it difficult for strong progressive candidates to win citywide. In this primary season, we have seen that in wards that are democratically run, wards where committee people actually VOTE on endorsements, progressive candidates like Sherrie Cohen and Andy Toy have a chance of being endorsed. Reform of the party is certainly an integral of building a progressive movement.

Jennifer, The only thing I disagree with in this excellent post is your comment:

just hope Brady is still checking in to see what the kids are talking about....

The "kids" should be building alternative structures and not be too concerned about what Brady is thinking. Mike Sokolove’s NY Times article on last year’s Sestak/ Specter race includes a fascinating quote from Ed Rendell:

I talked with Rendell, who is nearing the end of his second term as governor after eight years as Philadelphia’s mayor. ..when I related my conversation with Farinella [a party functionary], Rendell sort of chuckled and said the party, in essence, is over. Sestak’s victory exposed the Democratic organization’s weakness as an Election Day force. “You can’t really say there’s a Philadelphia machine anymore, because if there was one, Arlen would still be standing,” Rendell said. “We backed him, and the turnout in Philadelphia was less than 17 percent.”

When I went to my first State Committee meeting last year I heard people around the state talking about how they had to work harder because they could no longer count on huge numbers coming out of Philadelphia to elect Democratic candidates in state-wide races. Not only are many ward leaders in the Philadelphia Democratic Party undemocratic, they’re no longer delivering the goods.

There is still a machine

There is still a machine, and, it still delivers- the at large results are an example of that. Rendell's quote is not wrong, if in the context of the Sestak race specifically:

The machine doesn't have much of an effect on races where voters leave their house knowing who they are already going to vote for- which is generally true of races such as Mayor and Senator, where television, news, etc., focuses much more intensely on the races.

But, the larger the geographic area, mixed with a smaller amount attention/money/whatever dedicated to the race, the greater the role is of the machine. (In some ways, that makes Stephanie Singer's fairly large win all the more impressive.)

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