Voting Booths

Pennsylvania’s urban politics can be inscrutable from the outside. People may understand the role that the machines play in a general kind of way but that doesn’t qualify them to come in and have a good sense of the playing field. One good example of this came in the newly drawn Fifth Congressional District where 10 candidates were vying to win the Democratic nomination to an open seat. Former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell came out in support of last night’s winner, attorney Mary Gay Scanlon. The local Bernie Sanders affiliates of #OurRevolution backed UPenn biophysicist and bioengineer Molly Sheehan. But Sanders made a late endorsement of former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer. Lazer was backed with big money by notorious labor boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty who had put all his weight in 2016 behind Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Why and how did Sanders wind up backing the machine’s candidate?

Dougherty spokesman Frank Keel said he’s the one who clinched the deal for Lazer.

“John made the endorsement happen,” said Keel. “He’s admired Sen. Sanders for years and met him on several occasions. John had recently reached out to him about the Fifth Congressional race and Rich’s candidacy. John and the senator spoke earlier today for a half hour or so about Rich’s progressive politics and years of experience. Sen. Sanders, who’d already done some homework on Rich, clearly liked what he’d heard and agreed to do the endorsement.”

Keel added that “this is a huge boost for Rich’s candidacy in these final days before the election.”

In a phone interview, Dougherty was less braggadocious. He said the endorsement was the result of “Rich Lazer’s stellar performance” in the campaign and the fact that Lazer helped further “Mayor Kenney’s progressive agenda” as Kenney’s former deputy mayor of labor.

Dougherty also said that Ed Mooney, the Philadelphia-based vice president of the Communications Workers of America District 213, “made the contact.”

The communication workers union supported Sanders in the 2016 primary.

The actual Sanders supporters in the district are generally not aligned with Johnny Doc “whose home and union buildings were raided by federal agents in the summer of 2016.” The white urban/college progressive movement in southeastern Pennsylvania is opposed to graft and corruption and works rather consistently to run good government candidates against the machine.

Federal prosecutors are examining everything from the campaign donations that have made the union a political powerhouse and Dougherty a kingmaker, to the union’s turbulent and sometimes violent relationship with nonunion contractors. They also are exploring the union’s dealings with the Kenney administration…

…The warrant authorizing the August 2016 search of the union’s offices in Philadelphia states that FBI agents were seeking evidence of embezzlement, attempted extortion of contractors, mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, and honest services fraud by public officials.

Investigators are also exploring possible embezzlement from employee benefit plans and unlawful payments to felons, said the warrant.

James B. Jacobs, a labor expert and a professor at New York University law school, said he knew of no other federal labor probe in recent years as vast as the Philadelphia inquiry.

“It has so many pieces,” Jacobs said. “What you’re talking about is a whole systemic investigation.”

Nothing is simple, however. Johnny Doc spreads his support around. He gives money to every Democrat on the city council, for example. There are candidates he supports and then there are candidates he supports. There’s no simple ideological test you can use to predict who he’ll back, so the real test is to figure out who he owns. Bernie Sanders liked Rich Lazer’s platform which mirrored his own in many respects. But that’s not how people in the know judge candidates for office in Philadelphia.

In the end, Lazer came in a very disappointing third place. That can largely be attributed to Dougherty’s limited reach in the new Fifth Congressional District which is more about suburban Delaware County than South Philly. Some will argue that the result shows that Johnny Doc’s power is waning, but I’d be careful about drawing that conclusion. The new district lines make this a difficult seat for him to control.

In Pittsburgh, it’s clearer that the Old Guard is in retreat. The Costa family has long wielded outsized influence in the Steel City. Yesterday, two of them (distant cousins) lost their seats in the state legislature.
State Reps. Dom Costa and Paul Costa both lost to candidates associated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). This came on the heels of another cousin, Ron Costa, losing his job last November as a county magistrate judge. He had held the elected position for twenty-four years, but was defeated by a DSA-endorsed candidate.

In the case of state Rep. Dom Costa, his district moved under his feet. It’s no longer an asset to pal around with the National Rifle Association or to sponsor legislation targeting “sanctuary colleges” that won’t comply with federal immigration enforcement. This also wasn’t the year to be staunchly anti-choice in an urban/suburban Democratic primary.

[Sara] Innamorato, Dom Costa’s 32-year-old challenger, grew up in Ross Township, in the northern suburban portion of the 21st district, before her family found out her father had developed an opioid problem after being prescribed painkillers following a car accident. Her mother and sister bounced around several homes in the district, before Sara moved across the Allegheny River into the city to attend the University of Pittsburgh. After college, she settled into a $250-a-month room in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood on the river’s southern banks that makes up the densely populated urban core of the 21st district. Then transitioning, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has put it, into the post-industrial city’s “hipster haven,” the neighborhood is now home to countless galleries, microbreweries, art walks, tattoo parlors, tiled-walled restaurants, and skinny jeans.

“It was an affordable, creative place to be. There was all this energy around the arts, and that’s where I felt my first sense of responsibility to place and community,” Innamorato, who sports a nose ring and a slightly asymmetric haircut, recalled during an interview in her campaign office.

You can get an even better sense of the sea-change by looking at the other Socialist victory.

Farther east, Summer Lee, a 2015 graduate of Howard University’s School of Law, is taking on moderate Rep. Paul Costa. The son of a former county treasurer, Paul Costa was first elected in 1998; his brother Jay holds an overlapping state senate seat. The 34th district’s population is nearly a quarter African American, and it’s home to some of Allegheny County’s poorest communities.

This district includes the small town of Braddock. The mayor of Braddock, progressive John Fetterman, won the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor last night by decisively ousting the incumbent. Summer Lee will face no Republican challenger in November, so you can already pencil her in as the first African-American to ever serve in the legislature from Western Pennsylvania. And you’ll have to get ready to hear a new sound coming from Pittsburgh.

Lee moved back in with her mother in North Braddock, worked in the district on Hillary Clinton’s general election field staff, and did a stint organizing for a campaign pushing a $15-per-hour minimum wage. In May 2017, videotapes surfaced showing a Woodland Hills school resource officer roughing up African-American students. Lee became a key part of a hastily launched community campaign to run young women of color for write-in positions on the school board.

“The community came out, they were at school board meetings, they protested, we screamed from the top of the mountain that we did not want our schools to go in this direction any more. And our elected officials…they just ignored us,” Lee says. The pressure did contribute to the establishment of a school district commission charged with reviewing disciplinary procedures, to which Lee was appointed.

“The black community—we see it that politics is corrupt,” Lee says. “It doesn’t work for us. No matter whether it is a Democrat or a Republican, we still have this capitalist system that just does not work.”

That Summer Lee worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and the DSA, and openly derides capitalism as a system should tell you that Pennsylvania’s urban politics are not straightforward.

One thing we can say after seeing yesterday’s results is that there is new leadership on the way. In some cases, establishment candidates prevailed, in others we see unabashed socialists coming to the fore. In both major cities, the machines had a bad night. But the biggest and most obvious change is that women are on the march. Currently, Pennsylvania has 18 U.S. congresspeople and two senators. They’re all men. That is about to change in a big way. Seven women won the Democratic nomination to run for Congress, and at least three of them are almost locks to win in November. That’s in addition to gains we’ll see in the state legislature, including new members Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at