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May 21, 2014 at 8:13am

A machine beyond machines


One striking thing from yesterday’s primary results is how much intense energy poured into races from high (governor) to the lowest (committee person), with so relatively little to show for it. A couple races were close. But over and over, you saw the result of starkly low turnout plus strong machine control of wards. In these types of races, money alone is not enough. You need money plus a machine that can deliver bodies. Arkoosh with her independent expenditures, Margolies’ Clinton money, and Leach’s strong fundraising - all were far outmatched by Boyle with his independent expenditures and ground muscle, and Boyle overwhelmingly won the Congressional seat. Over in Newark last week, people took the piles of cash that Wall Street dumped in to protect its school privatization agenda (millions), tore up their Shavar Jeffries flyers and voted Ras Baraka the mayor. Here in Philly, we don’t just have one machine. There’s Brady’s City Committee, and Doc’s electricians, and Fattah’s people and Evans’ and little machines in the Matos-Tartaglione wards and the Cruz ward and the Cohen ward, etc (and each of their handfuls of elected officials), all over the city.

Through the weeks before yesterday, it was also striking how so many people trying to bring change to a system which they think ill-represents their communities were - at base - striving to create their own machines. But it’s not just like a machine is a machine is a machine.

Machines are engines of representation, the mechanism through which constituencies and communities can create and exercise political power and advance their interests. Representation doesn’t magically just hapen. Latinos in Philadelphia have had to fight to get district lines drawn that could allow them to elect any of their own representatives. That took challenging gerrymandering and massive voter registration efforts over a period of years, and representation still lags behind population, whatever Bob Brady may think (“‘How are they underrepresented? Angel Cruz is Hispanic, and Ralph Acosta’s daughter is Hispanic,’ he said.”). Latinos are now poised (or stuck) at the place the African-American community in Philadelphia once was, underrepresented and mostly outside the corridors of influence save some small exceptions. It took long work to beat down those doors, and the various geographic machines of Philly’s black communities developed as a vehicle to realize their residents’ latent political power.

Machines are also engines of control. Many of the people who newly ran for committee seats this spring were motivated by earnest interest in moving towards more participatory democracy, encouraged by civic efforts to explain and open up the party election process. But there can also be an element of us versus them, a sense that a machine is just a party you’re not invited to and so you are going to throw one of your own, for ‘your’ people. (This is often unconscious or unacknowledged, and sometimes racialized in troubling ways.) Moreover, wards are not democracies, with very rare and politically powerless exceptions (once a ward is ‘open’, it stops being useful to the machine). Fundamentally, wards are vehicles through which control is exercised. Running and winning new committee seats means little in most wards until the power actually tips. And then you’re the one with the machine - inside, not out.

So what’s a better machine look like? Does it come through the wards, against them, or in uneasy deals and trades with them?

This election, I was involved in four state-level races in a mixed-ethnicity part of North Philadelphia that has seen a lot of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and poor representation. Our candidates - Quetcy Lozada, Danilo Burgos, Jason Dawkins, and Tomas Sanchez - ran as part of the “Latino Empowerment Alliance of the Delaware Valley” (LEAD), and were supported by City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, my boss. Maria has the distinction of being the rare incumbent that the party machine - a machine that loves to tell challengers, sorry, we only support incumbents - didn’t support her for her own relection. She is independent from the powerful building trades unions and most don’t send her their money. But she has SEIU, a diverse union that believes in coalition, and she has a strong base of constituents who know that she actually represents their interests.

Three of the LEAD candidates had been my coworkers, and when I would explain to people why I was supporting them, I’d say it’s because of how they are motivated by serving and empowering their neighborhoods - not by personal enrichment. When they announced their candidacies, there was actually love in the room. That’s not normal in politics. I’ve seen them working next to me day in and day out, and I am always deeply moved at how driven they are to bring representation to people who have historically been left out (bodega owners, Latinas, increasingly diverse families in the lower Northeast, the politically unconnected).

This approach is potentially radical for Philadelphia’s Latino community. I sometimes say that there is no Latino machine or bloc here, there are just little factions. And the political power of the community has correspondingly lagged pretty dramatically behind what it could and should be - on language access, access to city and state jobs and resources, immigration issues. The promise of LEAD is that it’s a tent with open walls. Maria might be the catalyst, but it’s not all about her. I’ve heard her speak of what she is trying to do as creating the space for people to come if they want to increase their representation and through that improve their communities, and that’s not posturing, she lives that approach to politics.

Our candidates, except one, were outmatched yesterday. The ward structure up there is strong, and sometimes violent, and it mobilized to protect itself. The Matos-Tartagliones preserved a senate seat (2) and gained a state rep seat (197). Angel Cruz stayed in power. It’s not histrionics or paranoia when we say that people are intimidated, and feel it’s safer not to rock the boat, hang up signs for challengers, take those hard early steps towards building the possibility for change.

To win, and to get that representation, you have to organize and you have to be able to pay for that organizing. The districts we were running in are overwhelmingly poor, and uniformly so: they lack the inclusion of wealthier areas or substantial anchor institutions or businesses; their greatest resources are in goverment-funded social service agencies. Where do you look for that money if not the party, the few cash-flush unions, or rich people? Maybe it’s certain large business interests (fracking, school choice), if they’ll have you. To do anything else, you need to start envisioning funding alternatives - maybe that’s SEIU trying use the Working Families Party to build and mobilize political strength, maybe an evolution of membership organizations like Action United, maybe some creative coalition-building. I don’t know. But we have to devote energy to figuring it out, because otherwise the landscape is bleak.

There are people, in the party structure and some media, who may be happy to see Maria fall mostly short of electoral victory this time. I hope she keeps not listening to them. We might have been spread too thin with these four races, this time, but it’s a necessary first step. It’s groundwork. It’s the beginning of building a better machine.



  1. fabriciorodriguez reblogged this from jenniferlaurenkates and added:
    They are called machines because they are unthinking. The machines are doing what they despite the fact that the...
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