National Review Online has been hosting a lively debate on the meaning of the New Black Panthers Party voter-intimidation case in Philadelphia, and it has been a hoot. What’s been missing, I think, is a sense of the context in which this drama has unfolded: the nearly unique electoral culture of the City of Brotherly Love, where polling places have been located in bars, vacant buildings, and the offices of Democratic politicians (state senator Vince Fumo, currently serving time in federal prison on a 137-count corruption conviction, had one in his office), where gushers of loosely distributed “walking-around money” fuel voter turnout, and where campaigning for the wrong candidate can get you beaten with a two-by-four or slashed across the face.
But the New Black Panther Party guy with the nightstick, I am assured, was only there to assist the voting process. In Philadelphia, “assist” means something special. Consider the recent state-house primary race between incumbent Angel Cruz and challenger Jonathan Ramos, in which Cruz defeated the upstart by a mere 124 votes. As the Philadelphia Daily News reports:
Ramos claims that Cruz and his brother improperly took home overnight tapes that record results from voting machines in two divisions of the 7th Ward, that 72 people who were not registered as Democrats were allowed to vote in the contest, that at least one person who voted was dead and that nine voters claimed that they were given unwanted “assistance” in polling places. . . . They allege that Cruz campaign has volunteers [who] have been going inside polling places, assisting voters improperly, blocking entrances and using profanity.
Perhaps you’d like some assistance from the New Black Panther Party volunteers? Perhaps not.
Or consider a recent polling-place incident in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Northern Liberties, in which the uncle of a state-house candidate was accused of assaulting an elderly committeeman and a local ward leader. The fellow in question, Tommie St. Hill, says it wasn’t him. “I wasn’t pushing people around,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I categorically deny that. I’m a gentlemen [sic].”
The gentleman also just happens to be a former public-relations specialist for IBEW Local 98, one of the unions that control Philadelphia politics. Here’s an observation about Local 98: “City Councilman Frank DiCicco — not a fan of the mayor or the mayor’s allies, namely Local 98 electricians union — gives his take on the bugging [of Philadelphia mayor John Street’s office] at the Liberty Bell’s new home. ‘I had my office swept after Local 98 rewired City Hall last year,’ he says. ‘I paid $2,000 out of my own pocket to have it done. I didn’t know the police would do it for free.’”
The gentleman from Local 98 is now a Democratic “campaign consultant,” another term that has a special meaning in Philadelphia. This consultant was paid $29,000 or so in Election Day expenses for “get out the vote” efforts by the organization Philadelphia Phuture. And who is Philadelphia Phuture? It is Local 98, mostly: According to 2007 city records, Local 98’s political arm donated $100,000 of the $114,000 the organization took in that year. Local 98 is home to Philadelphia political kingpin John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. Here’s Philadelphia magazine on Johnny Doc and Local 98:
Doc and Doc’s people say and do scary things. There is a consistent pattern of intimidation described in a series of rulings by the National Labor Relations Board and in stories told by politicians who have competed against Doc’s candidates. Doc’s people show up at job sites and campaign events. They vandalize tires. They bring cameras. An electrician says, to a man overseeing workers from a rival union, that he knows where the man lives, and if he doesn’t give the work to Local 98, “It would get rough.” An electrician says, to a political opponent, that he should keep a better eye on his girlfriend and make sure she doesn’t walk down any dark alleys at night. As reported by the Inquirer’s Nathan Gorenstein — who himself received several threatening anonymous calls after his story ran, and who was told by a fellow reporter that Doc was “investigating” him, which Doc at first says he won’t comment on and then denies outright — the NLRB found that a 98 agent named Timothy Browne told a contractor’s employee, “I know who you are, I know where you live. We’re going to get you someday.”
Some of 98’s classic election tactics were on display back in 2003. Early on Election Day, I found Doc standing outside Local 98’s headquarters. He said there would be no thuggery. The very idea of thuggery was laughable. . . .
And of course, there were big guys there, including two I followed to a polling place at 4th and York, where I watched them ask a tiny old lady for her ID; and of course there was a guy, possibly a 98 member, who later that day struck a man with a two-by-four — but the most telling thing about 98’s thuggery isn’t the thuggery itself, but how Doc responds. Generally, when Doc is confronted with these stories, he waves them off.
Local 98’s Philadelphia Phuture spends a lot of money on “Election Day expenses.” In 2007, it paid $20,000 for get-out-the-vote services to one Sabir Hameen, whom Philadelphia political consultant Appollos Baker, a Democrat who did canvassing work for Mayor Street, identifies as part of Voting Is Power, a 501(c)3 that, you will not be especially surprised to learn, was affiliated with the ACORN/SEIU gang. Baker identifies Voting Is Power as the organization that drew the wrath of Republican congressman Curt Weldon, who watched stupefied as volunteers carried boxes of absentee ballots out of a Philadelphia prison — while a television crew recorded the episode.
Here’s how the Delaware County Daily Times tells the story:
“Four girls walked out from the prison who had clearly been doing some kind of election work,” [Weldon] said. “When (state Rep.) Steve Barrar and I went up and asked them what they were doing, they said ‘We can’t tell you.’
“We told them who we were and asked if they had collected any absentee ballots while they were in the prison. Sure enough, one of them pulled out a ballot and showed it to us. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen — just the type of illegal, third-party handling of ballots that we had been tipped off about. And there were TV crews there filming the whole thing.”
Baker identified Voting Is Power and Hameen as the parties in question in the course of disputing Republican allegations that MoveOn.org and ACT were behind the jailhouse-ballot shenanigans.
Small world: Sabir Hameen and Tommie St. Hill were on the same union-front payroll for “Election Day expenses.” Other recipients included the First Ward Italo-American Club ($20,000) and Democratic politician Dan Pellicciotti ($7,000).
There’s nothing illegal about all that money sloshing around for “Election Day expenses,” just as there is nothing strictly speaking illegal about Philadelphia’s other great Election Day tradition: “walking-around money.” In theory, walking-around money is supposed to be used for get-out-the-vote efforts — chartering buses to get people to polling places and the like. It is illegal to use get-out-the-vote money to purchase votes. That is, of course, precisely what the money has always been used for. Pennsylvania’s remarkably shameless state legislature has had the audacity to fund walking-around money out of taxpayers’ dollars, renaming the largesse “discretionary grants.”
There’s also walking-around cheese: Poll workers during a recent election were perplexed after several voters demanded “their cheese” after casting their ballots. It seems they had been promised free cheese in exchange for casting their votes. As Business Week reported: “The woman who wrote the flyers, Hill Creek tenant council President Gerri Robinson, doesn’t think she did anything wrong. ‘The people around here, you can’t get them to come out and do nothing unless you’re giving them something,’ she says. Besides, she adds, the flyers worked: The two cases of cottage cheese were gone by day’s end.”
Between the free cheese and the Black Panthers, it’s a full-on carrot-and-stick operation.
– Kevin Williamson is a deputy managing editor of NR.