My hero Louis Brandeis was a distinguished Supreme Court Justice from 1916 to 1939. Many people know his words, “Sunlight, it is said, is the best of disinfectants;” for political corruption. Brandeis spelled out the issue that is the heart of my own philosophy and the core belief of many in our city. Individuals are at a disadvantage when negotiating with banks, corporations and governments. That disadvantage is worth fighting against. Transparency is one weapon in the fight. Another is careful attention to the rules, especially rules that concentrate power in fewer hands.
What would Brandeis do if his local political party had rules concentrating power, rather than empowering individual voters? Political party organizations are institutions, just like the big industrial giants Brandeis fought against. Brandeis would understand how the Philadelphia Democratic and Republican City Committee rules siphon power away from the committeepeople and the voters who elect them.
Changes to the Democratic Party Rules of Philadelphia made last March are one step forward, two steps back for Brandeis progressives. The good news is that ward committees can no longer kick out elected committeepeople based on behavior preceding their election. In other words, it is not as easy as it used to be for a ward committee to overrule the will of the voters.
The bad news is that in special elections for State Representative the new rules allow ward leaders from outside the district to nix the choice of the ward leaders inside the district. So, for example, in the upcoming Special Election for the 170th Legislative District in Northeast Philadelphia, ward leaders from South, North, West, Southwest, Northwest and Center City could have banded together to overrule the ward leaders chosen (if indirectly) by the voters of the 170th Legislative District.
The truly ugly news is that this change in the rules was done in a back room somewhere. Maybe the room was not literally smoke-filled, but there was definitely a smokescreen between the folks changing the rules and the rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party of Philadelphia. Elected committeepeople were not notified of the change. The rules were not available to the public at the Philadelphia Board of Elections until October, more than half a year after they were submitted.
Even if the Democratic Party is a private organization, these are not private rules. The rules of the Democratic City Committee affect all Philadelphians. When they concentrate power in the hands of a small group of people, not popularly elected, they subvert democracy. Brandeis would have been appalled and would want us to spread the word to call your local ward leader and let them know not to let the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania approve these changes.