I'll Take Philadelphia Politics Over National Politics

(August 2012)

I am generally a guy who focuses on Philadelphia matters, but with presidential politics and party conventions dominating all manner of media, it is hard not to pay attention.  When I do, I can't help but notice some profound differences in how elections play out on the national level.  In many ways, Philadelphians should be jealous of the way elections are contested, but the rules of the game here give us much more influence over who represents us.  Most don't realize it, but individuals can, and do, make a big difference in local elections.

The most obvious way that our national elections differ from City races is that there are two teams playing in the presidential-race game where Philadelphia elections are generally intra-party struggles.  Ideas matter in the national races.  Governing philosophy matters.  Positions on issues and records matter, too.  While those on the farthest extremes of our political spectrum will certainly criticize the Democrats and Republicans for being too close to each other in the middle, there are clearly some very important differences in the way the two parties would approach the challenges that face our country.  In our local races, where Democrats dominate, we rarely have any discussions about how we should approach governing and our political debates are the lesser for it.

I'm a Democrat and I certainly do not want to see non-Democrats winning here in Philadelphia, but I would love to see my side be forced to do a better job making our case to the voters.  We will have an incredibly hard time delivering better results -- the results Philadelphians deserve -- until we are forced to offer a better vision for the future.  

Even if there are major distinctions between candidates -- and, trust me, I sincerely believe that there are major differences -- voters may never know it because local races receive very little coverage.  While the presidential race is featured on the evening news, in the morning paper, and in every form of media throughout the day, Philadelphians are lucky to see a mention of any local contest.  The race for Mayor receives significant coverage, but I would bet that there are more stories about the Presidential race in the Philadelphia media in a day than there are about most local races throughout an entire cycle.

As local media struggle to remain relevant (and solvent) in our hyper-connected world, I hope that giving local races greater scrutiny might be worth considering.  If local candidates received a tiny fraction of the inspection and analysis focused on national candidates, we might weed out some of the less-deserving office aspirants or encourage better candidates to get involved.  But, knowing that journalistic investigation will be minimal, media coverage sparse, and campaign news mostly superficial, lesser candidates find few barriers to election locally.  That's certainly not to say that we do not have national candidates who are lacking, but we definitely know a lot more about why and how they are lacking.

Another way that national races differ fundamentally from Philadelphia races is in how campaigns are financed.  With Super PACs, anonymous donations, and billions of dollars involved, campaign-finance limits are all but meaningless and individuals are almost irrelevant in national races.  Yes, millions of individuals giving a few dollars does add up, but when a billionaire can turn around and dump millions more into the race, it is hard to make the case that every donor matters.

In Philadelphia, campaign-finance limits make the individual more powerful than ever.  The amount of money involved in Philadelphia elections has been reduced significantly since the City adopted strict giving limits and significant anti-pay-to-play laws.  An individual who can "max-out" and give the highest donation allowed by law ($2,900) can make a significant difference in a race where a candidate will only raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.  But a lot of gifts of $10 and $50 and $100 certainly add up as well.  An energetic candidate who attracts large numbers of donors can generate the resources necessary to wage a winning campaign.

This extends beyond dollars as recent Philadelphia elections have been decided by dozens of votes so every hour of volunteer time, every sign stuck into a lawn or window, and every vote cast can make a deciding difference.  With that kind of power, every Philadelphian literally has the city's future in his or her hands.

We may not have campaigns that focus on ideas and significant differences in governing philosophy here in Philadelphia, and we may not have the kind of media coverage of local elections that can give voters the kind of access and insight into candidates that they should have, but Philadelphia's campaign-finance laws are working to give each of us a real chance to make a difference.  If you believe in a local candidate, you should know that your vote certainly counts, your volunteer time counts, and your contribution counts even more -- and it might make the difference for a candidate who can help make City Hall work for us.