Penn Urban Studies instructor and Fels Institute of Government senior consultant John Kromer recently released a book on the history of “insurgent” political candidates in Philadelphia elections.
The book, titled "Philadelphia Battlefields: Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City", details the successful anti-establishment political campaigns in Philadelphia during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Kromer hopes that his book, which hit shelves in August, will help guide individuals and groups currently organizing these anti-establishment campaigns. He uses election data and data mapping tools, historical and economic context, and interviews with elected officials and retired politicians to break down voting patterns and analyze campaign strategies.
Insurgent campaigns that challenge the party establishment have attracted nationwide attention in recent years, both at the presidential and local level — notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) two high-profile presidential bids and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's (D-N.Y.) triumph over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in 2018.
Kromer, who is a city planning and development consultant and a former Director of Housing of Philadelphia, first became involved in local politics during his time at Haverford College. While in college, Kromer said he had heard that dishonest and corrupt politics permeated the local political scene and that Philadelphia was dominated primarily by the Democratic party.
But during this time, Kromer said he learned that many outsider candidates, not backed by the dominant party, were actually able to beat candidates supported by the city’s political establishment — which prompted him to become interested in examining these electoral upsets.
“I kept hearing [that] Philadelphia's a one-party town, there’s a very powerful Democratic Party machine, and if you’re not affiliated with a party, you can’t win,” Kromer said. “So it surprised me to see, again and again, that underdog candidates who had not been supported by the party, many of whom were getting active in politics for the first time, were very successful in defeating a party-supported candidate.”
Kromer analyzed multiple upset elections, from Chaka Fattah of the Second Congressional District defeating Democratic nominee Lucien Blackwell to win a seat in Congress in 1994 to Maria Quiñones-Sánchez of the 7th Council District becoming the first Hispanic woman elected to City Council in 2007. He said these successful campaigns were honest and had integrity, which he found heartwarming.
“It was very encouraging to find out that these victories were not the result of paying off somebody or dirty tricks, or some kind of sleazy process, but were really based on finding and making use of an opportunity to communicate with voters in an honest way, and to reach them with a message about issues that they cared about,” said Kromer.
Kromer said that one key factor for the success of “insurgent” candidates is Philadelphia’s ward system of party organization. The city is broken down into 66 wards, each with 11 to 51 divisions. Committee people are elected in each division, who then vote for a ward leader. This structure allows individuals to get involved with politics at the grassroots level, Kromer said, as well as reach local voters and convince them that their civic engagement will have an impact on government policy.
Non-profit groups like Reclaim Philadelphia, Committee of Seventy, and Philadelphia 3.0 have successfully utilized the Ward and Division system to garner support for their progressive campaigns in recent years, Kromer said.
Kromer stressed the importance of sincerity and honesty for up-and-coming “insurgent” candidates.
“I think it’s important to understand that it is possible to engage in politics in a sincere way,” Kromer said. “A sincere, idealistic, upbeat approach combined with a lot of creativity and energy and persistence can, in many instances, produce big successes."
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