In 2003, Republican Sam Katz was running in a hotly contested campaign for mayor of Philadelphia. Closing in on Election Day, an FBI listening device was found in the City Hall office of John Street, the incumbent Democratic mayor. The story made national news. And, in November, Philadelphia voters took their outrage to the voting booth … and reelected the Democrat.
For the ever-hopeful and oft-defeated members of the Philadelphia Republican Party, the mayor’s reelection stung. A narrow loss in the inaugural Street-Katz matchup in 1999 had fed Republican hopes that a rematch would finally give them the keys to City Hall. With those dashed dreams came an even more painful takeaway. That it might never happen. That Philadelphia might forever remain under one-party control.
After all, what more would it take if a $10 million campaign war chest and a federal corruption probe targeting the seat of government weren’t enough to overcome the Democrats’ stranglehold on city politics?
On top of that loss, Republicans certainly didn’t need what followed — the advent of “good government” fever. City Council and the administrations of Street and his successor Michael Nutter ushered in gift bans and campaign-finance reforms intended to tamp down pay-to-play schemes and reduce the influence of money in politics.
“Good government” reforms have done little to stem Philadelphia’s politics-to-prison pipeline.
How’s that been working out? Not well, as evidenced by the steady stream of corruption prosecutions over the past 15 years. “Good government” reforms have done little to stem Philadelphia’s politics-to-prison pipeline. However, what they have succeeded in doing is turning down the volume on Republican voices.
Money is essential in a campaign, even more so when you start from a competitive disadvantage. With Democrats outnumbering Republicans 7 to 1 in Philadelphia, the donor well from which Republican candidates must draw is not that deep — just 150,000 strong. And only a tiny fraction of that number seem willing to fund campaigns. An even smaller number will risk the optics of funding a GOP challenge to an incumbent Democrat.
For low-level donors, Philadelphia’s campaign-finance restrictions, capping donations at $3,000 per individual or$12,000 per partnership or PAC, are of little impact. Where they really matter is among donors who have the capacity to make large transformational gifts and the desire to get behind talented candidates with the potential to change the city for the better. These individuals’ high-powered donations would enable a candidate to fund more communication, hire campaign workers, increase get-out-the-vote efforts, and buy ads in media outlets that seem increasingly disinterested in covering Republican candidates. (Through their special talent for circular reasoning, some Philly journalists regard GOP hopefuls as not viable and therefore undeserving of the media coverage that would aid their viability.)
Of the $10 million raised by Katz in his mayoral campaign, $2 million of that amount came from just six individuals. Today those six donors would be restricted to providing$18,000 to a campaign. That’s hardly enough incentive to offer an outsider the resources needed to overcome the registration advantages of the city’s Democrats.
The issues raised by the city’s campaign limits are not unique to Republican candidates. Democrats challenging the party establishment and true Independents also have reason to complain. In the 2019 mayoral primary, Democrat Alan Butkovitz bemoaned the campaign-finance restrictions and questioned whether it was time to allow supporters the right to exercise the full measure of their support for a preferred candidate.
Would lifting the campaign-finance restrictions also advantage Democrats? Certainly. But the current model already shines favor on them. Democrats are free to leverage their registration advantage, enjoy a perception of winnability from the media, and – if incumbent – have more election cycles to max out their donors.
It seems an awful thing to suggest, but Philly has tried on the cloak of “good government” and it doesn’t fit.
If we want a city with a viable opposition party, which all Republicans – and many Democrats and Independents – would like to see, we must rethink campaign-finance reforms. It’s time to deregulate the political marketplace and allow in more well-funded competitors with the ability to pierce the echo chamber known as Philadelphia politics.
Farah Jimenez, a first-generation American, shares her birthday with the Constitution. She is most happy when freely exercising her First Amendment rights as a columnist, TV commentator and public speaker. Follow her @FarahMJimenez.