Philadelphia Democrats are pushing a hard loyalist line: either support the party, or leave. However, for many progressive–minded people, this is just too hard a stance to take. The door is still swinging behind 16 ward committeepeople who were purged from their positions in the Democratic party this past month, a supposed result of their supporting Working Families Party (WFP) candidates in the last election. The WFP is a pro–working class alternative that has gained support in Philadelphia, notably winning two at–large city council seats with the elections of Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke. Since ward committees play pivotal roles in voter registration and neighborhood canvassing, these removals could have serious consequences for the already contentious 2024 presidential election. 

Philadelphia is broken up into 66 wards, which are further split into divisions. There the residents can elect two ward committeepeople, who then elect a ward leader. If the ward leaders are like captains, then the committeepeople are the boots on the ground. Many of those purged from their positions were very active members, boasting high voter turnout. But not all committee members are equally active, and not all are given the tools and resources needed to effectively organize. “If you don’t know who your committee person is, they’re probably not doing much. If the Democratic City Committee, DCC, is going to punish active members that are getting great results in their neighborhoods, while also doing very little to help turn out the vote themselves, it’s a concern," says Nathan Holt, a former 22nd ward committeeperson who was removed from his position last month.

But Holt isn’t the only 22nd ward committeeperson expelled: with 11 of the 16 dismissals coming out of 22nd ward, all eyes are on Ward Leader Cindy Bass. In total, 13 expulsions came from Bass’s district. With a number this high, it is more than likely that ulterior motives were at play, especially considering the behind–the–scenes politics in ward 22. 

For one, those expelled by Bass were supporters of her opponent Seth Anderson–Oberman, who came very close to blocking her reelection in the 2023 Democratic Primary. “While winning that election district–wide by just 402 votes, Bass lost the 22nd Ward by 12% of its vote,” Holt informs. This leads Holt, and undoubtedly others, to view the purges as an act of “political retribution,” especially given that Bass is “losing ground in her own backyard.” 

Additionally, Bass has been sued in the past—by the same committeepersons who were purged—for shutting people out of committee meetings. Bass lost that battle and received an injunction requiring her to open the doors to everybody. 

However, Bass is not the only person to blame. With party Chair Bob Brady threatening to dismiss members that supported other parties in the past, it is hard to view this as a singular act. In fact, last October, the party decided to expel one member that supported a WFP candidate. So, while Bass’s involvement is “hard to deny,” Holt says, Brady “signed off on it, so the buck stops with him.”

While the old–guard leadership pushes this exclusionary line, WFP supporters within the Democratic party are hardly anomalies. “Hundreds” of committeepersons supported WFP candidates, Holt says, and it goes even further. The broad support for the WFP has included that of Gov. Josh Shapiro (D–Pa.) himself. 

The WFP supports pro–worker and progressive policies, focusing on building up families and communities in Philadelphia. For example, councilwoman Kendra Brooks has supported rent control, fully funding and fighting the privatization of public schools and restorative justice programs. Councilman O’Rourke’s priorities include affordable housing, climate justice, and other people–oriented policies. 

The ousted committeepeople were officially accused of supporting non–Democrats, which is against the party bylaws. It's important to note here that O’Rourke and Brooks currently hold two council seats that the Democrats could not have held anyways, as they are reserved for non–majority parties. However, Democrats argue that votes for WFP candidates could potentially harm Democrats from being elected. 

With a seven–to–one Democratic voter registration skew, it is hard to see this worry as substantial. But the Democrats can always recourse to the argument that it is against the bylaws to support other candidates, especially over their own. However, jettisoned committeepeople have a few contentions with this argument. 

For one, some allege that the expulsions did not follow the proper procedure and are thus legally invalid. This has to do with the fact that the removals were only ratified by a subcommittee and not the whole committee. Some of those expelled never even supported WFP candidates, which shows that the appropriate procedure, which would require evidence to substantiate claims, was not followed. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with the expulsions is that it is hypocritical, because the Democratic party supported three Republican candidates in the past election, as evidenced in their official sample ballot. These candidates were Victor Stabile, Anne Marie Coyle, and Paula Patrick, who all made their first runs as Republican judges. To some, this seems worse than what some of the committeepeople did by supporting WFP candidates. This is because while Brooks and O’Rourke are still on the left, the Republicans are not.

The DCC is pushing back, saying that supporting certain Republican judges is not the same thing as an endorsement, because in this case, the judges were running nonpartisan. That is, they already won their positions with a party affiliation the first time they ran. Now in this election, they just need a certain number of retention votes to stay in their positions. 

This argument does not account for the way in which voters perceive sample ballots and the semantics of the Republican judges’ party affiliation. As Holt says, “Pretending they’re not endorsements is patently false and disingenuous. An endorsement is a form of publicly expressed support or approval. Look at the Democratic City Committee’s sample ballot of endorsed candidates … If you’re a voter, would you think these Republicans are ‘not endorsed’?” Just by the definition of endorsement, the Democrats endorsed three Republicans. Secondly, even if the judges can be in some way considered nonpartisan, this does not help Brady’s argument. Nonpartisan also means non–Democrat; therefore, the party officially endorsed non–Democrats. Since this is exactly what ward committeepeople are being accused of, Holt concludes, “It’s hypocrisy no matter how you look at it.”

Philadelphia is a blue stronghold in the otherwise red sea of Pennsylvania. Not only does getting rid of committeepeople alienate progressives, but it also might hamper the optimal functioning of the Democratic apparatus in the city. Committeepeople are hard working grassroots activists. Without their tireless efforts, which even Bob Brady acknowledges, it would be hard to get the wheels rolling. The removed committee members had especially high rates of voter turnout, Holt tells Street. 

One concern is that the city is already lagging behind other Republican areas of Pennsylvania, as turnout increased in most areas other than Philadelphia last fall. Compounded with the fact that the Democratic proportion of the statewide vote is close to an all–time low, the party has its work cut out for them. Specifically, urban areas with majority Black and Hispanic residents have dropped 11% in voting turnouts from 2020. All of this reaffirms the importance of local political organizing, like the work of ward committee members. 

As Holt states, “Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by just 1.1% of the vote in 2020. At a time when democracy itself is at stake, we need every last vote to win this critical swing state.” But the Democratic party seems to have shot itself in the foot. Since Trump gained ground in Pennsylvania in the last election, the party getting rid of its most productive organizers does not seem pragmatic. Holt says, “Democrats should support democracy, not authoritarianism. Party leadership’s unilateral ousting of committeepeople who were duly elected by voters is a violation of our values.”