Double duty

Kenyatta John­son just be­came the 15th elec­ted Philly Demo­crat who also serves as an elec­ted ward lead­er.

Second Dis­trict Coun­cil­man Kenyatta John­son is now the Demo­crat­ic lead­er of the 36th ward in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. Photo by Jared Piper/PHL Coun­cil

Cit­ing health con­cerns, Har­old James ended his ten­ure Monday night as the Demo­crat­ic lead­er of the 36th ward in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. Fel­low ward lead­ers and com­mit­tee mem­bers voted to pass the torch from James, a former state rep­res­ent­at­ive, to an­oth­er pub­lic fig­ure in the neigh­bor­hood, Coun­cil­man Kenyatta John­son.

Pennsylvania law pro­hib­its an elec­ted of­fi­cial from hold­ing two of­fices at once. In short, you can’t double dip from the state treas­ury. 

But an elec­ted, un­paid po­s­i­tion as a ward lead­er? It’s prac­tic­ally a tra­di­tion here in Phil­adelphia.

John­son is the 15th elec­ted Demo­crat who also rep­res­ents one of Phil­adelphia’s 66 wards.

Col­lect­ively, ward lead­ers and their com­mit­tee people pack a big punch in loc­al elec­tions. They’re the ones work­ing out­side polling places on Elec­tion Day, push­ing can­did­ates in down-bal­lot races and al­loc­at­ing “street money” to foot sol­diers who help get out the vote.

Ward lead­ers push their party’s of­fi­cial slate of en­dorse­ments to voters. However, his­tor­ic­ally, in primary elec­tions where Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans run against their own kind, ward lead­ers take en­dorse­ments in­to their own hands. 

Let’s say someone wants to get in­volved in ward-level polit­ics. Who would dare make polit­ic­al rivals with their own coun­cil­man who they’d have to work with go­ing for­ward?

Reached by PW (SPR’s sis­ter pub­lic­a­tion) on Tues­day, John­son chuckled at that very ques­tion.

“For me, it’s all about pub­lic ser­vice,” he said. “At the end of the day, bey­ond the polit­ics, it’s about my em­power­ing my con­stitu­ents and my com­mit­tee people.”

At peak ca­pa­city, there is at least one Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an lead­er for each of the city’s 66 wards. These ward lead­ers form their party’s city com­mit­tee. 

These doubly elec­ted of­fi­cials rep­res­ent a range of of­fices: State Sen. An­thony Wil­li­ams, State Sen. Larry Farnese and State Rep. An­gel Cruz; Ron Donatucci, who is the Re­gister of Wills, City Com­mis­sion­er An­thony Clark, and City Con­trol­ler Alan Butkovitz, not to men­tion ap­poin­ted high-rank­ing of­fi­cials like Lt. Gov­ernor Mike Stack.

John­son joins the com­pany of fel­low Coun­cil­mem­bers Bobby Hen­on, Bill Green­lee, and Jan­nie Black­well, who are also ward lead­ers in their re­spect­ive dis­tricts. Former Coun­cil­wo­man Mari­an Tasco re­mains a highly in­flu­en­tial ward lead­er as part of the North­w­est Co­ali­tion, which played a big role in get­ting May­or Jim Ken­ney elec­ted in 2015.

“I’m look­ing for­ward to sit­ting down with [my col­leagues] to com­pare notes about how they ap­proach be­ing coun­cil­mem­bers and ward lead­ers,” John­son said.

Adding in former high-rank­ing of­fi­cials, the Demo­crat­ic ward ma­chine is a ver­it­able who’s-who of city polit­ics over the dec­ades, from former May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter to former battle­axe City Com­mis­sion­er Marge Tartagli­one. 

Even Har­old James was a state rep­res­ent­at­ive twice over. His most re­cent stint in of­fice came when he, co­in­cid­ent­ally, re­placed Kenyatta John­son through a spe­cial elec­tion. James pleaded guilty in 2015 for his par­ti­cip­a­tion in a con­flict of in­terest scan­dal known as “Gift­g­ate.”

To that point, ward lead­ers play their most power­ful cards dur­ing spe­cial elec­tions to fill va­cant seats, when ward lead­ers can hand­pick the party’s nom­in­ee amongst them­selves — be­hind closed doors to boot.

Ad­di­tion­ally, ward lead­ers also vote to elect the chair of their party’s city com­mit­tee. For the Demo­crat­ic City Com­mit­tee, that’s Con­gress­man Bob Brady; for the Re­pub­lic­an City Com­mit­tee, it’s Joe De­Fe­lice.

Both Brady and De­Fe­lice? You guessed it. Ward lead­ers.