“Let us stand strong together”: Inside Philadelphia and the southeast’s ascension in the House Democratic caucus

“Let us stand strong together”: Inside Philadelphia and the southeast’s ascension in the House Democratic caucus

Author: Stephen Caruso/Wednesday, December 19, 2018/Categories: News and Views, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia

It was an opportunity too good to pass up.

As House Democratic leadership elections approached November 13, two of the top positions, Whip and Appropriations Chair, sat open due to retirements of their Western Pennsylvania holders. Meanwhile, Caucus Chair also was vacant as its holder maneuvered for a higher position.

Fresh off an election that brought in 13 new Democrats, all in Philadelphia or its suburbs in Montgomery, Chester, Berks and Delaware counties, representatives from the commonwealth’s largest city and environs saw an opportunity to flex their political muscle.

Through months of planning and conversations, in delegation meetings, backroom deals and contested votes described by a dozen sources in and outside of the Capitol - some of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly for this article - Democrats from the southeast and Philly made a plan to break into leadership in numbers since the ‘90s.

The takeover was a success, as by the time members streamed out of the caucus room that Tuesday evening to celebrate, the leaders who emerged were more diverse by gender and race than ever before. They’d also added more members from the southeast and Philly to the caucus upper echelon at once than had ever held leadership in the last 50 years.

The latest high water mark was the 1991-92 session, when three Philadelphia Democrats, including Speaker of the House Bob O’Donnell, helped run a 107-member strong Democratic majority in the Pennsylvania House.

Now, Philly or the collar counties hold five of seven positions, and had eyes on all but the floor leader.

Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) took over as Whip, Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) as caucus chair, and Rep. Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) as Appropriations Chair. They joined incumbent Policy Chair Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), who caucuses with the southeast, and Caucus Secretary Rosita Youngblood (D-Philadelphia) to represent a decisive power shift east of the Susquehanna River.

For years, the solidly blue southwest, home to union factory workers and coal miners in Pittsburgh and its milltown surroundings, was home to Democratic power players, from Leroy Irvis to Bill DeWeese to Mike Veon.

Many eastern, suburban members felt the addition of more diverse faces from Philadelphia and its suburbs to leadership could result in more progressive politics on topics like abortion, guns or the environment that hadn’t been centered under the leadership of the old western “Blue Dogs.”

Bill Patton, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody's (D-Allegheny) spokesperson, said that from the mentioned topics to workers’ rights, gerrymandering and LGBT issues, the caucus was “proud to be the progressive caucus and will continue to be so.”

Part of the west’s control of leadership was simple math. The western half of Pennsylvania 10 years ago provided 42 members, or 40 percent of the caucus.

Pressed on why the arrangement never came before, members often fell back on these digits.

“I don’t think we had the numbers until the last election,” Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) and also a member of the southeast caucus, said.

Some sources also described that getting the southeast and its anchoring city to cooperate politically meant a lot of tough coalition building around a group whose main commonality was geography, leaving them open to divide and conquer tactics. Even in 2009-10 session, when the west controlled 42 seats, the southeast and Philly controlled 43.

But between seats redistricted east and Republican gains in former Democratic strongholds, the west only boasts 25 members this session, or just 27 percent of caucus members.

Combine the western decay with the blue wave that washed over Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties, and Democrats from the southeast and Philadelphia now boast 53 members, or 58 percent of the caucus this session. Overall, they gained 10 additional seats from the region over the last decade.

That meant if the two sides joined forces, as they agreed to in the months leading up to November's general election, they could make a run at leadership.

In emails provided to The PLS Reporter, dated from October right up until leadership elections on November 13, former southeast delegation chair, now Congresswoman-elect Madeleine Dean said “several weeks” of planning left the delegations confident that through unity, they could “build a leadership team that looks like ourselves—with greater diversity and strength” and that provided their more progressive region with a larger say.

“As we have all discussed, we are at a historic moment,” Dean wrote in an email from October 19. “We in the Southeast Delegation have the opportunity to very positively affect the future stewardship of our Democratic Caucus.”

For some, especially new members to the caucus, there was some shock that banding together hadn’t come up before.

“It appears to be such a natural fit,” Rep. Pam DeLissio (D-Philadelphia), a Democrat who straddles both delegations, said, describing talks to some of the new faces in the caucus.

The field was whittled down at delegation meetings, where both the Southeast and Philly put up three names each for leadership, while leaving current Minority Leader Frank Dermody unchallenged. The decision, one lawmaker, said was strategic.

It let the southwest keep someone in leadership, avoiding the lockout that frustrated the southeast before its takeover. The member also said candidly they lacked anyone with the experience to replace a veteran lawmaker like Dermody.

A few days before the general election, the Philadelphia delegation chose incumbent Youngblood, with newcomers Harris and McClinton, to represent the city in leadership elections. After results came in, the southeast coalesced behind Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D-Delaware) and Bradford to rise into leadership while keeping incumbent Sturla.

The picks also meant boxing out a few members, such as Kim, who planned to run for Caucus Administrator against incumbent Rep. Neal Goodman (D-Schuylkill), as well as Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery) and Rep. Maria Donatucci (D-Philadelphia) who didn’t garner the votes among their delegations to stand for leadership.

With the slate ready, all the members needed was to “stand strong together” against “unfounded rumors and cynical attempts to divide,” per Dean’s emails.

“In the past, delegations not our own have shut out the southeast and failed to represent the strength of our region,” Dean wrote in an email to the southeast delegation from November 9. “But I am confident that we have the unity to change this year’s results and bring the leadership representation back where it belongs: the largest growing democratic [sic] region in the state.”

The situation was still fluid November 13, with Harris still listed as a candidate for Appropriations, Kruger-Brankey and Philly Rep. Ed Neilson both gunning for Whip and Kim still listed for Administrator.

But by 4 p.m. Tuesday, the situation had settled. Krueger-Braneky challenged Goodman for Administrator, McClinton ran against Rep. Robert Freeman (D-Northampton) for caucus chair, Bradford opposed Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) for Appropriations and Harris lined up with Rep. Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne) for Whip.

Just as planned, by every southeast and Philly member voting together, Harris garnered the votes to beat out the veteran Carroll. It was a surprise to many members, including, according to two sources, Dermody himself.

Prior to the election, the leader since 2010 had said that more diversity in the chamber’s leadership “needed to happen and probably will.”

Dermody's spokesman Patton declined to comment on internal caucus matters.

McClinton was also backed by Dermody, who attempted to shore up votes for her to add some diversity to his slate. She won comfortably, with the best margins among the newcomers.

Sturla and Youngblood, both incumbents, won without challenge, setting up the vote for Krueger-Braneky as caucus administrator.

Despite the alliance holding firm for the first two candidates from the unified slate, Krueger-Braneky, a hard charging Delaware County lawmaker known as an outspoken voice on #MeToo, lost in a tight election against incumbent Goodman.

Krueger-Braneky minced no words on why she thought the coalition didn’t carry her across the finish line, citing her call for members even of her own party to resign for alleged sexual misconduct.

“It’s clear my willingness to speak out against the powerful has cost me the support of some of my colleagues in the House, but that will never stop me from speaking out,” she said.

Other lawmakers and state politicos concurred that her candor on harassment probably cost her support. But some also cited her occasional “sharp elbows” and a perhaps unfair confusion of talent with ambition, as factors that made her a tough sell against a popular incumbent like Goodman.

But the loss left Krueger-Braneky upset, sources said, and showed potential cracks in the coalition. So, she with the other caucus ringleaders, including Harris and Bradford, called for a combined delegation meeting in Sturla’s office next door to the caucus room.

There, a decision was made for the final vote for Appropriations Chair that proved controversial to some: to ensure fealty, it was time to start checking members' ballots.

“We wanted to make sure we were all buttoned up,” a lawmaker in the coalition said. “If you’re not whipping until the last second, you’re not doing your job.”

The members filed back in to the caucus room, and voting began. Bradford faced off against Frankel, a veteran Allegheny County lawmaker with a decade more of experience, for the caucus’ chief fiscal chair.

Sources said that during the election of this final key position, Bradford, Harris and Rep. Jason Dawkins (D-Philadelphia) stood at the front of the room, checking Philadelphia and southeast members’ ballots to make sure they voted for Bradford.

Showing a ballot is always a member’s prerogative, members qualified, and the tactic has shown up in previous leadership elections. Still, a few members questioned it.

“I wouldn’t do it, but I’m not in the southeast,” one western representative said. “They violated no rule that I’m aware of. I’m sure if they did, something would have been said at the time. I guess you’d have to ask them if they feel happy that’s how they do their vote.”

The representative went on to compliment Bradford’s ability and didn’t predict any long term fracture from the outcome.

Whether the measure was needed or not, Bradford pulled out a victory over Frankel to chair Appropriations, completing a near sweep for the coalition.

Between Frankel and retiring Whip Mike Hanna (D-Clinton) and Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny), 86 years of legislative experience exited House Democratic leadership that day. Their nearly nine decades of governing was replaced by members with just ten years between their three replacements — McClinton, Harris and Bradford.

As members left the caucus room after two-and-a-half hours of deliberations, the mood was celebratory for the ascendant faction.

“Diverse voices, diverse opinions are important at the table. I think our caucus is moving in that direction,” Harris said following his win. “We’ve seen that with the elections we’ve had.”

And while she won’t be a part of the coming changes, former delegation chair Dean couldn’t help but strike an optimistic note as she said goodbye to her fellow colleagues.

“As a result of your hard work, we were able to elect diverse, progressive leaders to all levels of our caucus leadership,” Dean said in an email sent the day after the victories. “I am confident that the results will benefit our caucus, our region and the entire Commonwealth!”

Stephen Caruso is the Harrisburg bureau chief at The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email him at stephen@mypls.com or call at 845-891-4306.