On April 14, eight days before the Pennsylvania primary, the 69 ward leaders of Philadelphia will gather at the state party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner to hear from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton will arrive at the big tent next to the Sheet Metal Workers Union at 6 p.m. and make her presentation at 6:15. Obama will arrive at 7 p.m. and make his at 7:15. You've heard the old Will Rogers line "I am not a member of any organized party; I'm a Democrat." Well, the Philadelphia Democratic Party is an organized political party.
Organized into wards, the local party is further broken down into hundreds of voting divisions. Each division is overseen by two committee persons whose job it is to get their neighbors to vote for the endorsed candidate for every office. My grandfather Charles Patrick Shields was a Democratic committeeman in the 43rd Ward. As you might figure by his name, he was an Irish-American classic. He lived with Grandmom in a row house in Nicetown, on 15th Street, a short walk from the busy corner of Broad Street and Hunting Park. Every night when he was working the night shift, he'd head off to the plant wearing a peacoat and a cap. He could have been leaving for an evening in County Cork.
Grandpop took seriously his committeeman role. "I brought in the best division in the city," he would tell us, an insistent pride in his declaration. We grandkids would say that was chiefly because the old neighborhood had become almost entirely African American, already at that point the party's most reliable base. The exceptions were Grandpop and the guy next door, whom he described as "Nice fella ... Polish."
What still unites the city's ethnic groups is the goal of a big Democratic win in November. Ward leaders like old Mike Stack of the 58th up in Somerton, where my parents moved us to, still boast of the fact that Jack Kennedy was elected by guys like them. Philadelphia gave Kennedy a 330,000-vote plurality in 1960, enough to swamp the rest of the state. Back then, Pennsylvania had as many electoral votes as California, a state Kennedy lost to native son Richard Nixon.
This April it's going to be hard finding that kind of November unity in the Philadelphia Democratic organization. Michael Nutter, the city's impressive new mayor, is backing Clinton, and a few white liberals are backing Obama, but the ward leaders must answer to their people. Local politics is still neighborhood politics.
With the city split roughly between white and black, the chairman of the party, U.S. Congressman Bob Brady, is not going to shove a candidate down a ward leader's throat. Even after Clinton and Obama make their pitches at the J-J dinner, Brady won't insist that the city committee endorse one or the other. The party needs to avoid a winner-take-all fight among the ward leaders.
The wards that make up the political machine thrive on delivering the vote come Election Day. But they also exist for the patronage and other help that ward leaders and committee persons can offer their people. Like all dreamers, Grandpop was a walker of the neighborhood. He took us on evening walks through Hunting Park, his Phillies cigar a regular part of the ritual. On the way home, he'd stop at the corner next to the subway stop, get the bulldog edition of the Inquirer and chat with the guy selling the papers. That corner, one of my brothers recalled, was Grandpop's office.
Tip O'Neill, for whom I worked half a dozen years, would have called Grandpop a "street-corner guy like myself." Tip took greatest joy in the days when he got a fellow Irishman a deserved promotion at a Cambridge bank by threatening to withdraw the church's charity money. The other day I was on the phone with Brady, and he told me about interrupting a phone call from one of the two Democratic presidential candidates to help save a guy's turnpike job. Same deal.
Grandpop's reward was nothing so grand as getting elected U.S. Congressman. His highest position was ward secretary in the 43rd. But when he retired from the plant, Grandpop got a job working at the election commission down at City Hall. In his mind, it was a due reward for his years of service to the party, payment for his loyalty; it was a reminder, too, of those countless days in the 1930s when he was unemployed and walked each morning the 12 miles (20 km) down Broad Street to City Hall in hopes of getting work. That too was part of our family legacy.
There are thousands of my Grandpops in Philadelphia today--committee persons who will be out there on primary day. There may not be one endorsed candidate in the race, but they'll be getting their people out to vote. And the rest of the state will have its eyes on the wards of Philadelphia.
Chris Matthews is host of MSNBC's Hardball and author of the new book Life's a Campaign (Random House)