How Big Money Lost in Philly’s Mayoral Race

(Photo: AP/Matt Slocum)

Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney, center, celebrates after winning Tuesday's primary election in Philadelphia. Broad union and progressive support gave the former city councilman more than half the votes in the six-candidate race.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia city council veteran Jim Kenney won the Democratic mayoral primary with 56 percent of the vote—a commanding victory in a crowded campaign of six candidates.

Kenney’s win is not only a step in the right direction for the progressives who supported his candidacy; it’s also a refreshing reminder that heavy outside spending doesn’t always guarantee electoral success. Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, the runner-up with 26 percent, was backed by a trio of suburban Philadelphia hedge fund financiers with a strong interest in market-driven education reform.

As Paul Blumenthal noted in The Huffington Post, the PAC’s $7 million support (as of the latest filing date) of Williams’s candidacy was nearly equal to the funding of all other candidates and super PACs combined. With the votes now counted, it looks like American Cities paid about $116 for each Williams vote.

Union-backed PACs like Building a Better Pennsylvania and Forward Philadelphia spent just over $2 million combined. Both Kenney and Williams’s individual campaigns spent just under $2 million each.

The Susquehanna International Group (SIG), headed by Joel Greenberg, Jeff Yass, and Arthur Dantchik, fueled a super PAC called American Cities, which slathered ads all over the Philadelphia media market in an effort to portray Williams as the political savior for a long-struggling school system. The right-wing SIG has deep ties to the free-market think tank the Cato Institute as well as to a Pennsylvania charter school advocacy group. They’ve also contributed to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s past gubernatorial campaigns.

Native West Philadelphian Williams has been a go-to candidate for the finance executives—they funded his long-shot gubernatorial campaign in 2010 to the tune of at least $6 million. However, the Williams camp has said that the three funders merely believe in his politics. A Williams campaign spokeswoman told The Huffington Post that the hedge fund managers “have supported [Williams] for a long time and they've never asked him for anything except to advance the cause of good schools and good education for kids."

Williams has never been explicitly clear about his position on education reform, which Pennsylvania Working Families director Kati Sipp sees as a political calculation. “He’s actually never really run on [a school choice platform],” she says. “He’s not going out and articulating a position that would render him unelectable in the city.”

Here’s a taste of the group’s messaging in this election:

The election had high stakes for the future of Philadelphia’s public school system. In 2001, the state placed the Philadelphia public school system under the control of a committee appointed by the governor and Philadelphia mayor called the School Reform Commission (SRC). It’s become a notorious beacon of failed experimentation and corruption over the years.

The 2014 election of Democrat Governor Tom Wolf was seen by many as a referendum on the failed education policies of his predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett. Wolf has indicated that he’s willing to work with the new mayor of Philadelphia to restore local public school control to the city.

“I would say that there’s pretty clear evidence from a lot of polls that Philadelphia voters are very concerned with education and are fed up with the way the SRC has been running our schools, which has included a lot of cost-cutting and privatizing measures,” says Sipp. “One of the reasons we decided to endorse Jim Kenney was that he, along with Governor Tom Wolf, pledged to work with people in Philadelphia to restore local control of the schools. Anthony Williams has not made that pledge.”

The Working Families state chapter worked to put a non-binding measure on Tuesday’s ballot that would essentially give voters a chance to vocalize their desire to bring Philadelphia schools back under local control. The measure passed as well.

Though it’s a positive sign that election results don’t merely ebb and flow with outside-spending initiatives, the hedge fund–backed American Cities PAC is a sign that the troubling trend of outside spending has increasingly trickled down from federal elections into local campaigns, as executives from extremely lucrative hedge funds expand their venture capitalism to local politics.

Over the past 15 years, hedge fund managers in New York have contributed more than $36 million to more than 1,500 candidates and political action committees, according to Hedgeclippers, an organization dedicated to exposing hedge fund influence on American politics.  

“At the state level, we have a seen an increase in outside spending, and some of this is from outside groups getting involved in state politics,” says Pete Quist, research director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “Anecdotally ... there does seem to be a nationalization of local politics as well.”

Daniel Denvir notes in The Nation that just six weeks ago, there was a similar situation playing out in Chicago’s mayoral race as school-choice advocate Rahm Emanuel and a stable of super PACs massively outspent progressive challenger Chuy Garcia and his public-education supporters. One super PAC spent $4 million in support of Emanuel. In Newark, free-market education reform supporters spent $4 million to elect Cory Booker’s successor—though they failed.

Early in the race, many had considered Williams to be a favorite, primarily because of his ability to attract a lot of funding. But labor unions and progressive advocacy groups like the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and Pennsylvania Working Families mobilized their bases for the Kenney campaign, and seemed to have stunted the potential impact of Williams’s well-funded supporters.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s election was a victory for public schools, and raises some small hope in the ability of grassroots organizing to combat special-interest influence on local elections.

"It's a great day for progressives," Kati Sipp, said in a statement Wednesday. "Philadelphians strongly rejected the candidate backed by almost $7 million from right-wing suburban billionaires pushing for expansion of charter schools. This election has shown that in an age with a rising tide of money in politics, big money doesn't always win."

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