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In Philadelphia, it's get out the money

The Nation

Candidates usually pay their foot soldiers -- a tradition that could cost Obama support.

April 11, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

Fourteen months into a campaign that has the feel of a movement, Sen. Barack Obama has collided with the gritty political traditions of Philadelphia, where ward bosses love their candidates, but also expect them to pay up.

The dispute centers on the dispensing of "street money," a long-standing Philadelphia ritual in which candidates deliver cash to the city's Democratic operatives in return for getting out the vote.

Flush with payments from well-funded campaigns, the ward leaders and Democratic Party bosses typically spread out the cash in the days before the election, handing $10, $20 and $50 bills to the foot soldiers and loyalists who make up the party's workforce.

It is all legal -- but Obama's people are telling the local bosses he won't pay.

That sets up a culture clash, pitting a candidate who promises to transform American politics against the realities of a local political system important to his presidential hopes. Pennsylvania holds its primary April 22.

Obama's posture confounds neighborhood political leaders sympathetic to his cause. They caution that if the senator from Illinois withholds money that gubernatorial, mayoral and presidential candidates have willingly paid out for decades, there could be defections to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. And the Clinton campaign, in contrast, will oblige in forking over the money, these ward leaders predict.

"We've heard directly from the Obama organizer who organizes our ward, and he told us it's an entirely volunteer organization and that I should not expect to see anything from the Obama campaign other than ads on TV and the support that volunteers are giving us," said Greg Paulmier, a ward leader in the northwest part of the city.

Neither the Clinton nor the Obama campaign would say publicly whether it would comply with Philadelphia's street money customs. But an Obama aide said Thursday that it had never been the campaign's practice to make such payments. Rather, the campaign's focus is to recruit new people drawn to Obama's message, the aide said.

The field operation "hasn't been about tapping long-standing political machinery," the aide said.

Carol Ann Campbell, a ward leader and Democratic superdelegate who supports Obama, estimated that the amount of street money Obama would need to lay out for election day is $400,000 to $500,000.

"This is a machine city, and ward leaders have to pay their committee people," Campbell said. "Barack Obama's campaign doesn't pay workers, and I guarantee you if they don't put up some money for those street workers, those leaders will most likely take Clinton money. It won't stop him from winning Philadelphia, but he won't come out with the numbers that he needs" to win the state.

A neutral observer, state Rep. Dwight Evans, whose district is in northwest Philadelphia, said there might be a racial subtext to the dispute. Ward leaders, he said, see Obama airing millions of dollars worth of television ads in the city -- money that benefits largely white station owners, feeding resentment. People wonder why Obama isn't sharing the largesse with the largely African American field workers trying to get him elected, Evans said.

"They view it that the white people are getting all the money for TV," said Evans, an African American and former ward leader. "And they're the ones who are the foot soldiers on the street. They're predominantly African Americans, and they're not the ones who are getting that TV money."

Hardscrabble neighborhoods across the city have come to depend on street money as a welcome payday for knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and speaking to voters as they arrive at polling places.

Peter Wilson, a ward leader from West Philadelphia, said: "Most of the ward leaders, we live in a very poor area, and people look forward to election days. . . . People are astute. They know the Obama campaign has raised millions of dollars."

Street money is an enduring political practice in Philadelphia and cities including Chicago, Baltimore, Newark and Los Angeles.

In Jon Corzine's successful race in 2000 for the U.S. Senate, people from out of state poured into New Jersey to be part of a huge get-out-the-vote operation. Some were paid $75 apiece in street money, as part of the well-funded Corzine campaign's election day efforts.

In the 2004 presidential race, John F. Kerry's campaign paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in street money to Philadelphia's Democratic apparatus, according to city party veterans.

A famous scene played out at a Democratic committee meeting during the 1980 presidential primary. Vice President Walter F. Mondale came to Philadelphia hoping to boost support for President Carter, then in a tough nomination fight with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Mondale made his pitch, touting Carter's record on human rights and the economy.

In an interview Thursday, Mondale picked up the story from there:

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