The Committee of Seventy: a century-old political watchdog

Tomorrow I am interviewing Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director for the Committee of Seventy, and it occurred to me that it is worth posting just on the organization.

Seventy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit political group, has been a self-proclaimed political watchdog for Philadelphia since 1904. For every election, the group trains and organizes hundreds of volunteers to inspect voting machines and patrol polling places, acting as mediators in thousands of disputes.

I should know. I worked as a policy intern there for nearly a year and have worked with each of their election campaigns since the November 2004 general election. Perhaps the excitement of Pennsylvania’s swing-state status in a battle between eventual Presidential victor George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry got me hooked.

Outside of election season, their small staff considers itself a think tank on municipal or other legislation affecting Philadelphia and has been active in citizen advocacy since the February 2005 hiring of former Philadelphia Daily News Editor Zach Stalberg as Seventy’s CEO, replacing retiring, longtime chief Fred Voigt, whom I interviewed for this project.

It’s most prominent roles were leading the 1919 and 1951 home rule charges, the former being considered the city’s first modern charter, and more recently triumphing the 2002 launching of electronic voting machines in Philadelphia.

It’s name has religious meaning, as its About page suggests.

The moniker “committee of seventy” is Biblical. Chronicling the Israelites’ journey through the desert, Exodus tells of seventy elders who were appointed to assist Moses in the governance of the people. In 1904, this Committee of Seventy was so named to represent an analogous function: to be the ethical backbone of a city forgetting its conscience. Philadelphia’s City Hall was then infamous, nationally labeled “corrupt and contented.” Public elections were routinely stolen by the dominant Republican Party. Civic organizations demonstrated apathy and impotence towards combating such political iniquity. By structuring itself as “an organization of permanent character” committed to good government, Seventy was immediately relevant and effective. Our first members were prominent civic leaders and professionals like Frederic Strawbridge and Samuel S. Fels; today’s constituents remain leaders of the region’s business, professional, and academic communities.”


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One Response to The Committee of Seventy: a century-old political watchdog

  1. Pingback: Interview: Ellen Kaplan, Committee of Seventy policy director « Philadelphia Partisan Politics

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