Barack Obama clashes with Philly-style machine politics

In a story missed by Philadelphia media, Sen. Barack Obama is clashing with Philadelphia’s old style politics, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

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.

There are 69 wards in Philadelphia, each meant to have a Republican and Democratic leader, charged with, aside from being the smallest political unit, getting out the vote. Typically, candidates pay these ward leaders to do just that, a few hundred dollars, depending on the election, for lunches, car services, subway tokens, and the trouble, you might say. Most often, these ward leaders, who might skim some themselves, pass it off the lion’s share to committee representatives who do the real distribution.

And, as reported, the Obama campaign feels this is a process they don’t need. With a movement of young, motivated ideological supporters getting out Obama’s vote, his campaign directors have decided this is a waste of resources. Ward leaders and other machine politicians in Philadelphia are quick to warn of potential ramifications.

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.

Carol Ann Campbell is about as important to this city’s machine as anyone, so her take is, unsurprisingly, part of the equation and evaluation of Obama’s decision, particularly considering she is a super delegate who, after formerly being a Clinton-woman, has decided to support the Senator from Illinois.

Carol Ann Campbell, a ward leader and Democratic super delegate 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.

Photo courtesy of Casual Casualty.

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