“Eat your bones, why don’t you!”
This Greek scolding seems apt as primary day approaches and things get intense for the 10 Democrats looking to succeed disgraced Republican Pat Meehan in the newly formed Fifth Congressional District in Delaware County and South Philly.
Those words were fired off years ago like darts by a wise Greek matron who wanted to teach me and a friend a lesson about good intentions vs. outcomes. We were all at a seaside taverna near Athens; my friend and I refused to return a plate of expensive, skeletal fried red mullet because we figured it would be better than making a fuss. We thought we were better than that. We ended up paying — and going home hungry.
A version of this is playing out among well-meaning Democrats in the Fifth. They’re trying to be better than politics. But after the votes are tallied in the May 15 primary, more than a few will find themselves wondering why they’re left with a pile of bones they never wanted.
Just about everyone but grandma is running in this, the most crowded primary field of all the U.S. House seats in Pennsylvania that Democrats hope to win in November. There are so many candidates, and they’re apparently so giddy with ambition, they’ve forgotten to do basic math.
Meehan’s former Seventh District had been drawn by the GOP years earlier in such a hallucinogenic way so as to touch five counties and keep it locked up by the right for years. The Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court’s magic eraser and pencil set earlier this year gave us a new version, one that includes only Delco and parts of Philly, and with a double-digit Democratic voter advantage.
As though being drawn into a black hole that forms after a star implodes, Democratic hopefuls shot into the void, en masse.
This is good and bad if you’re a Delco Dem.
Long controlled by one of the most powerful GOP machines in the country, Delco is now emerging as one of the Democratic Party’s most dynamic hotbeds of progressive activism, a burgeoning liberal suburban force to be reckoned with in a region long dominated by liberals in Philadelphia and, more recently, Montgomery County.
To some progressives, a crowded field is democracy at its fairest.
But the frenzy of candidates is leaving voters with a dizzying primary ballot stuffed with enough bodies to suit up two basketball teams.
The most noble or most charming or qualified doesn’t necessarily win in such a scrum; only the one who manages to muster, by hook or crook or major TV advertising, 20 percent of the vote or so.
This is potentially not good for Democratic women hoping to win this seat in a November face off against the Republican Party’s Pearl Kim.
With six women in the race, they cannibalize each other’s appeal to women. So much for capitalizing on this year’s passion among liberal women voters to break the all-male ceiling of the state’s 18-member congressional delegation with Democrats from districts like this one.
The sheer volume of candidates, though, is mind-boggling.
At a forum Tuesday night at Cabrini University in Radnor, even the moderator couldn’t resist noting this.
“I am somewhat daunted,” League of Women Voters executive Jennifer Levy-Tatum said every so politely, “by the number of candidates.”
Eight of the 10 Democratic hopefuls were seated at a table so long it could have been at a Greek wedding: State Rep. Greg Vitali; progressive newcomer-scientist Molly Sheehan; newcomer-accountant Theresa Wright; lawyer and former Swarthmore school board president Mary Gay Scanlon; Havertown teacher-turned-addictions advocate Larry Arata; former federal prosecutor Ashley Lukenheimer; State Rep. Margo Davidson; and financial adviser Lindy Li. Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland and former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer didn’t attend.
“There’s actually few of us here tonight,” Davidson joked of the field that had been even larger a few weeks ago. “We started out at 16.”
No wonder Coleen McMahon of Drexel Hill had to reach into her purse for a notepad before answering my question: What did you think of the candidates? She couldn’t remember their names.
“I’m very excited there are women candidates,” McMahon said. “Lunken — she’s very well spoken.”
Sheehan, though, stood out, because the Penn scientist and Delco native had declared last year that she was going to challenge Meehan — way before this district was redrawn.
“She’s been in since before it even looked like she could ever win,” McMahon said. “Loved her. I think she was real.”
But here’s what’s also real: Cash. Philadelphia’s powerful electricians union has already contributed $500,000 to a pro-Lazer super PAC running television ads; Lunkenheimer’s mother, Molly Shepard, has donated to another super PAC that so far has spent $56,000 on mailings in support of her; and Scanlon, who’s not taking PAC money, has collected tens of thousands of dollars from fellow attorneys at Democratic powerhouse Philly law firm Ballard Spahr, where she does pro bono cases.
It won’t take much for one person to win. And when one of them does, it may very well leave some of the party’s most well-meaning candidates and their supporters staring at a plate of bones they never really wanted.