Civil war among Democrats in the Northeast could be costly

1200 lt gov mike stack
Pa. Lt. Gov. and former state Sen. Mike Stack.

Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III surprised a lot of people in Northeast Philly last month when he unexpectedly stepped down as leader of the 58th Ward.

There's a civil war raging between two factions of Democrats in that part of the city. And Stack, who is on one side of that battle, gave up his ward leader seat just 10 weeks before a primary election.

This guy isn't exactly known for giving up turf.

In late 2014, Stack floated the idea of keeping his Fifth Senate District seat even after being sworn in as lieutenant governor in January 2015.

He dropped that idea after Gov. Wolf panned it.

Stack backed committeeman Mike Kates for the leadership of the 58th Ward, and Kates won it last month.

Now Stack is trying to organize a recall to have the Democratic City Committee remove Kates as ward leader.

Stack's old Senate seat is at the heart of his new dispute with Kates.

Former State Rep. John Sabatina Jr., the son of longtime 56th Ward leader John Sr., won that seat in a special election in 2015.

And in January, Stack, the elder Sabatina, and three other ward leaders voted to endorse the younger Sabatina in the April 26 primary election for a full term.

But five other ward leaders with divisions in the Fifth District voted to support State Rep. Kevin Boyle in the primary.

Sabatina, however, won the endorsement despite the 5-5 tie because the ward leaders who backed him had more divisions in the district than the ward leaders behind Boyle.

That all changed this month when some of the ward leaders gathered again and Kates threw his support to Boyle.

Now Boyle is the Democratic Party's endorsed candidate for the seat.

Kates said Stack's wife, Tonya, told him last month there were two reasons her husband was giving up his ward leader post.

Kates said she told him that Stack was busy with his duties as lieutenant governor.

Furthermore, she said her husband wanted to back away from the Sabatina-Boyle feud because he thought Sabatina was going to lose the primary.

The Sabatina camp's response to all this is that the change in endorsement didn't happen because they didn't attend the meeting where the change was made.

"As far as we're concerned, he's still the endorsed candidate," said Matt Williams, Sabatina the younger's campaign manager.

Sabatina the younger was unavailable to comment.

Sabatina the elder picked up the phone at his law firm and told me he had overheard my conversation with Williams. He was even less forthcoming than Williams.

"We're not responding," Sabatina the elder said before hanging up.

Stack, through a spokesman, declined to comment about any of this.

We've seen this fight before.

Former State Rep. Brendan Boyle, Kevin's brother, resigned as the 170th House District's representative in January 2015 to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Boyles backed one candidate in the special election to fill the seat. Stack and the Sabatinas backed another. The Republicans took advantage of the infighting and won, even though Democrats hold a 2-1 voter registration advantage.

Ross Feinberg, the Republican candidate for the Fifth Senate District, said he plans "on taking full advantage" of the Democratic infighting and hopes history repeats itself.

Stack is going to need the backing of the city's Democratic ward leaders for his recall to go forward. The Democratic City Committee bylaws require their consent for any petition to recall a ward leader within 60 days of an election.

Will he get it?

The usually candid U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, dodged that question last week.

Kates said he knew what he was getting into when he became 58th Ward leader. He stands by the Boyle endorsement but hopes the infighting dies down.

"It's got to stop," Kates said. "It's so fractured, it's ridiculous. Did I expect a storm? Absolutely. But this is the best way going forward."

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973@ByChrisBrennan