Over meatballs at Lorenzo’s cafe in Mayfair, Pete Smith and other Republican candidates for City Council circulated clipboards, hungry for signatures. At a dive bar in South Philadelphia, Erika Almiron searched for Democrats to sign her papers.

Elsewhere in the city this week there were bowling parties, Bingo nights and ward-organized meet-and-greets, all held to corral people into a room to sign nominating petitions.

It’s a sure sign of primary season. This year, more than 40 candidates are trying to get on the ballot to run for City Council at-large. Amassing 1,000 legitimate signatures is the first hurdle (and most campaigns build a cushion to survive petition challenges).

Standing out in a crowded field will be the next challenge.

“They’re the most fun races because they tend to actually be competitive,” said Richardson Dilworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Drexel University. “The churn has always been pretty significant with at-large. The chances of winning are much higher than a district race, so it makes a lot of sense to give it a shot.”

People fill the room at Woody's in Center City for a candidate meet and greet on Tuesday, March 05, 2019. The meet and greet was hosted by the 8th Democratic Ward. Members running for City Council were present.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
People fill the room at Woody's in Center City for a candidate meet and greet on Tuesday, March 05, 2019. The meet and greet was hosted by the 8th Democratic Ward. Members running for City Council were present.

Only five of seven at-large councilmembers are running for reelection for the $140,000-a-year job. So far, at least 40 Democrats and 10 Republicans have signaled they will run. In 1979, a record 100-plus Democrats ran for at-large seats during the height of anti-Rizzo fervor.

Councilman William K. Greenlee, who announced last month he wouldn’t be seeking a fourth at-large term, said he bowed out in part because he dreaded the frenzy of another campaign. (Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has also said she will not seek another term.)

“This is going to be a competitive race and you have to be all in,” Greenlee said. “You have to be willing to make lots of fund-raising phone calls... to go to three to four places a night. I didn’t know if I was ready to do that.” Greenlee, who as an incumbent, would have had name recognition, and likely party support, on his side, said a winning strategy is difficult to define.

“It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take a lot of things falling into place,” he said.

Cash

Money, for one thing, can amplify a message, or at least name recognition, in a noisy field.

Getting in front of people to pitch that message, even early on, costs money. Most wards charge a $250 candidate fee just to come talk to them or attend petition parties. This year, with so many people running, you could pay that much for an event where 30 candidates show up and get two minutes each.

“It’s too long of a night and it also tells you nothing,” said Jon Geeting, policy director for Philly 3.0, a political action committee.

Running a competitive council race costs about $100,000 to $150,000, political consultant Mustafa Rashed said.

At the beginning of the year, four of the five incumbents -- Allan Domb, David Oh, Derek Green, and Helen Gym -- had raised at least $100,000. Only three non-incumbents, Democrats Eryn Santamoor and Justin DiBerardinis and Republican Dan Tinney, reported raising that much.

Domb has already paid several hundred thousand dollars for TV commercials.

Money also buys ward-leader support, which can mean campaign help and your name on a sample ballot distributed to voters on Election Day.

But party backing might not be as effective as it once was, said Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College.

“The last few years have shown that party establishment, endorsements, and support of party leaders doesn’t always translate to victory,” Borick said. “You’ve seen insurgencies, especially in Democratic primaries, led in part by younger voters and more grass-roots organizations. It’ll be really interesting to see what role that plays in this race in Philadelphia.”

Sandra Dungee Glenn, right, City Council candidate at-large, speaks with Darrell Clarke, president of City Council, at Woody's in Center City during a candidate meet and greet on Tuesday, March 05, 2019. The meet and greet was hosted by the 8th Democratic Ward.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Sandra Dungee Glenn, right, City Council candidate at-large, speaks with Darrell Clarke, president of City Council, at Woody's in Center City during a candidate meet and greet on Tuesday, March 05, 2019. The meet and greet was hosted by the 8th Democratic Ward.

Personal narrative, if it’s a good one

Compelling personal narratives can resonate, but in an at-large race with so many people, it’s hard to win on biography alone. At least two openly gay candidates are running this year, as is a transgender woman. Council has never had an openly LGBTQ member. There are also at least two first-generation immigrants running. Several teachers and activists are vying for the job.

Politically, it can be hard to distinguish candidates in the Democratic primary, as almost all present themselves as progressive.

“Your personal narrative is going to have to be extraordinary for it to work on its own,” said Rashed, “You can’t win on wanting to be ‘the first candidate x.’ You have to have an extraordinarily unique situation and you’ll need substance to go with it.”

Identity will likely play a role in whom voters pick, come Election Day, though.

“If people don’t know the names they look for other cues, identity cues — race, gender, age, whoever they identify with," Borick said.

Luck of the draw

In Philadelphia, candidates’ names appear on the ballot in order based on the numbers they pick out of a coffee can at a drawing March 20.

A low number, which brings a better position, could lend some legitimacy, and support to a lesser-known candidate. A high number might threaten a front-runner or incumbent. It’s a much debated way of doing things, especially since ballot position has an outsized impact on how judges are elected in the city.

At a happy hour for Democratic candidates Tuesday night, retired Congressman Bob Brady, who still chairs the city’s Democratic Party, said endorsements won’t go out until after ballot positions are set. He told the group of hopefuls: “Pull a good number. We’ll talk some more.”