I am an elected Democratic Party official for both my local ward committee (the fightin' 27th!), and on the Pennsylvania state committee for the Philadelphia portion of the 8th senatorial district (but not for the portion that extends into Delaware County--cryptic party rules around here). I have lived in both my local ward and the 8th senatorial district for the vast majority of my adult life, and I absolutely love it. In fact, one day, when I have enough money saved up, I would like to buy a home so I can spend the rest of my life here. My desire to put down roots was one of the reasons I started running for local party office--I want to be engaged with my neighborhood.
Still, no matter how long I have been here, and no matter how long I want to stay, anyone familiar with the Philadelphia portion of the 8th senatorial district would know immediately that I am not exactly "representative" of the area. A quick perusal of the district demographics
shows that it is over 65% African-American, is about 20% white, about 12% of residents speak a language other than English at home, and it has a median household income of only $24,000 a year. As much as I love it here, sometimes I wonder "why on Earth am I an elected representative for this district?" I represent it at state committee meetings, but I don't, as people often say when discussing diversity, "look like the district." At all.
I won my seat through a write-in campaign last year after realizing that no one else was even on the ballot for the slot. I only received about 200 votes, and virtually all of those were in five divisions (precincts) near my home. It is not as though I won through some sort of overwhelming popular mandate. Even had I been on the ballot, and as such received maybe twenty thousand votes, it is not as though most of the people in the district would have even known me. Even though it is one of the most Democratic areas in the entire country, with Democrats typically receiving about 90-92% of the vote in general elections, you won't find a more low-information election than campaigns for Pennsylvania Democratic committee in the Philadelphia portion of the 8th senatorial district. As demonstrated from the empty slots on the ballot, this is a race no one cares about, no one spends money on, and virtually no one campaigns for in any way, shape or form. To be absolutely truthful, the fact that this is a low information election is why I am in office.
Here is another bit of honesty. When I am at state committee meetings, or engaged in work related to the state committee, I actually feel like I am representing the progressive netroots (or, at least, the progressive reform movement in Philadelphia) rather than the Philadelphia portion of the 8th senatorial district. This probably isn't a good thing. I think my blog posts on MyDD generated about four votes for my campaign: the rest were achieved simply by canvassing friends and neighbors. It also probably does not help the residents of my district, since low-income, urban minorities are underrepresented in virtually major institution in the United States. However, I arrived at political maturity, if I may call it such, through the progressive netroots. It is a political scene with which I am intimately familiar, and which I am often asked to represent. It is my political logos, and it forms the dominant portion of the perspective I bring to almost any political table.
I bring this all up because it was swirling around in my head both during recent discussions on diversity and the blogosphere here on MyDD, and during the recent discussions that have arisen about race and the Philadelphia mayoral election (see here
, and here
for some background info on the recent events in Philly). Sometimes, I feel as though when the former subject comes up, people talk to me and give me advice as though I am some sort of alien from another planet who needs to understand that something called "race" is a factor in earthling politics and culture. I don't mean that in the sense that I am an expert on the subject (I most definitely am not) simply because of where I live and where I am an elected party official. Rather, I mean it in the sense that I feel often times when this subject is discussed among progressives, a few well-worn, abstract axioms and terms are thrown around that get a lot more complicated when moving from theory to application.
For example, had I not run for, and won, my write-in campaign (which was, by the way, the first ever successful write-in campaign for state committee in Philadelphia), as chair of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, Congressman Bob Brady who would simply appointed someone to fill the slot after the election. In all likelihood, he would have appointed an African-American progressive to do so. After all, even though he is the "boss" of the remaining, hollowed-out shell of the Philadelphia machine, he really is a liberal. I think he might even have recently joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In fact, until Steve Cohen took over for Harold Ford in Tennessee, Brady was the only white congressman representing a majority-minority district in the entire country. As such, it should come as no surprise to anyone that he would have appointed, in good liberal fashion, someone who "looks like the district." This situation is further complicated in that I actually personally convinced about forty people to write-in my name, roughly half of whom were African-American, by telling them that if they did not vote for me, that the machine would appoint whoever it wanted. My basic pitch was a series of variations on the following line: "the machine has abandoned you, so don't let them represent you." It worked, too. However, while the machine did abandon the district by leaving five out of six ballot slots blank, by many principles of diversity that progressives--including myself--hold, whoever the machine appointed probably would have done a better job of "representing" the district than I do.
At the end of this post, I don't have any clear, tight conclusions. This isn't a topic that facilitates easy answers. I should note that even though I sometimes imagine that other people could do a better job representing my district, I don't actually feel the least bit bad about holding my state committee seat. On the contrary, earning my seat via an original six-day campaign, joining in the silent revolution, representing the neighborhood I love, and taking further ownership over the Democratic Party I fight for makes me quite proud. I guess I just wanted to share how I think about topics related to diversity from time to time. Translating ad hoc grassroots activism--which is still a pretty good way to describe the progressive, political blogosphere--into actual political results that match up with perfectly progressive principles isn't the easiest thing in the world. And that goes for a lot of issues besides just diversity. We have virtually no resources at our disposal, and we are making this all up as we go along. Even though many of us "A-list" and "big box" bloggers are often viewed as institutional forces unto ourselves, I hope that is something people remember as we slog forward.