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Philly’s Home Rule Charter is Good for Democracy

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Written by Tabatha Abu El-Haj, JD, PhD, associate professor in Drexel University’s Kline School of Law. Abu El-Haj is a First Amendment scholar and writes about American Democracy. 

Each era of American politics has its distinct challenges. Today, our political parties are not corrupt – they are out of touch with the people they represent. Candidates and parties are overly solicitous to unrepresentative wealthy donors and activists, and this has impacted not only the focus of policymaking from Harrisburg to Washington, DC. – but also the scale and depth of political participation. This is why Question No. 2 deserves your attention in the upcoming June primary.

A “yes” vote for Question No. 2 will permit middle-class municipal workers—who are more representative and who have extensive commitments and ties to the city and its residents—to engage in grassroots political organizing and campaigning. This is an important step toward grounding political parties and elected officials in the experiences of everyday Philadelphians.

Philadelphia’s restrictions on the partisan activities of appointed officials and employees are among the most stringent in the country. Unlike most major cities, city workers are prohibited from distributing official campaign materials or participating in any get-out-the-vote activities organized by candidates or political parties. New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, by contrast, allow public employees and officials to volunteer directly with any partisan campaigns on their own time so long as they do not use city resources or appear in municipal uniforms.

When Philadelphia decided to impose these severe restrictions on the political activities of its municipal employees nearly seventy years ago, the city was struggling to rein in corruption associated with strong party machines. Today, the civil service system for city employment is well-established. While corruption scandals do pop up now and then, the norm of merit-based selection over nepotism for government employment is entrenched.

And still, Philadelphia’s Charter limits its nearly 30,000 employees to participate politically. By banning all but the most individualized forms of politics (individual expressions of opinion and isolated campaign donations), the Home Rule Charter effectively channels meaningful political activity outside the official party and campaigns in ways that enhance the partisan polarization that is destroying our democracy. This is because the City’s workers are permitted to undertake similar grassroots actions sponsored by outside groups and unions.

While this distinction may seem trivial to those focused on the bottom line, it affects how our political parties function. Hollowed out of volunteers and members, our political parties have become excessively attentive to ideologically extreme and socioeconomically unrepresentative activists and donors. The result is candidates who are often too frequently disconnected from the experiences of everyday Philadelphians. Easing existing restrictions to permit municipal workers to engage in face-to-face politics, volunteering and getting-out-the-vote is an important step toward rebalancing political influence.

City workers bring several things to the table. Municipal workers are likely to have broader and more representative social networks along axes of race, socioeconomic status, and age. They understand how government works, and they are less likely to be hyper-partisan. They thus promise to be an important source of information in an era of disinformation and an important link in strengthening the ties of candidates and political parties to their constituents’ life experiences.

It also should be said that Philadelphia’s restrictions are no longer constitutionally defensible. The landscape of First Amendment doctrine has significantly changed since similar restrictions on government employees were upheld in the courts in the 1970s. Given how stringent they are, the City’s current regulations are vulnerable to a First Amendment challenge, and a court-imposed reform would likely to be much blunter.

The Amendment proposed in Question 2 is carefully tailored to address the risks of corruption’s return. The proposed repeal plays it safe.  Appointed officials and employees would be permitted to volunteer in non-managerial roles in support of state-wide and national candidate outside of work time and without using City resources. But existing rules for political participation in campaigns for City offices or Philadelphia-based state offices would be maintained. Moreover, employees whose work relates to law-enforcement, City Commissioners, and the Board of Ethics will remain subject to the stricter restrictions.

City employees should be allowed to participate in peer-to-peer, get-out-the-vote activities organized or sponsored by a candidate or political party, rather than paying for outsiders to do that work. A vote in favor of Ballot Question No. 2 on Tuesday, June 2 is a vote to counterbalance the influence of donors—small and big—and to ground political parties and elected officials in the experiences of everyday Americans.

Media interested in speaking with Abu El-Haj can contact Emily Storz, senior news manager at els332@drexel.edu or 215-895-2705.

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