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Local Electricity Trumps Star Power in Philly

Yesterday, in a cliché-ridden piece that our colleague John Podhoretz referred to on Facebook as the worst column he had ever read, the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman informed the world that “local is over.” What does that mean? According to Friedman, it has to do with technology and a dustup in an elevator between celebrities. Using the same incoherent reasoning, Friedman also claims that “average is over” because of the advances of technology and that “later is over” because of something to do with global warming. Such nonsense merits no response, but it’s worth pointing out that anyone who doubted the importance of local should have spent Tuesday night in the Philadelphia area. There, a veteran politician with high name recognition, lots of money, and celebrity political endorsements got taken apart in a Democratic congressional primary by a youngster with less money and no love from national power brokers.

The veteran politician in question was Marjorie Margolies, who is best known these days for being Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law. But 20 years ago she was a member of Congress from the Philly suburbs of Montgomery County who famously cast the deciding vote to pass President Bill Clinton’s budget. She was then swept away in the 1994 Republican landslide. The seat was quickly won back by the Democrats in 1996 and held ever since, most recently by Allyson Schwartz, who was clobbered in her attempt to win the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania governor. But with Schwartz leaving the House, Margolies decided to mount a comeback and with Bill and Hillary Clinton’s help, she figured to have an easy time winning the nomination for Pennsylvania’s 13th district. But instead, Margolies was badly beaten by State Representative Brendan Boyle, a 37-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia with the face of a choirboy and the backing of some of Philadelphia’s most powerful unions.

Margolies’s loss is being interpreted in some quarters as also being a defeat for the Clintons, especially since she was the first person to be endorsed by Hillary in this election cycle. That was the conceit of a Josh Kraushaar piece published yesterday in National Journal under the headline “The Clinton Magic Fades in Philadelphia.” While the story wasn’t as bad as the headline, that take on the Margolies loss just doesn’t jive with reality. Why? Because, contrary to Tom Friedman’s column, in politics, local is very much not over.

As anyone who has covered Philadelphia (as I did for a decade) can tell you, it is a city and region whose political culture is a throwback to what was commonplace in American urban areas a half century ago. While unions and political machines are pretty much passé just about everywhere else, they are still strong in the City of Brotherly Love. While Tammany Hall went the way of all flesh back in the 1960s, the Democratic vote-gathering operation in Philly is still formidable and is built on the same bedrock of patronage and organized labor upon which the party’s governing coalitions in most cities depended.

So while Margolies had Clinton star power, Boyle had a far more important source of local electricity, John J. Dougherty, the tough-as-nails head of the Electricians Union known as “Johnny Doc” who wields more power in the city than even the former president and the woman that aspires to return to the White House in 2017. With the 13th split between suburban Montgomery County and Northeast Philly (whose working class inhabitants make it roughly analogous to New York City’s borough of Queens), Margolies found herself competing with two other liberal suburbanites while Boyle had the city portion of the district pretty much to himself. Boyle was outspent by Margolies and the other candidates and was subjected to a vigorous assault from feminist groups like Emily’s List that blasted him for his vote in the state legislature for more scrutiny on abortion clinics after the Kermit Gosnell murder case.

But the moral of the story is that even a candidate who is portrayed as a Democratic fellow-traveler in the so-called Republican “war on women” and who has the most popular Democrats in the country campaigning for his opponent can win a primary in a deep-blue region if he has the cash and the ground troops of a formidable turnout machine to back him. If anyone’s magic should be questioned in the wake of this primary, it is the pro-abortion lobby since it gambled its reputation on trashing Boyle despite the fact that he is actually, like most Democrats, a backer of abortion rights even if, like most Americans, he thinks abortion clinics should be more closely regulated.

It’s true that Margolies’s loss doesn’t enhance the Clintons’ prestige, but no one should question their magical hold on the affection of Democrats. If Hillary runs, she will sweep the 13th district in any presidential primary and the general election. However, in most places in the country, local power will always beat national interests, and that is especially true in Philadelphia. Local is not only not over, it remains the trump card in any political race and any politician or pundit who forgets that should not be taken seriously.

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