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Running for Judge: A Most Dangerous Woman

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By Tom Ferrick Jr. 

You'd never know it from talking to her, but Diane Thompson is a dangerous woman. This year, Thompson challenged the collective might of Philadelphia's Democratic party organization and beat it: hands down and with ease.  In January, she will be sworn in as a Common Pleas Court judge.

    The 61-year-old wife and mother of two looks and sounds more like a kindly school teacher, with good reason.  She taught in public schools for 15 years before she went to Temple and got her law degree.

    Thompson, a resident of the city's Oak Lane section, won one of the seven Common Pleas seats filled in May's Democratic primary. (In uber-Democratic Philadelphia winning the primary is tantamount to election.)

   She did it despite the fact that she was not one of the party's endorsed candidates.  She did it without handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars to ward organizations, as other endorsed and insurgent candidates have done.

   She did it without hiring consultants who claim to be experts at reaching out to ward organizations. And she did it by spending a pittance on media, most of it on brochures.

    In sum, she did it in a way that shows how easy it can be to beat the party organization - at its own game, in an election it was determined to control.

    That is why Diane Thompson is a dangerous woman.  She makes the party organization look weak, ineffectual and irrelevant.

     And if that is the case, why should judicial candidates - why should any candidate? - spend the money it takes to feed the party organization in any given election? In this year's primary, 31 of the candidates running for 11 seats on Common Pleas and Municipal Court shelled out $1.4 million for street money, consultants and donations to ward organizations.

     Thompson,  the 32nd candidate, spent a total of $21,200.  Why didn't she budget more? "You can't have a budget if you don't have money," Thompson replied.

 

Ward leader lock down

   In the May primary. Thompson ran third among all the candidates for Common Pleas, getting a total of 30,622 votes - five thousand votes higher than two party-endorsed candidates who lost.

   She won despite the campaign by Democratic Chairman, U.S. Rep, Bob Brady, to do a lock-down of ward leaders who, in the past, had strayed from supporting party-backed candidates.  Brady lobbied hard to get all the Democratic ward leaders to support the party ticket - and to a large degree he succeeded.Thumbnail image for Diane Thompson.jpg

    In previous years, unendorsed candidates were able to peel off some wards, mostly by writing large checks for street money.  It's been happening since the 1980's but it reached a peak in 2007 when half the endorsed judicial ticket lost to insurgent candidates.

    That was an embarrassment for Brady and led to his effort to stop defections this year. To a large degree, he succeeded. A Metropolis analysis of spending showed the wards did not take money from unendorsed candidates.  In fact, a number of them refused to even let unendorsed candidates speak at ward meetings. 

   Still, three unendorsed candidates won: Thompson and Adam Beloff for Common Pleas and Dawn Segal, who ran for Municipal Court.

    Beloff had the top ballot position among the 22 Common Pleas candidates and spent close to $200,000 in his campaign. Segal also had first ballot position among the 10 Municipal Court candidates and spent $222,000.

 

It took luck

     How did Thompson do it?  These are the elements that went into her victory:

     Luck: Since voters don't have a clue who most judicial candidates are, ballot position counts for a lot.  Getting the No. 1 spot often guarantees victory, whether you are endorsed or not.  Beloff drew the No. 1 in the lottery held for position in the ballot lottery this year. Thompson drew No. 2 - but she was the first woman's name on the ballot. Again, in the absence of any knowledge about candidates, voters will let their tribal side take over - women will tend to vote for women, Irish voters will vote for candidates with Irish-sounding names, Italians for Italians, etc.

    A Good Name: The best is to have a well-known name - witness Judges Rizzo, Beloff and Palumbo.  Next best is to have a name that sounds familiar. A plain-vanilla name like Diane Thompson works well.  "I have a friend who said his mother-in-law's name was the same as mine," Thompson recalled. "She was so excited and she put it (a Thompson placard) on the lawn."

    Key Endorsements: Endorsements don't matter much in high-visibility races, but they do count in no-visibility races like a judge in a big city where having someone vouch for you can be a big help. In Thompson's case, she was rated "recommended" by the Philadelphia Bar Association and won the endorsement of The Inquirer's editorial board.  That counts for something in Center City and other liberal wards where voter turnout tends to be higher. Advantage to Thompson.

   Thompson also was backed by the AFL_CIO, the teachers union and District Council 47, which represents city government's white-collar workers - again, a cadre of voters more likely to vote in primaries.

   Political Smarts: Thompson is not a neophyte to politics. She served as Ward Chair of the 61st Ward (though it did not support her). She was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008. She ran for Municipal Court in 2007 and narrowly lost. Blocked from getting support of entire wards, Thompson went retail: she targeted individual committee people she knew throughout the city and handed out $6,000 in street money on Election Day.  She also got on the sample ballots of two candidates for District Attorney -- for a fee.  "We used our resources carefully," Thompson said. "We paid people to work the polls and we also had volunteers. Even if it is $50 for the day, it is money in their pocket and I didn't have to go through the ward leaders."

     Low-turnout: There are 880,000 registered Democrats in Philadelphia. In the May primary Robert Coleman, the top vote-getter among the judicial candidates, got 45,668 votes. In other words, at most only 5 percent of the city's eligible Democrats bothered to vote for a judicial candidate.  This allows a candidate to build a victory through careful targeting of resources and votes. It's a big city, but not if all you need to win is 30,000 to 40,000 votes.  Thompson said the low turnout helped her.  "The people who voted cared.  They were informed and they cared. They came out to vote because they were smart voters.Super voters."

 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.      

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