‘It’s amateur hour’: Democrats panic about state of the Pennsylvania party

PHILADELPHIA — In anticipation of a major gathering of rural activists a few weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party printed out thousands of cards reminding voters to “Vote at Polls: Election Day Tuesday November 8.”

There was just one small problem: Election Day is Nov. 7.

Pictures of the mess-up were shared among Democratic insiders around Pennsylvania. It was, to many of them, the latest sign of a state party in chaos.

With a little more than a year to go until the 2024 election, the state Democratic Party is reeling from financial problems and a lack of trust across the party, according to interviews with 20 Democratic officials and operatives throughout Pennsylvania. They include elected officials, county chairs, state committee members, former state party employees and strategists.

“It’s amateur hour,” said a state committee member who, like other Democrats, was granted anonymity to speak frankly about a sensitive matter. “It’s a f—ing disaster,” said a former state party staffer.

The state party underwent a round of layoffs in July, which have not been reported until now. One of its political action committees only had $7,500 in the bank as of early June, according to its most recent campaign finance filings. And questions are mounting among Democrats in the state about the competency of its leadership, including state party chair Sharif Street.

The prevailing fear is that the party will not be in the strongest shape possible ahead of the presidential election and a key Senate race next year. A state Supreme Court contest, where Democrats are making abortion front and center, is on the ballot this November.

“It’s concerning that the state party is laying people off as we’re heading into a really important Supreme Court race, which then leads into the presidential year,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic consultant. “They’re going to have to figure out a path forward to build their own fundraising operation, and it sounds like there’s a lot of building to be done right now.”

A senior Pennsylvania Democratic elected official went further: “Pennsylvania is the single biggest battleground state in the country in the presidential election, and we have a total incompetent, lazy guy who has no clue what he’s doing running the state party.”

In an interview, Street adamantly dismissed concerns that the committee is facing any financial challenges. He said the state party was awarded a $700,000 grant earlier this year by the self-described “pro-democracy” group democracyFIRST, which has helped fund the hiring of 20 organizers. He also said that he has already received checks for an upcoming fundraiser honoring former Gov. Ed Rendell.

And, he pointed out, the state party’s federal PAC had $200,000 on hand as of its latest filing.

As for the layoffs, which included the co-director of the coordinated campaign for the judicial election and a political aide in western Pennsylvania, Street said he had to carry them out in response to worries from national donors. He said they told him that the staff overhead was too high, a result of him keeping on his employees after the 2022 midterms when Democrats swept races throughout the state.

“I really should have done some of that trimming back last December,” he said. “But they were people who had won so many elections. We have done things no other party did. And I couldn’t look at any of them in the face and say I wanted to let them go.”

But the highest levels of the Democratic Party have expressed anxiety about the state committee. People who have talked to Biden officials have come away with the impression that they are concerned about it, according to three people familiar with those conversations.

The state party has also encountered disagreements with the Biden Victory Fund, a joint-fundraising committee between the Biden campaign, Democratic National Committee and state committees, as well as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee over basic contracts that are essential to raise money and coordinate. In the end, those contracts were executed, but the process took too long in the estimation of national officials and left them frustrated.

Asked for comment, DNC spokesperson Rhyan Lake noted the critical nature of the state and the “sustained, historic investments” the DNC has made in the state party. “As we gear up for the presidential election, the DNC and Biden for President will continue investing heavily in the Keystone State and organizing Pennsylvania voters to reelect President Biden and Vice President Harris,” Lake added.

Democrats said the slow walking with national officials wasn’t the only time that the state party has dragged its feet in recent months. Last year, Democratic strategists and candidates complained that it took several days or even more than a week to get the state party to sign off on campaign mail, hindering their ability to respond quickly to events.

Joe Corrigan, a Pennsylvania Democratic strategist, said that he isn’t confident that the party will have the staff it needs to approve mail in time for 40-plus candidates up and down the ticket next year: “I don’t see anyone that can handle the level of speed and complexity and attention to detail needed to ensure that paid communications are put in front of voters in a timely way to voters.”

Democrats also said they received an invitation for the party’s upcoming Independence Dinner in September, a major fundraiser where Rendell is being honored, and the event’s QR code to purchase tickets was broken. Other invites with a working code have been sent since then.

Democrats complain that there have been other missed opportunities in fundraising. They said they have seen fewer fundraising emails this year from the state party after it parted ways with its digital fundraising firm, SB Digital.

Street said he stopped working with SB Digital because the state party wasn’t getting much return for its investment. He said that has not had much of an impact on the state party because it has never relied much on small-dollar fundraising, though he does plan to bring on a digital fundraising firm again in 2024. SB Digital did not respond to a request for comment.

Street said he has not received any complaints about the September fundraiser’s QR code. He acknowledged that it previously took too long for the state party to approve candidates’ mail pieces but said that the party had a “come-to-Jesus moment” last summer and since reduced its turnaround time to under 24 hours. As for the cards with the incorrect date printed on them, he said they were not distributed to voters after Democrats noticed the error and that other cards with the accurate date were handed out at the event.

Street admitted that the state party has had disagreements with national Democratic officials and faced skepticism in general coming from Democrats in Washington, D.C. But he argued that was a byproduct of him taking a different approach to leading the party. As an example, Street said he has prioritized hiring organizers who are from Pennsylvania, which has led to clashes with some national Democrats.

“We’ve done things a little differently, and I know that may have ruffled some feathers with sort of the national chatterbox class,” he said. “They weren’t exactly excited about my candidacy for chair for a lot of reasons.”

But, he argued, his strategy of heading the party was proven successful last year when Democrats won the governor’s race and Senate contest in addition to flipping the state House. “Politics is like sports,” he said. “We had a good record last year. We’ve been winning.”

Street, who is a state senator, has his allies. Ryan Boyer, leader of Philadelphia’s powerful building trades and head of the city’s Laborers District Council, said his union has cut a check to the state party for the upcoming Independence Dinner fundraiser. “I have the utmost respect for Sen. Street, and I believe that he will steer the party in the right direction,” he said.

But there is clear distrust toward Street among some Democrats in the state. And it is partly a reflection of lingering tensions after last year’s messy race for state chair. Gov. Josh Shapiro, the then-gubernatorial nominee, backed another candidate to manage the party. Street said that afterward, he worked closely publicly and privately with Shapiro during the campaign.

But during the general election, members of Shapiro’s team briefly toyed with the idea of setting up a separate political entity to overcome issues within the state party, according to people familiar with the discussions. They never considered it seriously, those people stressed, and it ultimately did not happen.

But it’s not just operational and organizational missteps that have some Pennsylvania Democrats upset with Street. Many in the party are still fuming over his defense of a congressional map in 2021 that would have benefited him, at the expense of other Democrats, if he had run for Congress. (He ultimately decided against a campaign.)

“It’s unsettling that Sen. Street would be entrusted to lead the state party after supporting a map as bad for Democrats as the ‘Street congressional map,’” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist.

Street said it was a draft map that he never formally introduced, and if approved it would have been a majority Democratic map that also added a majority-minority district to the state.

Not every Democrat in the state is eager to talk about the problems that the party is confronting. But the tension is visible in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Shapiro, for example, is headlining the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s September convention in person on the same day that Pennsylvania’s Independence Dinner fundraiser will take place. The governor will make remarks at the Pennsylvania event via video.

Though Democrats are worried about the state party, and especially what it could mean for the Supreme Court race this year, many said they think it can be turned around.

“It’s concerning, but at the same time, I’m going to keep it in perspective,” said Mikus. “It’s August and there’s plenty of time to right the ship.”

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