Neighborhood Networks: My TakeSaturday, both Ben and I attended the organizing conference of the Neighborhood Networks. This is my take, I hope soon followed by a post from Ben on what he thought.
Because I have a standing commitment early in the mornings with the Schuylkill river, I arrived at the NN conference about an hour late. But, as I came slinking into the lecture hall with a big cup of coffee around 10:30, I was immediately struck by the pure numbers that showed up. I think the organizers had about 75 pre-registrations. By the time the morning was over, about 200 people showed up, representing 33 of the City’s 66 wards- a pretty impressive number. It is a number that speaks to the amount of people who want change in City Hall. 200 committed activists is a big, big number.
As would be expected, there were some large concentrations in where participants live. The biggest groupings were from Mt. Airy and Center City, with smaller clusters from West Philly and near South Philly. Unfortunately, as was also expected, the group was largely white; my estimate is about 85%. In a city as diverse as Philly, that is a blunt reality that must be dealt with.
Marc Stier, the only early speaker that I heard, was pretty on the ball, talking about the possibilities of the NN, and the effect that it can have on the Democratic Party. An example, although he didn’t give it, was the Seth Williams race. Could 200 volunteers, who had canvassed their neighborhoods, each have brought out 60 voters? If so, you are talking the difference between a win and a loss.
After the early speakers, participants broke out into neighborhood specific groups. That alone proved valuable to me, as I met those who lived in my immediate neighborhood who felt the same drive for change. And, even though I have lived in this particular neighborhood for the past 15 months, it certainly helped to expand my horizons beyond my rower buddies. In fact, already today I have seen one of the people from the group. He asked me what I thought, and my answer was “potential.”
Potential. That is what really strikes me about Neighborhood Networks. There is a groundswell amongst progressives that they want to develop a cohesive structure that can put progressive candidates into office. But, as the cliché goes, getting liberals to decide on how to do that (or what the structure of the group will look like, how membership will work, what an endorsement process will be) is like herding cats. So, in a way, the power potential of the group will only be realized if its steering committee and elected ward representatives can through sheer force of will come up with a structure that enough people buy into.
The keynote speaker was Tom Hughes, from Democracy from America, and he was followed by Joe Hoeffel, Chuck Pennacchio, and Angel Ortiz. All were fine, but only Ortiz really seemed to “get it,” probably because as the only native Philadelphian of that group, and as the one who has seen the machine up close, he understands the environment with which we deal with.
There is no question that if successful, NN will provide a challenge to established power structure. As I have discussed earlier, there is a real opportunity for progressives in 2007. The City machine is asleep at the wheel, and presiding over an ineffective method of reaching voters. If candidates can tap into the deep sense that people from all over Philadelphia feel for a real change, for a City Hall that is accountable, free of corruption, and answers to voters, not to party bosses, they will win. If not, more of the same.
At this point, the organizers of NN now have the hard work ahead of them: harnessing the need for change, and the desire for progressives to stand up for what they believe in, all into a cohesive organization. Will it succeed? No clue. But, again, the word that comes to mind: potential.