Neighborhood Networks: Our Aims And Goals

by Marc Stier

Neighborhood Networks is a new political organization that aims at liberal political reform. Any time a new organization that talks about reform comes about, established groups get nervous. So I am grateful to the Public Record for giving me an opportunity to set the record straight about Neighborhood Networks.

I should say, to begin with, that Neighborhood Networks is a little "d" democratic organization. Our basic goals and strategy are set by our membership and a steering committee that is mostly elected by our neighborhood / ward committees. I really can't speak for the organization as a whole about our direction because these decisions are yet to be made. What I can do, however, is set forth my own view of what Neighborhood Networks can be and why I have worked hard to help create it.

The Democratic Party does a great job of turning out the vote for our statewide and national candidates. And, as the Public Record has noted, we have elected three members of Congress from Philadelphia who are liberal stalwarts. Why, then, do we need Neighborhood Networks? In my view, for three reasons.

First, there is still more potential for increasing Democratic turnout in Philadelphia. After all, the results in 2004 were not the work of the party alone. Our candidates, MoveOn, and many other independent organizations had important GOTV operations. Neighborhood Networks hopes to provide that kind of support for democratic candidates in non-presidential elections. We can be especially helpful in GOTV efforts for row offices below Senator, where there is often a drop-off of 100,000 votes or more. In this role, we would like to work side by side with the committee people and ward leaders. We won't endorse candidates in the 2006 general election for a while. But I would be very surprised if we did not work with the party to reelect Governor Rendell and to defeat Rick Santorum.

Second, I would like to see our organization work on issues as well as campaigns. In doing so, the model I have in mind is the Pennsylvania Transit Coalition (PTC), with which I worked. The PTC mobilized people in our region to stop drastic service cuts and fare increases. The idea of Neighborhood Networks became initially attractive to me when I realized just how much more the PTC could have done if we had people on the street to encourage citizens to express their views and contact their elected officials.

Right now, NN has embarked on a campaign to raise the minimum wage. And, as the PTC did, we are working in an alliance with community groups, religious organizations, and most importantly, organized labor. Thus we are, in part, a pressure group that lobbies our political officials. In doing so, I expect that our campaigns will work closely with the Democratic elected officials who seek to implement our ideals.

Third, my hope is that our organization will make endorsements in selected primary races for city, state, and national offices. This is the only time we might come into conflict with the party, although I should emphasize that we have no plans to run our people against established committee people and no interest in taking over wards. Having an independent voice in primary elections in addition to that of the city committee and ward leaders is nothing new. Labor unions have been doing this for years. Big fundraisers do it. And, let's face it, the Democratic Party in Philadelphia is hardly a monolith. Ward leaders have been known to go their own way, for reasons good and bad.

The wards and the labor community, and religious groups associated with the party can be seen as about 100 balls that all have to be kept in the air. Our party chair, Congressman Bob Brady, does as good a job as anyone could in keeping them from falling to the ground. Neighborhood Networks aims to be one more of those balls, one that will seek to push our nominees and elected officials in the city and state in a more liberal / progressive direction. We hope to become a big ball, but we will never be the only one. Nor would I think it a good thing if we were. We are Democrats, after all, and what is the point of being a Democrat if you can't have a good intra-party fight before we get together to beat the Republicans?
Why do we need a new liberal / progressive ball? After fifty years in power, the Democratic Party in this city needs to recommit itself to empowering the people of this city to take charge of their communities and city. We have sometimes failed in attaining that goal. We have sometimes tolerated corruption. We have sometimes stood in the way of transparent, responsive government. We have sometimes protected ineffective politicians. And we have sometimes allowed the power of money to trump the power of the people.

We have also not created as innovative and effective government as the citizens of Philadelphia deserve. Our schools are not what they should be. Job growth is slow and, more importantly, we are not providing the young people of this city with the kinds of high wage jobs, with real career ladders, they need. Our transit infrastructure is the envy of many cities in the world but we make too little use of it and we charge too much for the service we have. We have recently seen a great deal of new development in Center City and a few other areas. But, there are too many neighborhoods where our incredible housing stock is being lost, and where crime, filth, and the lack of community based social services make life hard for the young, the old, and everyone in between. In other neighborhoods, gentrification threatens to displace people who, having lived through the bad times, deserve to stay in their homes and live through the good times. We have not led the way in dealing with regional problems or finding regional solutions to the difficulties I have mentioned. And, in almost every area of public policy we continue to suffer from class and racial inequality

Many of these problems were caused by events and people outside the city, in the transformation from an industrial to a post-industrial economy and in Republican administrations in Washington that ignore the problems of our cities. Some, however, are homegrown. And other cities in this country have been responding to these same problems in much more progressive, innovative and effective ways, ways that empower us to improve our communities. Here and there in Philadelphia, we see evidence of how effective new public policy approaches can be. And there are many progressive voices among our elected officials who recognize the need for new initiatives. But they need organized help and support. We aim to provide it. And I believe that, eventually, Neighborhood Networks will work with party and ward leaders throughout the city to make sure that we can be even more proud of the job our party does as we govern Philadelphia for another fifty years.