Reform candidate Anne Dicker, who wants to represent the river wards in Harrisburg, may not win Tuesday's primary, but the progressive movement she represents is clearly gaining momentum.
The neighborhoods that border the Delaware River boast some of the city's best-known landmarks-from venerable Independence Hall to the Mummers' fabled Two Street clubhouses.
This election season the river wards can claim something else unique to Philadelphia: an election with three qualified candidates.
With only days till the May 16 Democratic primary, the 175th District-a political tract that runs from rich to poor, old to young, upscale to decaying-has an open seat up for grabs. The district claims about 60,000 residents, but because it's now ground zero in a battle over two very big issues-waterfront development and casinos-what happens there could impact the entire city.
Needless to say, there's big money and big names.
The candidates-Terry Graboyes, Mike O'Brien and Anne Dicker-all have experience and a solid base of support, and all three hold similar political positions. They are pro-choice and favor "smart growth." And they advocate property tax reform.
As is often the case in this city, the contenders are distinguished not by their politics, but by their political ties. The demographics in the river wards are definitely shifting. Longtime residents are moving out, and young professionals from outside the city are taking their place. These neighborhoods are rapidly filling with homeowners who are college-educated and upwardly mobile.
"I'd bet a large percentage of residents in this district have lived here less than six or seven years," says political consultant and one-time state House candidate Larry Ceisler. "They don't care who the Democratic leadership is supporting."
Could the party machine be losing relevance?
Reform candidate Anne Dicker, a former Howard Dean supporter, hopes so. She may not pull off a win Tuesday, but the progressive movement she represents is clearly gaining momentum.
"The fact that Anne has traction shows that hard work pays off and the river wards are changing," says Ceisler.
Dicker's tongue-in-cheek campaign slogan boasts that she's the only "FBI-free" candidate in the race. She claims no ties to the party structure, as evidenced by the fact that she's raised just $15,000 in small donations. Dicker, 33, is instead relying on her message and a cadre of volunteers to win.
After campaigning for Dean in 2003, Dicker ultimately quit corporate life and co-founded a grassroots organization, Philly for Change, that led the fight to kill pay raises in Harrisburg.
With neighborhoods like Queen Village, Northern Liberties and Fishtown increasingly skewing younger and more monied, Dicker could do surprisingly well.
"My long-term vision is changing the culture of Harrisburg and really representing these neighborhoods," she says. "Because I'm running with no strings attached, I can take the spirit of the river wards to Harrisburg."
By contrast, 53-year-old Terry Graboyes owns a multimillion-dollar window company and is backed by Vince Fumo, the state senator and well-known kingmaker.
Graboyes has been running TV ads for six weeks, thanks to nearly $200,000 in checks signed by the glaziers, carpenters and other building trades unions.
Graboyes, who lives in Society Hill, sees no reason to stop bidding on contracts in the 175th District. In stump speeches, she highlights her two-year stint as a legislative aide in the state welfare department in the mid-'70s. But the Harrisburg she knew back then had a part-time legislature and a Democratic majority. Still, pols say Graboyes deserves credit for ushering women and people of color into the building trades, and for her genuine desire to improve city life.
When Fumo backs a candidate, electricians union boss John Dougherty typically supports the opposition. In this case Dougherty is sponsoring Mike O'Brien, who served for 10 years as chief of staff to the retiring district Rep. Marie Lederer.