The Philly Cash Flash?

Democrats in Philadelphia have a tradition in elections called street money.  Candidates who want to get out the vote give cash to ward bosses, who then distribute the cash — well, most of it, anyway — to foot soldiers in the days before the election, paying them to bring people to the polls.  This system goes back decades or more; John Kennedy and John Kerry both paid the machine bosses.

Barack Obama, however, does not pay poll workers anywhere, and says he won’t do it in Philadelphia.  That may give an opening to Hillary Clinton in the one area Obama needs to win big in eleven days:

Fourteen months into a campaign that has the feel of a movement, Sen. Barack Obama has collided with the gritty political traditions of Philadelphia, where ward bosses love their candidates, but also expect them to pay up.

The dispute centers on the dispensing of “street money,” a long-standing Philadelphia ritual in which candidates deliver cash to the city’s Democratic operatives in return for getting out the vote. …

It is all legal — but Obama’s people are telling the local bosses he won’t pay.

That sets up a culture clash, pitting a candidate who promises to transform American politics against the realities of a local political system important to his presidential hopes. Pennsylvania holds its primary April 22.

Obama’s posture confounds neighborhood political leaders sympathetic to his cause. They caution that if the senator from Illinois withholds money that gubernatorial, mayoral and presidential candidates have willingly paid out for decades, there could be defections to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. And the Clinton campaign, in contrast, will oblige in forking over the money, these ward leaders predict.

This could turn into a fiasco for Obama.  The demographics in Philadelphia are as favorable as any he will see in Pennsylvania.  The city has a heavy African-American presence, and Obama counts on a lopsided victory in Philly to win in the primary as well as to carry the state in a general election, which right now appears to tip in McCain’s favor.  If he alienates his constituency with a failure to play the corrupt Democratic game, he may still win the nomination but lose the general election in November.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, some of these ward bosses see this in racial terms, and not to Obama’s benefit.  They see Obama spending millions of dollars on advertising: television, radio, and the Internet.  As state Rep. Dwight Evans puts it, the money has gone to white people.  Why won’t Obama give street money to the African-Americans who are doing the ground work for his campaign in Philadelphia?  One ward boss says that a lot of poor people live in his neighborhood, and he’s not about to ask them to work for free while the campaign spends that kind of money elsewhere.

The Hillary Clinton campaign will almost certainly pony up the cash.  The bill is expected to reach between $400K – $500K in street money, and if Hillary can make significant inroads in Philadelphia, it will be worth the price.  Even if she doesn’t win the city, a close race there will make the overall state contest a landslide — which she desperately needs at the moment.  If she pulls that off, she can continue to make her argument that Obama has lost momentum coming into the convention.

Let’s be clear: street money is nothing more than a payoff racket.  If the Democratic candidates want to hire GOTV street soldiers,  they should do so directly, not send bagmen to ward bosses.  Obama has the high ground here, but it will likely cost him.