We were standing on the corner in front of Rice’s Barbershop. There were about six of us between the ages of 18 and 21, African American males who had grown up together in the same West Philadelphia neighborhood. A black Chevy slowly approached and someone from inside the car rolled down the window leaned out the passenger side and shouted, “The Republicans are paying $75, go to the Overbrook High gym; the Republicans are paying $75!”
A few weeks ago I saw a headline in the Oakland Tribune (April 12, 2008), “’Street money’ dispute threatens Obama,” and also an article in the New York Times, “Cash and Carry the City” (April 22, 2008). The articles were about the dispensing of “street money,” a long standing Philadelphia ritual in which candidates deliver cash to foot soldiers and loyalist, who make up the Democratic party’s workforce, for getting out the vote.
When I was a teenager Rice’s Barbershop was our local polling place, and my first foray into politics was as a foot soldier for the neighborhood ward boss. Our task included putting up signs, taking down opponent’s signs, escorting senior citizens, handing out literature and greeting people in front of polling places. One of our favorite assignments was riding around slowly through the streets on Election Day talking through a loud speaker or megaphone, “Vote for so and so,” or “Vote yes on no!” In our neighborhood we were used to people coming through yelling or sing-songing about whatever they were promoting. There was the Watermelon Man – “I got red ripe, red ripe watermelon.” The fruit vendor – “We got freestone, freestone peaches.” And people from the blind center selling their handmade products – “Broom man, broom man, we got brooms we got baskets!” I can’t imagine this being accepted in Berkeley today as it would probably violate some local ordinance regarding noise pollution or someone complaining that they work nights and need to sleep during the day!
In the Oakland Tribune and Times article it stated that “ward leaders see Obama airing millions of dollars worth of television ads in the city – money that benefits station owners… and people wonder why Obama isn’t sharing the largess with field workers trying to get him elected…hardscrabble neighborhoods across Philadelphia have come to depend on street money as a welcome payday for knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and speaking to voters…People are astute. They know the Obama campaign has raised lots of money.” This is true! There were two events that my friends and I looked forward to every year to make some legal money on the side – snowstorms and elections. Unlike cutting grass in the summer, which is mostly cosmetic, shoveling snow off people’s sidewalks and digging their cars out of snow mounds was a necessity and some hardworking person could easily make $100 a day. However, working on Election Day would pay at least $50 without working hard.
Almost everyone in my old Philly neighborhood was a registered democrat with one notable exception, my father. When I asked him why he said, “The Democrats take my vote for granted while the Republicans take me out to dinner. Besides, in the privacy of the voting booth I’m going to vote my conscience anyway!” He liked getting paid too. I must admit when I first got involved with local elections and political campaigns in Berkeley I wondered what happened to good old political wards with bosses that paid in cash! I kept looking for that familiar brown envelop with money in it or the handshake with a $20 bill in the palm, but no one ever offered me a dime. And on top of that candidates wanted me to give money to them! How backwards I thought.
So going back to the day we were approached to defect to the Republicans, I was sorely tempted to take the $75 over the $50 we were getting paid by the Democrats. Some of my buddies took off immediately, most of us were too young to vote anyhow, but I stayed because this election was different. There was a neighborhood guy running for office, a black man with an Africanized name, which made this a historic event for us. Chaka Fattah won, and is now serving his seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives. With his victory we knew we had political power and a say so in our local community. The Philadelphia political machine is still running strong, and it’s still fueled with cash. Si, Se Puede!