Philadelphia's old-style political machine

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WHEN Philadelphia ward leaders realized the contest for the Democratic nomination for president would extend through the Pennsylvania primary, it set their salivary glands running. It meant they would have an opportunity to extract street money from the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And street money is the manna of Philadelphia ward politics.

Street money is the name for cash given to party committeemen and women who hand out literature and drum up the vote on primary and election days. It comes from the candidates and is dispensed to the party’s 69 ward leaders who, in turn, dole it out to the city’s more than 3,000 committeemen. In Philadelphia, it is a mandatory fee for most Democratic candidates.

Though legal, it has also become a subject for mandatory derision — at least for the Democratic campaigns and those out-of-state political commentators who have been camped out here for the last month. For them, handing out street money, an old political practice that is rarely used elsewhere, is archaic, unsavory or worse....

Philadelphia is a living museum of American history, where the political machine, though it wheezes and gasps, still functions much as it did 100 years ago. Then, a political campaign was a labor-intensive activity. It took legions to spread the good word about candidates, round up voters to go to the polls and assist in their deliberations by handing out sample ballots containing the names of candidates blessed by the party.

Now that patronage is all but gone, how does a party keep those legions on the job 12 to 14 hours come voting day? The answer, according to ward leaders, is street money.

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