Buying Philly Votes

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A must-read story today from Peter Nichols at the L.A. Times about Obama refusing to engage in the local buy-a-vote racket in Philadelphia. A juicy segment:

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.

Flush with payments from well-funded campaigns, the ward leaders and Democratic Party bosses typically spread out the cash in the days before the election, handing $10, $20 and $50 bills to the foot soldiers and loyalists who make up the party’s workforce.

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.

There were similar rumors in Iowa of an east side Des Moines Italian machine that wanted $100,000, though his refusal to pay there certainly didn’t seem to do him any damage. While Obama needs every vote he can get in Pennsylvania, it makes sense that he’d turn away from such a system: it would pretty much go against everything he’s been saying and could ultimately do more damage to the campaign than help.