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Street Money And The Philly Machine

PHILADELPHIA, PA--Maybe it was a good thing for Obama that all those ordinarily late-in-the-day Democrats turned out early: It started raining here at about noon, a light drizzle, but not the sunny day that was initially forecast.

Traditionally, a machine-politics city like this one has ways of dealing with the impact of rain on turnout: "Knock and drag" crews who get dispatched to the homes of folks who haven't shown up yet. Ordinarily, those crews would get paid out of what is known locally as "street money," the tawdry term for the--only occasionally tawdry--cash the party puts out to pay door-knockers and print up sample ballots. But Barack Obama's campaign this year put out word that it would not be shelling out, a break with tradition. A handful of local pols pooled resources to come up with the cash, but it's not the payday many expected. Reactions to that are a decent way to measure the racial divisions within the city's polarized Democrats. In heavily African American districts, the party operatives say it doesn't matter and their work is all about the community. The story is different even for pro-Obama officials in white ethnic areas. Outside the La Casa Del Pazzi Social Club ("Members Only") in South Philadelphia, committeeman Nick Schmanek tells me he got $125 to divide between three workers--$50 less than Kerry provided. "That's just gas to get people to the polls," Schmanek says.

Obama can't say he's hurting as a result. His team has its own unpaid squad, and they're out in far greater numbers than the paid guys usually are. It's hard to find a block without a pair of bouncy volunteers proferring light-blue paperwork. Schmanek says the street money in such a case would mainly go for state legislative candidates, anyway.

--Michael Schaffer