The Machine: Rolling Jobs Into Votes

MERVYN HARRIS is a machine politician. In many ways he is not unlike the men who maintain Democratic machines elsewhere, but he happens to be a Republican in Delaware County, the right wing bastion situated between Philadelphia and the state of Delaware. The county seat in Media, of F.B.I. fame. The 1971 heist and subsequent publication of secret papers from the one-man bureau office in Media put the town briefly into the national spotlight, for the first time since Carl MacIntyre's radio station there was shut down by the FCC.

They still wonder in Media who took those documents. Many point accusing fingers at students in the nearby colleges of Swarthmore and Haverford. Half-delighted with the area's sudden notoriety, they nevertheless fear that Delaware County may be known as a hotbed of radical activity.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For the last fifty years, the junior executives and upper-blue-collar workers that inhabit Delaware County's suburbs have consistently turned out in impressive numbers for issueless elections to vote straight Republican. Last November, they returned to Congress Lawrence G. Williams, an incredibly incompetent conservative who has drawn fire from most independent voices in the county.

The machine that lines up the votes for both Nixon and Williams is known as the War Board. Its 17 members control all patronage jobs and hand pick each candidate for county office. In return, those who win elections and jobs pay from 3 to 10 per cent of their income to the party. Despite repeated revelations of these practices, voters in Delaware County have never challenged the War Board's power.

Only in 1964 did the machine falter. The county joined LBJ's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Nether Providence, a township just south of Media, did not join the festivities. Goldwater won big there, as did Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972. The machine in Nether Providence clicked, whirred, and continued to hum, smoothly functioning as it is today.


The machinists win elections for God, country, Four More Years, and the War Board. Their supervisor is J. Mervyn Harris the 5 ft. 3 in. politician who is the local boss in Nether Providence.

It was a long frustrating night for J. Mervyn Harris. He had known all along that although Nether Providence needed reapportionment badly, when the ward leaders and township commissioners finally sat down to the grim business of taking from some and giving to others, it would be brutal. He had dreaded the meeting for days, and had prepared four separate plans after throwing out dozens. He had expected it to be rough and it was worse.

When the petty arguments were resolved and the sacrifices made, Harris knew, the agreement hammered out would not be applauded around the world as a masterpiece of diplomacy. There would be no frontpage photos of him smiling and waving as he left secret negotiations in a French villa. There would be an article in the second section of The Delaware County Daily Times, and perhaps a smaller one in The Philadelphia Bulletin, and they would only report the outcome, not the struggle. No names and no credit would be given. Machinists are unsung heroes.

Few people in Nether Providence understood what reapportionment meant to them, and fewer cared. But the details were crucial to the local leaders that gathered that night, and they stubbornly refused easy compromises. Commissioners demanded they not be legislated out of their turf, and the ward leaders answered that if this were so, they had to remain in theirs also. Incredulous, Harris watched each of his plans rejected. They had been good, reasonable schemes, representing almost 25 hours of work.

Now it was 1:30 a.m., and he was due at the office early.

He remembered a lunch date he had made with a friend. He had tried to postpone it until "after this reapportionment mess is over." His friend had laughed and said that the delay was unreasonable. "After that, it'll just be something else." Harris had agreed and made the appointment.

And the problem was still there, and the frustration was building up. For the first time in a long time, he slammed the door.

His wife Peg came running into the kitchen. She had been asleep, and the noise of the door frightened her. She thought the furnace had exploded. Half-relieved, but not yet over her fear, she was not angry. After all, she had been married to the machinist for ten years. Harris apologized and resolved to block the reapportionment problem from his mind for a few days, and went to sleep.

When he was a younger man, it might have occured to Harris that he should simply quit politics. He has a promising future as a lobbyist for the Southeastern Pennsylvanian Transportation Association (SEPTA), the local mass transit network. He wants to spend more time with his two sons. But at 39, Harris knows that he will not quit, despite the reapportionment or whatever comes next. Making a machine work is what he enjoys most. "It gives me an opportunity to serve," he says. "Plus, I enjoy influencing things around the township. People come to me to ask for things. I admit it, it's an ego boost."

Harris moved to Nether Providence when he was seven, to a house not two blocks from where he lives today. He and his parents had left Johnstown, Pa., four years after the last flood. ("We weren't involved - we lived up on a hill.") His parents and the township were adamantly Republican, and before Harris graduated from Nether Providence High School in 1952, he had been transformed from an introvert into a veteran doorbell-ringer and door-slammer for the local GOP.