This Tuesday, the Political Revolution Comes to Philadelphia

If they win tomorrow, two independent left candidates could fundamentally realign Philadelphia politics.

Demonstrators gather in the council chamber to protest at Philadelphia City Hall on June 20, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela / Getty Images)

Tomorrow, a pair of underdog campaigns in Philadelphia are looking to pull off what would be one of the most significant third-party victories in generations. Local activists Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke are running on an independent Working Families Party (WFP) ticket for two at-large city council seats, with a platform that centers the interests of Philadelphia’s most neglected residents.

Philadelphia — like Bridgeport and Hartford, CT, where the WFP has also spearheaded campaigns — has laws that prevent a single political party from controlling every seat on its city council. It has ten positions that are elected on a district basis (nine are represented by Democrats; one, in northeast Philadelphia, has been represented by a Republican since 1980). It also has seven seats that are elected at-large. Each party is only permitted to nominate five candidates for the general election, ensuring that two seats go to candidates from other parties. Since Democrats often win over 80 percent of the vote citywide, the five Democratic nominees easily come in first through fifth place in the general election. Republicans have won the two remaining seats ever since this electoral system was established in the 1950s, though in recent elections their best performers have received less than a quarter of the votes of the worst-performing Democrats.

The result is to give Republicans significant representation on the city council. Far from threatening Democrats’ stranglehold, the city council governing majority is effectively an alliance of pro-corporate Democrats and Republicans. That alliance deflects popular demands around affordable housing, school funding, and other basic public goods.

But this year, an impressive coalition of groups has come together with a vision of building a left-wing city council. If Brooks and O’Rourke can outperform the top-performing Republican candidates, they will manage to reduce Republican representation from three to one, and replace the two at-large Republicans with representatives who would be the left-most members of the council. They would form an alliance with progressive Democrats already on the council. One of those progressives, Councilwoman Helen Gym, is a former community organizer who was first elected as a Democrat in 2015, and is the council’s top vote-getter.

Over the strident objections of the local Democratic Party, Gym has openly called for supporting the Working Families slate. Together, the three would form the core of a powerful left bloc on the council.

On the assumption that Brooks and O’Rourke will get next to no votes from Republicans, winning requires convincing enough of the city’s reliable Democratic voters to vote for three Democrats and two WFP candidates, rather than five Democrats. Because of Philadelphia’s strong Democratic base, it’s virtually impossible for WFP candidates to draw enough Democratic votes away to cost the Democrats an at-large seat. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped the local Democratic machine from trying to crack down on the WFP candidates’ grassroots support.

Why Philadelphia needs left representation does not require any elaborate explanation. What was once one of the largest manufacturing centers in the world, with a highly skilled and heavily unionized workforce, is now one of the poorest big cities in America. Among major American cities, only Detroit has a higher poverty rate than Philadelphia, where just shy of a quarter of the city’s residents are officially poor.

Highly segregated and aggressively redlined, Philadelphia was nevertheless historically a place where black residents — who make up 45 percent of the city’s population — could become homeowners, due in part to the city’s large supply of old housing stock. But the foreclosure crisis did enormous damage to black residents’ home values, causing acute losses to what little wealth many in the city had been able to accumulate in their homes. The city has been the site of a major school takeover and privatization effort, pushed by an alliance of Republicans in state government and “reformers” at home.

Meanwhile, gentrification is fueling displacement, as increasing property values make property taxes unaffordable for existing homeowners, all while developers get a ten-year property tax abatement. A decade into the post–Great Recession “recovery,” Philadelphia has a headline unemployment rate — 5.1 percent — that is 1.3 percent over the US rate as a whole. Philadelphia’s labor force participation rate in 2019 was a shockingly low 68.9 percent — nine points below the national average — meaning that there are perhaps a hundred thousand more working-age adults without any formal employment at all than there would be if Philadelphia was in line with the national average. Hunger stalks whole neighborhoods.

As staggeringly high poverty rates among African-American households have inched down, working-class white neighborhoods have seen a surge, perhaps driven by opioids. Poorer neighborhoods are also ravaged by pollution and reliance on dirty energy, as a dramatic explosion at a South Philadelphia oil refinery made unmistakably clear. Philadelphia is one of America’s ten dirtiest cities; last year, the American Lung Association gave its air quality an “F” from high levels of toxins from cars, power plants, refineries, and other polluters.

The word “crisis” implies something acute. When the acute becomes chronic, our vocabulary begins to falter. Poverty in Philadelphia is an ongoing social catastrophe.

The candidacies of Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke represent the latest, perhaps most ambitious undertaking of an impressive array of forces that began to converge around efforts to elect a Democratic governor in 2014, continued with Helen Gym’s first city council campaign in 2015, and escalated with a fight to end the state-imposed “School Reform Commission” and the election of Larry Krasner as district attorney in 2017.

This year, organizers at the 215 People’s Alliance facilitated the creation of a citywide people’s platform under the banner of the “Alliance for a Just Philadelphia.” This effort allowed some thirty organizations to vet city council candidates running in the May primary collectively and laid down clear markers about what the city’s left wanted to see from the council.

O’Rourke is an organizer with POWER, an organization that represents congregations and faith leaders located across Pennsylvania, and also a pastor of Living Water United Church of Christ. The son of an electrician and a former CWA member, he has helped lead on the issue of police accountability with the Coalition for a Just District Attorney.

Brooks is a public education activist, and single mother of four, who lost her job and then her home to foreclosure in the wake of the Great Recession. A longtime resident of Nicetown, she has been a leader with Parents United for Public Education and the Our City Our Schools coalition, and is a founder of Stand Up Nicetown, a group committed to ending gun violence in her neighborhood.

O’Rourke and Brooks are running on a radical platform that centers affordable housing, school funding, wages, and a local Green New Deal. Neither O’Rourke nor Brooks has ever run for office, and they are doing so this year in open defiance of the local Democratic machine. They are exactly the sorts of working-class candidates that the Left needs if we are to build a genuine mass base for our politics.

This year’s race is the first in memory where insurgent third-party candidates have a real shot at winning. In addition to a host of community organizations and labor unions, the candidates have been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and by several local elected officials, including some who, like state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, were elected with support from DSA and WFP in 2018. Philadelphia district attorney, Larry Krasner, has also endorsed Brooks.

The attention and numbers would seem to signal that they have a real chance to win. The campaigns have raised over $350,000 combined, and Brooks has raised more than any third-party candidate ever in a Philadelphia city election. What’s more, they have several hundred regular volunteers, drawn from the city’s community organizing and union infrastructure.

If they do emerge victorious tomorrow, it will be a significant victory for building independent power for the multiracial working class outside of the corporate-controlled two-party system. It’s also true that US election laws are unkind to third parties, and that opportunities like fusion voting, ranked-choice voting, and minority party rules are hard to come by. But the Left can’t afford to ignore elections, even local ones.

Of course, what’s ultimately needed is a new party with roots in labor and social movements and a genuine commitment to representing our class. Building that vehicle is the work of a generation, but Tuesday’s election could be a meaningful step toward it.