On Tuesday November 5 2019, Kendra Brooks, running on the Working Families Party ticket, won one of two at-large Council seats that Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter effectively reserves for non-Democrats. Both seats have been held by Republicans for almost 70 years. In January, she will become the first Council member from outside the two major parties in the 100 years since the body adopted a modern legislative structure.
Without the infrastructure of a major party, Brooks and her campaign manager, Arielle Klagsbrun, largely built their operation from scratch. But they could not have won without the efforts of a preexisting network of groups whose members knocked on thousands of doors, held fund-raisers, and posted constantly on social media for Brooks and her fellow Working Families Party candidate Nicolas O’Rourke, who came up short in his Council bid.
Tapping into the organizational strengths of grassroots groups was always part of the plan. Brooks sits on the steering committee of 215 People's Alliance, and O’Rourke is an organizer with POWER, an interfaith progressive organization. When dozens of groups came together last year to write the People’s Platform for a Just Philadelphia — a manifesto of the city’s left — Brooks and Klagsbrun led the effort.
Increasingly focused on electoral politics, the groups have worked together in recent years to score major victories, including those of District Attorney Larry Krasner, City Councilwoman Helen Gym, and several state representatives. But those candidates ran in Democratic primaries against party-backed opponents. The Working Families Party campaign for Council marked a new level of ambition and coordination for the local progressive movement — and the clearest demonstration yet of its power in city politics.
Most of 215 People’s Alliance members are in Southwest Philadelphia and the western half of South Philadelphia — mirroring the turf led by Williams’ political progeny. Reclaim Philadelphia is strongest in South Philadelphia and the river wards — the historically Irish American neighborhoods long controlled by the trades unions
Reclaim Philadelphia shares an office with 10 other progressive groups on the fifth floor of a building in Chinatown. They call it “the People’s Headquarters.”
Sitting in a room lined with campaign posters and voting precinct maps two weeks before the election, Amanda McIllmurray, Reclaim’s political director, ran through past instances in which her group had worked with Brooks: Krasner’s election, the fight to restore local control of Philadelphia schools, State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler’s campaign.
“She’s just someone who has always been there and has always shown up,” McIllmurray said.
The activist groups that carried the Working Families Party banner this year didn’t just aid Brooks’ campaign. In many ways, they were the campaign.
“This is our movement. It’s bigger than Nicolas and Kendra,” Brooks said at a rally in Northeast Philadelphia two weeks before the election. ”There’s so many organizations that have supported this campaign, and there’s so many folks that are going to take us all the way.”
Democratic Socialists of America October 13 2019. DSA is proud to endorse Nicolas O'Rourke for City Council At-Large and Kendra for Philly for running for at-large seats on Philadelphia's City Council. They're up for election on Tue, Nov 5th!
Kendra and Nicolas are running on the Working Families Party ballot line to unseat the incumbent Republican councilors and build a City Council that fights on behalf of the working class and communities of color. Together with Philly DSA, they're fighting for affordable housing for all and rent control, a living wage and support for unionizing workers, fully funded public schools, and a Green New Deal for Philadelphia.
Working Families Party
Both Brooks and O’Rourke see their candidacies as part of a broader push to one day build a progressive majority on the city council, working together with progressive Democrats like Helen Gym to advance priorities including tax reform, affordable housing, tenants’ rights, and continuing to expand rights for retail and service workers. Both candidates are endorsed by progressive groups like the Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Unite HERE Philadelphia, Make the Road Action in PA, and Sunrise Movement’s Philadelphia chapter.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., endorsed Brooks in September as part of her bid to win the WFP’s national endorsement. In response to a Friday report in the Inquirer on the party’s plans to take action against the city’s Democratic leaders backing the WFP candidates, Rabb tweeted that the party was “pimping for the status quo.”
Brooks says she’s gotten pressure to drop out of the at-large race and run for a Democratic seat, and that Helen Gym has asked her multiple times to come work for her (as have others in City Hall). But Brooks she says running as a Democrat would limit her ability to stay true to herself during the campaign. “I wouldn’t have done the run as a Democrat,” she said. “If the Working Families Party didn’t ask me to run, I would not be running for city council.”
Alliance for a Just Philadelphia
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.
The result is to give Republicans significant representation on the city council.
But this year, acoalition 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, Helen 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.
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.
July 2019 Philadelphia hosted the Netroots Nation conference, a national gathering of progressives in pursuit of networking, collaboration, and inspiration from grassroots movements. The Reclaim Philadelphia crew made our presence known, participating in several sessions and shaking things up with a direct action, alongside allies Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, that targeted Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
On Thursday morning, Rick Krajewski, our lead Mass Liberation Organizer, was on a panel alongside our allies (and officemates!), Bryan Mercer, Hannah Jane Sassaman, Arielle Klagsbrun, and Kendra Brooks, who are with Media Mobilizing Project, 215 People's Alliance, and the Our City Our Schools Coalition, to discuss how coalition organizing has taken Philly to the next level, and the unique challenges we've faced in doing it.
Two City Council candidates from the progressive Working Families Party — who are making long-shot bids to steal from Republicans the at-large seats effectively reserved for non-Democrats — raised more money over the last three months than any of their five GOP rivals, campaign records show.
Community organizer Kendra Brooks brought in $147,000 in cash donations, and pastor Nicolas O'Rourke raised $88,000 from June 10 to Sept. 16, the most recent campaign-finance reporting period. The top fund-raiser among the five Republicans seeking at-large seats during that time was incumbent David Oh, who took in about $75,000.
Brooks’ campaign said her haul was the largest of any third-party City Council candidate in Philadelphia history.
The Republicans, however, have been raising money longer than the Working Families Party candidates, and some have comparable amounts of cash on hand. Like Brooks, Oh, fellow incumbent Al Taubenberger, and GOP challenger Dan Tinney have more than $100,000 going into the final stretch of the campaign.
The Working Families Party candidates, and especially Brooks, have garnered attention through endorsements from the left wing of the Democratic Party and from progressive organizations such as Reclaim Philadelphia and the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) endorsed Brooks earlier this month, days before the presidential hopeful secured the endorsement of the national Working Families Party.
Their campaigns remain long shots, however, in no small part because what they are seeking to do will require a massive voter-education effort: Traditional Democratic voters will have to forgo casting votes for at least one member of their party. And although they are raising money more quickly than their Republican rivals, the Working Families Party candidates will likely need to spend much more in order to reach enough voters willing to choose third-party candidates.
Brooks and O’Rourke will be aided by an independent expenditure campaign run out of their national party’s New York headquarters that is ostensibly separate from their own campaigns. The independent committee has already begun distributing literature for the candidates but avoided disclosing who is funding its efforts by filing a report Tuesday showing that it has so far received no contributions and is taking on debt to make expenditures.
Much of the party’s money in the past has reportedly come from large unions — District 1199C of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, Local 32BJ of the Services Employees International Union, and UNITE HERE — and the liberal group MoveOn.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, How Kendra Brooks and the Working Families Party beat the odds to win in Philadelphia by Sean Collins Walsh, Updated: November 6, 2019
- Philadelphia Inquirer Working Families Party candidates keep pace with GOP fund-raising in Philly Council race by Sean Collins Walsh, Updated: September 24, 2019