Dyresha Harris, an environmental activist from West Philly, spent the last month texting and calling Black, low-income, and young Philadelphians, encouraging them to vote — all for Joe Biden, a candidate who was far from her first choice.
Black women like her, she said, do a disproportionate amount of urban organizing that gets Democrats elected — with not enough in return.
“There is a fatigue with going to battle for folks who it doesn’t feel like are going to battle for you,” said Harris, 39, a volunteer with Philly Thrive, a progressive environmental activist group. She wants to see radical change to address the climate crisis and is in favor of the Green New Deal, a proposed legislative package that Biden does not support.
Harris isn’t alone. Members of Philadelphia’s ascendant progressive movement say they put in months of labor to prop up Biden, a moderate Democrat, to get out the vote in vital Philadelphia. Now that he’s heading to the White House, those liberal organizers are already planning. They say they refuse to be snubbed by the longtime centrist.
“Never, ever in a million years did we see Joe Biden as a destination,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, the Pennsylvania organizing director of Working Families Party Pennsylvania, a labor-aligned third party. “He’s a doorway to the kind of terrain and world that we could actually organize in.”
A party divided
Over the last week, some Democrats have pointed fingers at progressive causes like the Green New Deal and “defunding the police," saying backlash to those politically dicey ideas cost them votes. But in Harris' experience, she said, plenty of voters in Philadelphia were energized by the racial justice uprising this summer sparked after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, and the recent protests after two Philadelphia officers killed Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man, in West Philadelphia.
The rift boiled over in Washington last week when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), the de facto leader of the progressive movement, criticized the party infrastructure in an interview with the New York Times. She said some Democrats were vulnerable to attacks from the right not because of the protest movement, but because they failed to run effective online campaigns.
Western Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb (D., Pa.) responded, saying the election made it clear: Constituents, especially in critical swing districts like his that delivered Democrats a House majority in 2018, are “frustrated” by policies backed by the party’s liberal wing.
Those leftist policies have more support among liberals and Democratic socialists, who have generally had more success winning office in the city than outside it.
Though Philadelphia is a stronghold Democrats rely on each election cycle, it was largely Biden’s gains among rural and suburban voters where the electorate is more moderate that gave him an edge in critical Pennsylvania. In the city, turnout didn’t surge in the same way it did elsewhere, and Philadelphia likely provided Hillary Clinton a greater boost in 2016 than it helped Biden.
But progressive organizers say the barriers to vote this year were steep, especially for poor people in Philadelphia, and without their work to educate voters and energize the base, turnout could have been even worse.
A new Philadelphia power?
Both wings of the party were visible in Philadelphia outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where ballots were being counted and which became a space for political protest and celebration. While some waved Biden-Harris signs, many weren’t pro-Biden. Some wore T-shirts that said “ban fracking” — which Biden does not support — and others delivered speeches, denouncing the former vice president’s record on criminal justice.
About a half-dozen progressive politicians addressed protesters last week. State Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia) called Biden “harm reduction” and said work on more liberal policies would only intensify upon his election.
“We will ensure that all the energy that we pulled together into this election, all the energy that we pulled together right now to make sure every vote is counted, will also be used to uphold the issues that are true and dear to the folks here in Philadelphia,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks, noting affordable housing, “health care for all,” and a Green New Deal.
The power of the Philadelphia party’s left wing — stitched together by labor unions, racial and economic justice activists, and a variety of community organizers — has grown over the last several years.
The coalition rallied together to lift criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner to the District Attorney’s Office and made Brooks, of the Working Families Party, the first third-party councilmember in modern history. This year, the same coalition backed Bernie Sanders supporters like State Sen.-elect Nikil Saval and State Rep.-elect Rick Krajewski, who both toppled more moderate incumbents during the primary.
Liberals came together again this fall to oust Trump. The Working Families Party had a visible presence in the weeks leading up to the election, passing out tens of thousands of T-shirts and deploying an army of volunteers handing out literature encouraging Philadelphians to vote.
Their volunteers made 1.3 million calls in Philadelphia, a spokesperson said, and registered nearly 3,000 voters.
The work begins, again
Casa in Action, a progressive group mobilizing Black and Latino voters, has been working toward this moment for four years. Its members have been knocking on doors, talking about issues that affect their communities, from access to ESL in schools, to health insurance, and to climate change, hoping to gradually boost turnout in all elections, not just the presidential race, said Thaís Carrero, the group’s Pennsylvania director and cochair for the Biden-Harris Pennsylvania Latino Leadership Council.
The group’s Latino outreach in Pennsylvania found success speaking with Puerto Ricans, who Carrero said were motivated to vote against Trump after his actions after Hurricane Maria, and with Central and South American immigrant communities, who also cared about comprehensive immigration reform. Carrero said they helped newly arrived Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania learn how to vote, taught naturalized citizens how to register, and encouraged people who thought their voice didn’t matter.
Now the executive team is discussing how to hold Biden accountable. The group wants Biden to not only follow through on promises to reinstate DACA and end family-separation policies, but commit to ending all immigrant-related detention. Casa in Action is holding a virtual candidate training in Spanish next month for anyone interested in running for public office and will continue doing community outreach and voter registrations.
“We believe people of color, immigrants, Latinos have the power to change the course of the nation,” Carrero said. “We knew from the very beginning, from the moment that we got Donald Trump and Joe Biden as the official nominees, that the work was not going to end on Nov. 3, or on Election Week."
In Philadelphia, labor unions, progressive or not, have traditionally mobilized around political campaigns. Unite Here Philly, which represents thousands of hospitality workers, many of whom were laid off during the pandemic, says it ran the state’s largest get-out-the-vote effort. They sent 500 canvassers to knock on more than half a million doors since Oct. 1, focusing on communities of color and obtaining pledges to vote for Biden from 60,000 voters.
“My hot take is that Unite Here won us this election,” Saval said. “To have a laid-off hospitality worker go to your door and talk to you about what they’ve gone through, and the stakes they have in this election, and making it real for people? We needed that.”
Gwen Mills, secretary/treasurer of Unite Here International, said its members who worked all across swing states are “clear-eyed about the future” and said Biden’s win doesn’t represent “an immediate windfall for workers.” They’ll double down on their campaign for a $15 minimum wage, which Biden supports.
One of those members is Marci Branch, a 56-year-old hotel worker who was laid off during the pandemic. She lives in Southwest Philadelphia and said that Unite Here played “a huge role” in the election and that she expects the new administration to be accountable to promises on workers' rights.
“I’m really proud of our city, that even though we may not get along all the time, we walked, we knocked on doors. ... We had a part in it,” she said. “So we hope Biden is gonna do what we need him to do.”