The Bernie Sanders revolution continues to reshape Democratic politics in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.
With the votes finally almost counted from Pennsylvania’s primary election earlier this month, wins by at least seven progressive candidates in primaries for the state legislature showed that the political energy of Sanders’ supporters will outlast his presidential campaign.
Nikil Saval, who defeated an incumbent in a state Senate race in South Philadelphia, and Rick Krajewski, who ousted an incumbent in a state House primary in West Philadelphia, celebrated their victories Monday in a Zoom call attended by about 200 members of the state’s growing progressive army.
“I think what this means is, honestly, that the city is ready for and needs ideas and a political vision that goes beyond the status quo,” said Krajewski, who beat 35-year State Rep. James Roebuck. “We did the work... and we had a message that was resonating with the needs and desires in the district and beyond.”
Saval was one of several Sanders backers who founded the liberal political group Reclaim Philadelphia after the 2016 election. Krajewski worked for Reclaim on criminal justice issues before starting his campaign. The group has been a driving force in a growing number of high-profile electoral wins, including Larry Krasner’s election as district attorney in 2017 and Kendra Brooks’ winning campaign for City Council in 2019.
Krajewski and Saval are both first-time candidates who ousted party-backed incumbents in a city with one of the last political machines in the United States. The seven (at least) progressive primary winners is up from the three movement-aligned representatives elected to the state House two years ago.
“We would never imagine, when we woke up in November 2016 pissed off and angry ... the movement we would build,” said Brooks, who won a City Council seat last year as a member of the Working Families Party. “We’re in a moment where the folks that we had been fighting for are struggling the most.”
Brooks’ win was a sign that the movement that elected three self-described democratic socialists to the state House in 2018 — Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler of Philadelphia, and Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee of the Pittsburgh area — was percolating in city politics as well.
This year, Lee lost the endorsement of the Democratic Party and still beat her challenger, as did three other progressive women in Allegheny County. Jessica Benham, a community activis;, Emily Kinkead, a criminal defense attorney; and Lissa Geiger Shulman, a former public school teacher, all won primaries in Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs.
Nicole Miller and Shanna Danielson won Democratic primaries in Cumberland County. In the Lehigh Valley, Enid Santiago, another first-time candidate, came within 57 votes of winning and is challenging the results.
All of them had the backing of the progressive group Pennsylvania Stands Up, an umbrella organization for Reclaim and groups like it.
“I don’t think it can be overstated just how incredible it is that in the belly of the most robust political machines, these candidates were able to win victories against pretty well-entrenched incumbents,” said Dan Doubet, the political director of Pennsylvania Stands Up. “Even in these places that are well off the ‘progressive beaten path,’ we are poised to make really big gains and to demonstrate this is how we win elections and how we take over Pennsylvania.”
Doubet’s group helped train several of the candidates, and sent more than 280,000 text messages and made phone calls on their behalf.
The progressives won despite restrictions on campaigning due to the coronavirus pandemic that were thought to benefit incumbents, who had established name recognition and fund-raising connections. But those newer to politics were able to adapt to reach voters.
Krajewski had already formed a sophisticated campaign operation before the virus hit. Afterward, he pivoted to helping people get services and food they needed. Both Krajewski and Saval have backgrounds in organizing. They were endorsed by elected progressives in the city as well as Sanders, whose second presidential campaign ended a few months before the Pennsylvania primary.
Sanders supporters were looking for something to get involved in, said Pele IrgangLaden, campaign manager for Krajewski.
“With Bernie Sanders suspending his campaign, and with the sort of breakdown of things we’ve seen over the past two months, young people were really looking for somebody and something to put their energy into," IrgangLaden said. “I think we stepped in and had a vision people connected with. I think we gave them a way to show up in this moment. We gave them something to fight for."
IrgangLaden said the campaign capitalized on energy in West Philadelphia that started with Jamie Gauthier’s City Council win in 2019, when she defeated longtime incumbent Jannie L. Blackwell.
“We see Rick as part of this next generation of progressive black leadership in Philadelphia," he said.
If the pandemic offered an opportunity for progressive online organizing to thrive, weeks of protests over police violence against African Americans highlighted issues espoused by the candidates.
After thanking their backers, Saval and Krajewski encouraged people to support shifting funding from the Philadelphia Police Department to social services with calls to Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council members.
The newcomers’ successes have also revealed cracks in once mighty Democratic machines around the state. Some incumbents were unaccustomed to facing serious challengers.
Regina Young, a first-time candidate with less than $10,000, beat Maria Donatucci in the primary to represent Southwest Philadelphia and part of Delaware County, despite Donatucci’s heavily out-raising her. In West Philadelphia, Amen Brown successfully defeated State Rep. Roni Green. In both cases the winners said their main strategy was simple: reach as many people as possible.
Neil Oxman, a Democratic political consultant based in Philadelphia, said dedicated ground work in local, typically low-turnout elections can be even more important than fundraising. “They’re organized, they have a fairly strong group of bonded people who are participating,” he said.
Fiedler, who joined the celebratory call Monday, thanked volunteers who helped during “a very strange election.”
“I am so excited," she said of the wins by Krajewski and Saval, who will not face Republican challengers in November. "I’m coming to the end of my first term, but I’ve been there long enough to say that I know we need more allies, more people who are not afraid to stand up.”
Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.