As beef stew simmered in the oven, and trays of cookies appeared on the counter, a group of about 15 young activists gathered in a West Philadelphia house on a wet weekend afternoon and got ready to knock on doors for Kendra Brooks’ campaign for City Council.
Each shared their first name, their preferred gender pronouns, and the reason they signed up to volunteer. Ali said she wanted to combat racism. Max hoped Brooks would fight for his neighborhood school. And Matt was inspired to become politically active after one of the federal government shutdowns.
The canvass in late October was organized by Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive group founded by alumni of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. It has hundreds of members who pay dues, vote on endorsements, and volunteer on campaigns. The same week, Brooks also attended events hosted by 215 People’s Alliance, Neighborhood Networks, and other liberal groups that had been campaigning for her.
“On a Saturday, with a little bit of rain coming down, so close to the election, seeing so many people excited around this city ... you guys are this movement,” Brooks told the Reclaim volunteers. “We’re making history. We’re picking up momentum. People are agitated all over the place. That’s a sign of growth.”
On Tuesday, 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 Tuesday.
Almost all of the precincts in which Brooks received 200 or more votes are in areas where the groups that worked with her campaign have the most members. Some of Brooks’ biggest margins came from Fishtown, West Philadelphia, and South Philadelphia neighborhoods east of Broad Street, where Reclaim has a strong presence. She also performed well in Northwest Philadelphia, where Neighborhood Networks is active. In some of those precincts, her vote totals surpassed incumbent Democratic members of Council.
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.
Brooks and O’Rourke faced opposition not just from Republicans but also from the city’s Democratic Party, which didn’t want voters to skip over one of its nominees to choose a Working Families Party candidate.
Lou Agre, a Democratic ward leader, said he was “flabbergasted” by Brooks’ victory and praised her for winning a tough race. But he cautioned against reading too much into the results.
“They won one thing against a minority party,” Agre said Wednesday. “They didn’t beat us. They beat the Republicans, not the Democrats. Just remember that.”
He noted that in the May primary, all five of the Democratic Party’s chosen candidates for Council at large came out on top in the crowded race, beating out some progressive favorites. And speaking to The Inquirer on Wednesday, Mayor Jim Kenney, while crediting Brooks for running a strong campaign, said her win doesn’t necessarily mean voters want a more liberal City Hall.
“I see it as an evolution in our city,” Kenney said. “Everything changes. And [Brooks] worked hard, and the people who supported her worked hard.”
Many previous candidates have tried to challenge the power of the Democratic establishment in Philadelphia by pointing to corruption scandals and patronage. The new progressive movement is focused less on anti-corruption reforms and more on moving the city’s politics and policies to the left, said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs consultant and longtime City Hall observer.
“The people who are averse to [the Democratic City Committee] were always good-government forces,” Ceisler said. “Now the opposition is ideological.”
The progressive movement in Philadelphia is not driven by one organization or official, but by a constellation of groups with distinct histories, priorities, and geographical bases. Some have existed for years; others popped up recently.
Similarly, the city’s so-called Democratic machine has never been a monolith of power, but a collection of political families from across the city that fought against each other as often as they fought off outsiders.
The organization built by former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah long dominated West Philadelphia. The Northwest Coalition’s legions of “super voters” controlled elections in neighborhoods like Mount Airy and West Oak Lane. The trades unions wield power in South Philadelphia and along the Delaware River. And allies and acolytes of the late State Sen. Hardy Williams have ruled in Southwest Philadelphia.
But as gentrification changes neighborhoods and corruption scandals rock the political establishment, the old machines are showing signs of faltering, opening the door for insurgent groups to rise in their place.
Neighborhood Networks, launched by alumni of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, draws from the same areas as the Northwest Coalition. 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 is strongest in South Philadelphia and the river wards — the historically Irish American neighborhoods long controlled by the trades unions — as well as in West Philadelphia, the realm of the Fattah organization.
“We’re the shadow,” Tim Brown, a project organizer with Neighborhood Networks, said in describing how the emerging progressive networks have popped up in the areas dominated by the older political machines.
The diffuse nature of the progressive movement means coordinating a citywide campaign can devolve into herding cats, and that groups with different priorities may never agree on complicated issues. The debate over whether to support Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential campaign is as vitriolic here as it is for the rest of the left.
Activists see the decentralization as a strength.
“As long as we are operating in a complementary fashion, there’s great promise,” said State Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Phila.), who has twice beat candidates supported by the Northwest Coalition. “Some movements don’t need to be formalized.”
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.”