For the first time in modern history, someone from a political party other than Democratic or Republican will sit on Philadelphia City Council.
On Tuesday, Philadelphia voters elected Kendra Brooks, a North Philadelphia community organizer and a member of the Working Families Party, to serve as an at-large councilperson, knocking out a Republican from a seat the GOP has held for generations.
Brooks ran on a platform of social equality, emphasizing plans to improve access to affordable housing, ending the 10-year tax abatement, beefing up enforcement of pro-worker ordinances, and implementing a “Philadelphia Green New Deal” to tackle climate change. She won with the support of local and national progressive groups, and largely without the backing of the Democratic establishment.
Here’s an introduction to the Working Families Party — a grassroots progressive group considered by some to be the Tea Party of the left — and a look at how its members differ from Democrats.
So what’s the Working Families Party?
The Working Families Party is a labor-aligned third party that was established in New York in 1998. It grew in national prominence during the Occupy protests of 2011, and then again in 2015 when Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind., Vt.) first brought his brand of democratic socialism to mainstream presidential politics. The party now has chapters in 20 states.
Party officials say they’re not like the Green Party — they don’t run candidates with the goal of spoiling a general election if they think that election could then favor Republicans. The exception is places like Philadelphia, where rules require minority party representation (more on that later).
Instead, the Working Families Party aims to use its influence to pull Democrats to the left by jumping into Democratic primaries themselves or backing the most-progressive Democrats. For example, the party years ago said it would run a third-party candidate in New York state, threatening Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reelection prospects — until Cuomo started casting himself as a progressive and backed off his opposition to letting municipalities set their own minimum wage.
Today, national Working Families Party leadership says Brooks’ win was historic and shows the party’s growing sophistication. The party poured more than a quarter-million dollars into Brooks’ campaign.
“Third-party victories are not easy. There’s a level of voter education involved,” WFP national director Maurice Mitchell said. “You have to have real conversations about the value of bringing Working Families Party into a city like Philly. The historic nature is undeniable.”
Has the Working Families Party had a presence in Philadelphia before 2019?
It has. The party was a major force in 2017 behind the election of District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former criminal-defense attorney who ran on a platform of criminal-justice reform. It also organized ground operations to support progressive Democrats for state legislative office, including Rep. Chris Rabb in Northwest Philly and Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler in South Philly.
The party began its national expansion in 2013, and a Pennsylvania chapter was established shortly thereafter, growing out of a coalition of labor unions and progressive political groups, organized around improving public education, that aimed to be an “uncompromising political voice in Democratic politics in Philadelphia,” said Gabe Morgan, a cofounder of the party’s chapter in Pennsylvania and vice president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.
Morgan said one of the Working Families Party’s first big wins in Philly wasn’t a win at all — it was in 2016, when lawyer Joe Hohenstein, running against a veteran Republican state representative, took 45% of the vote and made the GOP sweat over losing the seat. WFP supported Hohenstein, who went on to win the seat two years later after the longtime representative resigned.
“It felt like ‘you can make Republicans begin to be obsolete in Philadelphia,’” Morgan said. Brooks’ win "is a product of a lot of different things that led up to it. And there will be a lot more that comes.”
And why does this party now have a seat on Council?
The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, the document that governs how the city operates, requires seven seats on City Council to be elected at large and represent the entire city. (The 10 other seats are held by district Council members, who represent geographic areas. Nine are Democrats.) The Home Rule Charter only allows each political party to put up five nominees, essentially guaranteeing that two of those at-large seats are held by a minority party. Since the establishment of that governing document, those seats have been held by Republicans.
For years, progressives have dreamed of wresting those seats away from the city GOP. This was one of the first times a third-party candidate mounted a real challenge. Brooks and fellow Working Families candidate Nicolas O’Rourke, a pastor who didn’t win a seat Tuesday, set local fund-raising records for third-party candidates.
How will a Working Families councilperson be different from Democrats?
The Working Families Party sees some members as “pro-corporate Democrats” who have formed alliances with three Republicans who have held seats on Council for years.
So you can expect Brooks to align herself with Council’s most left-leaning members, including Helen Gym, a former community organizer. Brooks, a lifelong Democrat, has said that she wouldn’t have run for Council as a Democrat if the Working Families Party hadn’t courted her to run.
If the WFP is so progressive, why didn’t Dems want them on Council?
Philadelphia Democratic City Committee leaders had suggested that members who publicly supported Working Families candidates could be expelled from the committee. Their concern was that because voters can only select five at-large candidates, pushing folks to vote for a WFP candidate could effectively take votes away from Democrats.
Some Democrats weren’t persuaded and endorsed Brooks anyway, including Gym, the at-large candidate who won the most votes in Tuesday’s election. After Gym announced her endorsement, former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who leads the Democratic City Committee, said the move was “stupid” and guessed it would “hurt her in the long run.”
Brooks was also backed by a handful of state legislators from Philadelphia — including State Reps. Fiedler, Rabb, Malcolm Kenyatta and Movita Johnson-Harrell — and Krasner.
And in an unprecedented get for a City Council candidate, Brooks in early September won the public support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential front-runner courting the Working Families Party for an endorsement.
Did that work?
A week after Warren endorsed Brooks, the national Working Families Party endorsed Warren. The backing exposed fissures among the left — the party endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 and some of his supporters complained the party abandoned the person who helped bring their progressive views into the mainstream. During the last election cycle, Sanders said the party was the closest thing to his "vision of democratic socialism.”