Asa Khalif spent 10 minutes before the Democratic City Committee last month scolding ward leaders and telling them he did not want their endorsement in his bid for City Council.
“I said I’m going to use this time to remind you of your silence on all of the black and brown and poor people who have been victimized by police,” Khalif said. “I ended it with all the names of people victimized, MOVE members murdered in the bomb. I said, ‘Power to all people, no power to these politicians,’ and I walked out.”
The crowded field of 28 Democrats running for five at-large seats includes an unprecedented number of younger, diverse candidates, reflecting a national trend in politics since President Donald Trump’s election. The slate here includes people who have worked in business, labor, nonprofits, and government. Some have raised $0; others have spent close to $1 million.
But this year there’s a particularly high number of activists, such as Khalif. He was inspired, he said, by progressive politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and an appetite for a bolder approach to government change.
Khalif is an underdog, for sure, with less than $1,000 in the bank; he was about to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for volunteers when he stopped to talk.
“You can protest with a bullhorn all day long, you can organize, but you also need to have a continuance plan," he said. "You have to be at the table having those conversations and making sure the agenda you’re fighting so hard is not whitewashed by career politicians.”
Four years ago Helen Gym, then a pioneering activist-politico, built a strong coalition around her history as an advocate for education justice. Now the incumbent councilwoman is running for reelection with a wide array of endorsements and the second-largest bank account. At least four challengers known primarily as activists are following her lead.
“When I ran in 2015 our campaign showed that real movement-based politics has a tremendous amount of power," she said. "And now, I think a new crop of activists coming up once again is a great thing.”
Win or lose — several have less than $5,000 and few endorsements — running amplifies messages and challenges the establishment, which the recent elections of District Attorney Larry Krasner and State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler show can be beaten, the candidates say.
Erika Almirón sees herself as an organizer, not an activist, and thinks those skills make good legislators.
“Experience of organizing is you not only know what’s wrong but knowing how to bring people together to fight to make the change,” said Almirón, the former head of Juntos, an immigrants’ rights group. “That’s also passing legislation — it requires patience, study, and research; it requires listening and strategy and also understanding power. I‘m the movement candidate. I come from the movement and will continue the movement.”
Almirón is perhaps the best known of the activist challengers. She’s received endorsements from labor unions, NOW, Black Clergy, and Reclaim and raised $120,000 as of May 10. She helped create the city’s “sanctuary city” policy and has also worked on housing and criminal justice — but still has a steep path to victory amid many qualified candidates.
Her campaign recently watched Take Down the House, a documentary about Ocasio-Cortez’s grassroots congressional campaign. “Watching that we were all like, ‘This is completely what our campaign is right now.’ It is a people-powered campaign fighting to get a position inside the halls of power as a woman of color, a working-class woman of color.”
Deja Lynn Alvarez was trying to hail a cab after leaving a bar in the Gayborhood in the late 1990s when she said police started harassing her. A transgender woman, she’d faced discrimination before, but on that particular night, she said, it sparked what would become three decades of advocacy for the LGBTQ community.
In the years since, she’s learned how to befriend people and get inside of places of power.
“There’s different forms of activism," she said. "The people who show up with picket signs and scream and yell — and both forms are needed. But we also need people who can work their way inside and through the system. I learned very early on that if I could get ahold of my emotions and put my community first to get people to listen to me and to see us as people, that we’re asking for nothing more than to be treated fairly and with respect.”
As much as the city has changed in 30 years, it has still never elected an openly LGBTQ person to Council. Alvarez is the first transgender woman to run for office in the state.
“As progressive as Philadelphia comes across, it’s not as progressive as it appears to be," she said. "You’re judged by a lot of folks. They’re not ready for a trans person to be inside their ranks.”
Ogbonna Paul Hagins believes in the power of waste. A full-time “recycler” who goes around collecting discarded clothing, scrap metal, and other items to sell online or through small businesses, he’s created a campaign all about his green mission. He hopes his activism focused on one issue will help him stand out.
“The wealth of America is going to landfills,” he said. “We should be leading in renewable energy, creating all kinds of jobs from waste. I’ve been doing it, so I know it can be done and it can be legislated.
“Why are we allowing people to throw clothes away? Let’s encourage people to open businesses, collect all these things to be resold, expand recycling to exporting. There’s all types of opportunities we aren’t even thinking about.”
Without money or endorsements to help, Hagins, known as Philly Green Man, relies on a crew of volunteers and social media. He posts upwards of 30 times a day and has studied election board maps to strategically target registered voters.