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Could progressives capture two Philly City Council seats long held by GOP?

Progressives running as independents are hoping to capitalize on the anti-Trump moment and unseat City Council's two at-large Republicans.

Kendra Brooks, a City Council candidate backed by the progressive Working Families Party, attends a rally to protest the closing of Hahnemann University Hospital.
Kendra Brooks, a City Council candidate backed by the progressive Working Families Party, attends a rally to protest the closing of Hahnemann University Hospital.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

In a test of how far progressive organizing in Philadelphia has come, several liberal outsiders have launched independent campaigns aimed at seizing two City Council seats that are reserved for minor-party or unaffiliated candidates and have been held by Republicans for nearly 70 years.

The campaigns are considered long shots in November’s election because of the unique way Philadelphia elects its at-large Council seats, and because the city’s Democratic Party is likely to oppose the efforts.

But observers say the current political environment, in which registered independents are on the rise and opposition to President Donald Trump has fueled a surge in progressive activism, may be the best opportunity to do so in years.

“I’m not saying it’s likely, but it’s not impossible to imagine that — in this election, with these circumstances, with these people — a well-organized third-party effort might be able to have some success,” said Randall Miller, a political historian at St. Joseph’s University. “We are in a very unusual electoral environment. … There’s an increasing lack of party loyalty.”

The candidates include Sherrie Cohen, who in April dropped a bid to run in the May 21 Democratic primary for Council, as well as community organizer Kendra Brooks and the Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke, two candidates backed by the Pennsylvania Working Families Party. All are optimistic about their chances in the Nov. 5 election.

“I am of the opinion that the two-party system in this country is the problem," said O’Rourke, 30, a pastor at Living Water United Church of Christ in Oxford Circle. “At a certain point, folks are going to get tired — and I believe they are — of the pendulum swing.”

If one or two of the upstarts are successful, they could help push Council from a center-left agenda that is often friendly to business interests to one more focused on the priorities of the populist left.

Their direct power, however, would be limited. Progressive activists generally see Councilwoman Helen Gym as their only certain ally. Even if two of the independents win and some of the new Democrats share similar views, their voting bloc would amount to at most four or five of the body’s 17 members.

Seven seats, five votes

Although there are seven at-large members of Council, each voter can pick only five candidates, and each party can nominate only five. The arrangement effectively guarantees that at least two Council seats go to minority-party or independent candidates.

The outsiders will undoubtedly target independent voters. But to top a Republican, they will likely need to persuade thousands of people who typically choose all five Democrats to forgo one for an independent. Pulling that off will require an immense voter-education effort.

“It’s a very hard thing to explain to voters, electing an independent, and how it’s no threat to Democrats,” said Andrew Stober, who ran unsuccessfully for Council as an independent in 2015.

Cohen, Brooks, and O’Rourke all say their goal is not to steal votes from Democrats, but to aid the party’s agenda. Democrats running for Council each usually receive more than 100,000 votes, which not even the independent candidates themselves believe they can match. Republicans, meanwhile, typically draw about 35,000 votes.

But former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who chairs the Democratic City Committee, isn’t eager to help their cause.

“They’ll say: ‘We’re not running against you. We’re running against the Republicans.' And I would say to them, ‘If you would knock a Democrat off, would you drop out?’ " Brady said, implying none are likely to agree. “So they are running against the Democrats, and we’ll protect our ticket."

Unusual times

In 2017, independent and third-party voters in Philadelphia outnumbered registered Republicans for the first time. That trend is continuing, with voters opting out of both major parties accounting for 27 percent of new registrations since Jan. 1, despite making up only 12 percent of voters. Independents, however, come from all parts of the political spectrum and cannot be counted on to vote for liberal candidates.

In the meantime, progressives have scored some electoral victories, and the Working Families Party played a role in several of those wins, including Democratic District Attorney Larry Krasner’s upset win in 2017.

For Stober, those trends mean that this year’s independents have a better shot in the general election than he did in 2015. “There’s a whole bunch of wind at their backs,” he said.

Councilman Al Taubenberger, who with fellow Republican David Oh holds one of the two at-large seats for minority parties, isn’t worried about losing to an independent.

“The great thing about American democracy is that anyone can run for public office," Taubenberger said in a statement. "I do think they’re at a disadvantage because they’re late to the race and don’t have the support of a major party.”

Another hurdle for independents is fund-raising, which is more difficult without party backing. Cohen said she has $20,000 in her campaign account, and the Working Families Party declined to say how much they have raised.

Cohen said winning would require at least $100,000. That may be an underestimate. Stober said his experience led him to believe it would take $1 million to win a Council seat as an independent.

None of the independent candidacies are official until they submit nominating signatures on Aug. 1. This year’s minimum number of signatures, which is tied to the previous election’s turnout, is 3,226, a high bar that could weed out some candidates. Cohen, O’Rourke, and Brooks say they have already exceeded that threshold.

Other potential candidates for Council at-large, which pays $130,000 per year, include the Green Party’s Olivia Faison; democratic socialist Mo Santana; progressive independent Andrew McGinley; Libertarian gun-rights activist Maj Toure; independent Charlie Hills; independent Steve Cherniavsky, who is running on instituting term limits; and Joe Cox, a self-styled “independent progressive” bike courier known for his pink mohawk.

Candidates optimistic

Many progressives running on their own, including Cohen, Brooks, and O’Rourke, share similar policy goals: eliminating or scaling back the property tax abatement for new construction, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, ending cash bail, and building more affordable housing.

Brooks, who grew up and lives in Nicetown, became politically active in 2014 by organizing a successful campaign to stop her children’s public school from becoming a charter and was involved in the effort to return the Philadelphia School District to local control in 2018. Getting elected to Council as an independent is just the next uphill battle she plans to win.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think I could win,” Brooks, 47, said. “It’s going to require a different push than what we’ve ever seen before, and a willingness to activate a lot of folks that haven’t been activated before.”

O’Rourke, who is from Indianapolis, works full time as a community organizer with POWER, a politically potent coalition of progressive religious groups. His goal is to build a Council voting bloc to look out for the poor and the working class.

“We will be able to build out a progressive caucus on the City Council,” he said. “We definitely can make major strides to advance opportunity, to increase wages, to get jobs.”

Cohen, a lawyer and longtime LGBT rights advocate who ran unsuccessfully for Council in 2011 and 2015, has the advantage of experience. Despite losing, she received at least 44,000 votes in those races and built a fund-raising network.

“Because I have been a candidate in the past, a lot of people in this city know my name,” Cohen, 64, said. “We need bold, progressive voices. We see all around the country people are ready for making big changes.”