Progressive Democratic legislators trounced conservative challengers in this year’s primary elections as voters again strongly repudiated the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee. As we head toward a general election in which a literal white Christian nationalist heads the Pennsylvania Republican ticket, the Philly Democratic Party must decide now whether to put ego aside and align with an energized and growing progressive Democratic base — or to consign itself to embarrassing irrelevance permanently.
For Democrats, this year’s primary was never about “moderates vs. progressives,” contrary to much political punditry and media reporting. It was about choosing elected officials who will fight to protect people’s rights and liberties in the face of naked authoritarianism, after years of Republicans controlling state government and policy despite registered Democrats being a majority of voters in Pennsylvania for more than a decade.
Turns out Democrats want elected officials to “get stuff done” — to paraphrase U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman, who won all 67 counties in Pennsylvania and was also not endorsed by the Philly Democratic Party. Policies like Medicare for All, a $15+-per-hour minimum wage, abortion access, and a Green New Deal are all popular with Democratic primary voters. Yet the Philly Democratic Party instead backed conservatives, including an actual Trump supporter, over progressive incumbents fighting to deliver wins that would materially improve the lives of all Philadelphians.
Why would Philly machine Democrats rather support candidates who would preserve the status quo in the poorest large city in America? Because change upends. While even the longest-serving establishment politicians (elected and party officials) serve nobly and effectively, many of them coast by doing very little work. For far too many establishment politicians, being an elected official means special treatment and lots of invitations to fancy political, charitable, entertainment, and sports events. Just the title of representative or Senator or councilmember provides personal satisfaction. Any deviation from “the way we’ve always done things” jeopardizes the feeling of belonging or being liked. Those who are doing well now have self-interested reasons to fear change.
Taking on wealthy and powerful corporations is incompatible with this politics-as-usual dynamic. Democratic voters are rejecting in ever greater numbers establishment politics in favor of progressive candidates, who are labeled as “radical” and “woke” by party figures who really just want to preserve their power and entitlement.
Pennsylvania representatives like Elizabeth Fiedler and Rick Krajewski, in 2018 and 2020, respectively, ran for office to deliver change to improve the lives of their neighbors. Fiedler and Krajewski walked dozens of blocks in their districts and knocked on tens of thousands of doors to speak directly to voters. Most were voters who likely never had met an elected official, let alone one who showed up at their door and asked what they needed their representatives to address and then came back to ask for their vote on election day.
Fiedler and Krajewski won their campaigns by telling voters what they believed and how they planned to legislate. And they stayed true to their words. They voted against budgets that were bad for public education and they voted against subsidizing fossil fuels because they’re bad for public health and the planet. They voted for new green jobs and infrastructure that could support households that never fully recovered from the demise of manufacturing in Pennsylvania. They voted for higher wages and employment rights for service and care workers. They voted against overly harsh punishments for crime when treatment and rehabilitation were the better path forward.
Both were reelected overwhelmingly over Philly Democratic Party-backed challengers, in a primary election that saw other strong progressives who buck the establishment — John Fetterman, Summer Lee, Emily Kinkead, and Jessica Benham — take on conservative Democrats backed by big corporate interests and win.
Residents of the most voter-rich county in Pennsylvania deserve aspirational leaders who get stuff done for the people they serve. As we head into a general election against candidates who supported and attended the Jan. 6 insurrection, the stakes could not be higher. If the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee lacks the ambition, integrity, and courage to stand with progressives and fight for all our futures, its fate as an impotent relic of American city political machines will be sealed.
Joe Corrigan is a veteran Pennsylvania-based Democratic political consultant whose clients include Elizabeth Fiedler and Summer Lee.