Game-changer, or business as usual?
That’s the takeaway question following Tuesday’s municipal election that saw some surprises and historic wins but also reelected many familiar faces. The big question in the city is whether the insurgency of Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks — whose well-organized campaign led her to be the first independent member of City Council — signaled a dismantling of the Democratic machine that has dominated Philadelphia politics (and limited voter choices) for generations.
Brooks’ victory does follow a narrative that began a few election cycles ago with victories for insurgent candidates locally — District Attorney Larry Krasner and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart as well as nationally for congresswomen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — many considered as a reaction to the election of President Donald Trump.
At the end of any election day, though, the only sure thing is that political pendulums never stop swinging. Delaware County knows that well. On Tuesday, it ushered out a generations-old Republican ruling stranglehold in favor of Democrats.
Whether Brooks’ victory signals a big change will depend on how independent she remains.
Brooks’ victory has the capacity to open the floodgate to independent candidates in the future by serving as a proof of concept that change is possible, while dismantling one of the main arguments of the Democratic Party against independent runs: that they could hurt Democrats. The two Working Families Party candidates received nearly 100,000 votes in total — presumably all votes that otherwise would have gone to Democrats. And yet, Brooks was more than 110,000 votes behind the Democrat who received the fewest votes.
Incumbent Republican David Oh, won reelection despite not having his own party’s support. The old institutions and parties, may still be powerful but cracks in that power are starting to show. The respectable showing that Democrat Judy Moore brought to her race to unseat Councilman Brian J. O’Neill — a political rookie, Moore captured 45 percent of the vote to O’Neill’s 54 percent — means neither O’Neill or his fellow Republicans should get too comfortable.
For all the excitement these races brought, business as usual played out in the reelections of Mayor Jim Kenney (80 percent of the vote), and 13 of 14 Council incumbents (4 unopposed). All the row offices were unopposed.
Helen Gym received more votes than any other at-large candidate. Gym’s clout — in successfully defying her party in endorsing Brooks — is sure to figure in the jockeying for leadership in City Council.
Inversely, despite being under federal indictment, Bobby Henon won reelection after coasting through the primary without a challenger. Still, Henon won by a narrower lead than any other Democratic incumbent. First order of business for Council should be relieving him of his position as majority leader.
Four new faces on Council — Jamie Gauthier, Isaiah Thomas, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, and Brooks — promised big changes on highly complex issues: Councilmanic prerogative, 10-year tax abatement, and school funding. The question for these newbies is whether they can translate their ideas into bills and resolutions, and build the coalitions to make sure that they actually pass. Only then will we see what Tuesday’s election really means.