THE RECENT lunchtime political rally in front of the Delaware County Courthouse in Media had all the markings of your classic New Deal-era Democratic Party hoedown, lacking only some guys with straw hats and banjos strumming "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Scattered among the 50 or so partisans were labor activists, community organizers from nearby Philadelphia, two state senators, and at least a dozen members of a nearby Unitarian congregation who listened as the Rev. Peter Friedrichs delivered a barn-burner speech for raising Pennsylvania's minimum wage, asking the crowd whether society really values low-paid workers "less than corporate CEOs making millions!"
"No!" thundered back the attendees.
But the rally for a higher minimum wage was not a production of the Democratic Party. It was organized by a newish arrival on the state and local political scene - Pennsylvania Working Families, which hopes not only to become a force for progressive causes but evolve soon into a third party.
Aligned with major labor unions and a growing national third-party effort that has already reshaped City Hall in New York City, Pennsylvania Working Families is weighing running candidates for two at-large seats on Philadelphia City Council as early as next fall, in a bid to take advantage of the city's minority-party-representation rules to oust the fast-fading Republicans.
It's unclear whether the new party has enough time to recruit high-profile candidates and navigate difficult ballot-access laws to field two candidates in 2015 who could oust the Republican Party's two at-large City Council members - David Oh and Denny O'Brien. But the very notion is ripe with irony: That someday Philadelphia's No. 2 political party might challenge the entrenched Democratic machine not from the right, but from the left.
"We sort of had this thought that in a city that's as Democratic as Philadelphia, we should have more progressives at the city level, and also representing Philadelphia in the state legislature," said Kati Sipp, a longtime local labor organizer who became executive director of Pennsylvania Working Families as it planted its flag here this spring.
Even some usually skeptical political observers are intrigued with the idea of shaking up Philadelphia's City Hall from the left flank, as the Republican Party - which dominated the city from the Civil War until 1951, but hasn't fielded a credible mayoral candidate in more than a decade - struggles to find itself.
"I believe that it's a credible and dangerous threat," said Larry Ceisler, the Philadelphia public-relations consultant who's a longtime observer of city politics. He said he didn't think the Working Families' effort would have much impact on the entrenched Democratic Party, but it would not shock him if a liberal party could grab at least one at-large City Council seat.
That outcome would no doubt delight Sipp and some of the backers of the Working Families effort, such as two large state locals of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which has been the pacesetter in developing new strategies to push for the low-wage workers in a fast-changing 21st century economy. But backers said a much more critical goal is simply to back liberal Democrats to enact a progressive agenda, such as a higher minimum wage, mandatory sick leave and expanded Medicaid.
The group has been canvassing Philadelphia voters this fall to support a nonbinding referendum that would end the state-run School Reform Commission and bring back local control of city schools. An underlying message of the Working Families' push is that more than six decades of Democratic rule in Philadelphia has thwarted radical change.
"Any time a party has semihegemonic control of the cogs of government, that party is going to be co-opted by people who want to maintain the status quo," said Sipp, the former executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania. "There aren't a lot of institutional forces in the city that are interested in challenging the way that things get done."
Indeed, Philadelphia's modern political history has shown that "Democrat" isn't always synonymous with "liberal," as the brief reform era of Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth gave way to the machine-backed James Tate, the backlash law-and-order politics of Frank Rizzo and then the business-minded centrism of Ed Rendell, John Street and, for the most part, Mayor Nutter.
Bishop Dwayne Royster, the executive director of the activist group POWER, who's on the advisory board of Pennsylvania Working Families, said he believes the new political group can change that.
"I think we have to force Democrats to become more progressive and get out of the comfort of being in the middle all the time," Royster said. "They have to take a stand."
In recent years, Philadelphia has lagged other big coastal cities in turning left on issues such as worker pay and sick leave - although that's already changed somewhat this year as Nutter switched gears to OK a $12 minimum wage for city subcontractors and created a task force to study sick leave, after vetoing legislation in 2013.
Still, Pennsylvania - with its GOP governor and legislative majority - is the most politically divided bastion for the Working Families Party after setting up shop in more left-leaning states such as Connecticut and Oregon.
The party was born in 1998 in New York, where election law is much more favorable to third parties but a long-standing Liberal Party had been largely co-opted by Republican then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his allies. Taking advantage of that city's strict term limits, the Working Families Party has helped elect more than a dozen City Council members, including its new speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, backed new liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio, and forced powerful Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make concessions toward a more liberal agenda.
But New York, like Oregon and some of the other states where the Working Families Party operates, has something called "fusion" voting in which candidates can run on more than one party line, and which has allowed the group to work with and influence Democrats. Pennsylvania does not have fusion voting, which organizers agree will complicate things.
What's more, the Keystone State has a reputation for making it hard for third parties to even get on the ballot. In fact, right now the Working Families group here is still registered as a nonprofit and leaders have not decided when they will launch a petition drive to get a ballot line.
Getting signatures on petitions to nominate candidates costs big money, but the group's ties to the SEIU and several other deep-pocketed labor unions should help with that.
Sipp said it's possible the group could endorse and campaign for 2015 City Council candidates who technically appear on the ballot as independents, admittedly a difficult task.
That's why the group's main focus right now is the city schools' crisis, a higher minimum wage, and supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, whom it endorsed earlier this year.
The group-which also canvasses voters in nearby Delaware and Montgomery counties - hopes to also highlight issues such as public education in next spring's Philadelphia mayoral primary, although it's unclear whether it would endorse a candidate.
At the recent Media courthouse rally in support of a higher minimum wage, attendees who were handed a Working Families lapel pin when they arrived confessed they knew little about the party - but several expressed their disenchantment with the political solutions that both the Democrats and the Republicans are offering.
"We need a voice to counteract these parties that get their money from millionaires and billionaires and multinational corporations, and not from the everyday hardworking people whose wages are getting downsized," said Neil Goldstein, a semi-retired Inquirer editor and congregant in the Media Unitarian Church, who is active in a campaign to end corporate personhood.
Even state Sen. Mike Stack, the Northeast Philadelphia Democrat who's running for lieutenant governor on Wolf's ticket, agreed there were times when his party needed the proverbial kick in the butt that the liberal activists could provide.
"They're grassroots and we like grassroots energy," he said. "Politics needs energy."