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Another task for Biden: Winning Philly progressives who think ‘the whole system needs to go down’

Progressive leaders, organizers, and voters suggest there remains significant uncertainty about whether Biden can win enough support from the party’s left wing to avoid losing Pennsylvania.

Talia Giles, 25, of Philadelphia, speaks during a Party for Socialism and Liberation rally on Sept. 23 outside City Hall in Philadelphia.
Talia Giles, 25, of Philadelphia, speaks during a Party for Socialism and Liberation rally on Sept. 23 outside City Hall in Philadelphia.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Jackie Milestone doesn’t think much of Joe Biden. She believes the Democratic presidential nominee will “support that baseline capitalist system that exploits poor people, and Black and brown people,” and will fail to “promote any of the massive general-welfare things that this country deeply needs, that so many people are suffering without.”

But Milestone, an audio engineer who lives in the Cedar Park neighborhood of West Philadelphia, is voting for Biden anyway.

“The whole system needs to go down, and I think it’ll be easier to do that under a Biden administration, because I think Trump will make protesting illegal,” Milestone, 27, said last week while walking with her friend Kai Yohman. Both supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary this year, after voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election.

Yohman hasn’t decided whether to cast a ballot this year.

“The current state of the world feels such that we’re really at a turning point, and I don’t think Biden or Trump is the answer in terms of what communities, especially marginalized communities, need right now,” said Yohman, 34, who works in nonprofit operations and also lives in Cedar Park.

Sanders bumper stickers are as common as Biden-Harris yard signs in Cedar Park and the adjacent Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which straddle Baltimore Avenue and are a hub of Philadelphia’s ascendant progressive movement. Six of the city’s 11 voting divisions that tallied the most ballots for Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party nominee, are in the area’s 46th Ward.

And despite an almost nonexistent Republican presence, these liberal bastions and others in Philadelphia could prove as vital to Biden’s prospects against President Donald Trump as the hotly contested campaigns for voters in the suburbs and in postindustrial towns across Pennsylvania.

With Trump’s support appearing to hold steady or grow among white voters in rural areas and small towns, Biden needs huge vote totals in deeply Democratic Philadelphia to recapture a critical battleground state Trump won by less than 1% of the votes cast. The competition in recent city elections hasn’t been between Democrats and Republicans, but between candidates backed by the Democratic establishment and progressive challengers to the status quo.

Interviews with progressive leaders, organizers, and voters in Philadelphia suggest there remains significant uncertainty about whether Biden can win enough support from the party’s left wing to avoid Clinton’s fate.

Stein won almost 50,000 votes in Pennsylvania in 2016, more than Trump’s margin of victory of about 44,000. While it’s unlikely all of Stein’s voters would have otherwise gone for Clinton, that outcome was nevertheless agonizing for Democrats. But Biden will have one important advantage: a dearth of third-party options for liberals, after the state Supreme Court removed the Green Party’s presidential ticket from the ballot.

Still, City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who won a historic race last year as a candidate for the progressive Working Families Party, said she’s worried about whether Biden’s campaign has done enough to engage the city’s progressive infrastructure. The campaign, she said, reached out to her for the first time about potentially appearing at an event only last week. And she hasn’t seen many signs the campaign is taking advantage of the movement’s power in Philadelphia.

“When you are doing outreach to moderate suburban white folks and minimal campaigning in Black disenfranchised communities, that’s problematic if you want to win,” Brooks said. “I feel like they’re leaving votes on the table."

Sincere' Harris, a senior advisor for Biden’s Pennsylvania campaign, said the campaign continues to "bring more voters into this coalition, no matter who they’ve voted for in the past, and we’re seeing excitement around the Biden-Harris ticket in every corner of the state.”

» READ MORE: Black voters in Philly are backing Biden. But they’re not excited: ‘If Obama chose him, he can’t be so bad.’

The campaign has important connections with liberal activists in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Its state director, Brendan McPhillips, managed City Councilmember Helen Gym’s 2015 campaign, and deputy state director Nikki Lu worked for SEIU 32BJ, a service industry union that has provided critical financial support for progressive victories in the state.

And Biden has won endorsements from liberal groups including Indivisible, and MoveOn, while his campaign conducts weekly calls with progressive leaders.

From district attorney to City Council and the state legislature, progressives have won a series of upset election victories in Philadelphia — a city that while Democratic for decades, was not considered a wellspring of left-wing politics until the last five years. The recipe for progressive success here has typically involved two ingredients that aren’t available in this election: a candidate that excites liberals, and legions of volunteers knocking on doors, a strategy largely cast aside because of the coronavirus.

Reclaim Philadelphia, a group founded by veterans of Sanders' 2016 campaign, is not sponsoring in-person canvasses due to safety concerns, but is phone-banking, political director Amanda McIllmurray said.

She said the downside of that is that it’s harder to reach some people, especially low-income voters. But it’s also been more fruitful than usual while so many voters are at home.

When trying to win over progressives leery of Biden’s moderate record, activists like Reclaim’s volunteers are often more effective messengers than the Biden campaign itself, McIllmurray said, because they also approach the Democratic nominee with hesitation.

“What we’re saying is, ‘We also have critiques. We’re also not completely happy. However, these are the stakes,’” she said.

» READ MORE: Bernie Sanders on Joe Biden, progressive primary wins, socialism, and the presidential race in Pennsylvania

There are some liberal voters for whom no amount of effort could warm them to Biden.

Eric Jenkins was a teenager when his family’s furniture store in Brewerytown shut its doors, a victim of the 2008 financial crisis, and he balked as President Barack Obama “bailed out Wall Street instead of Black working people.”

“I will never forgive Obama or Biden for that,” said Jenkins, now a college student and member of the group Socialist Alternative.

If Sanders won the Democratic nomination, Jenkins said, he would have canvassed for his White House bid. Instead, he’s planning to cast a write-in vote for Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins — the one kicked off the ballot this month.

Jenkins wants to send a message by not backing Biden, a candidate he says doesn’t commit to “a mass movement to change things” — like a Green New Deal, defunding local police departments, and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“A lot of people say Trump is a fascist, and if you don’t vote Biden, you’re voting for fascism,” said Jenkins, 25. “But it’s not Trump that’s causing all these things. It’s part of a crisis of capitalism, of housing, of education, of police brutality. We don’t have time to keep voting for Bidens.”

Other left-wing voters plan to write in Gloria La Riva, a socialist activist who’s on the ballot in 15 states, but not Pennsylvania. She’s a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which advocates the end of America’s class structure and grew in prominence in Philadelphia this summer after organizing protests against police brutality.

Talia Giles, who joined PSL in June, gathered Wednesday with about 30 other voters to watch La Riva speak in the shadow of City Hall about police brutality, poverty, housing, and the need for greater redistribution of wealth in the United States.

Giles, 25, of West Philadelphia, said she doesn’t “demonize” Biden voters, but plans to write in La Riva.

“Aren’t you tired of voting for the lesser of two evils?” she said.

» READ MORE: Women in Pittsburgh’s wealthy suburbs could help Biden beat Trump in Pennsylvania

While some on the left can’t stomach voting for Biden, plenty are holding their nose and doing it anyway, seeing Trump as an existential threat.

Samantha Goldman is a local organizer with Refuse Fascism, a national protest group established after Trump’s election. Goldman, 33, identifies politically as a communist and has never before cast a vote for president. This year, she’s voting for Biden, but “not thinking that he is a savior of any sort.”

“He is a representative of the system of mass exploitation and brutality and oppression,” she said. “But we need to do everything in our power to give the most massive repudiation of Trump and of fascism, and that’s going to include voting.”

Some are still working through it. Salem Snow, who lives in North Philadelphia’s Norris Square, is a socialist who voted for Stein in 2016. He said that while Biden’s agenda “may not be in line with Trump’s, I feel like his political history is.”

But Snow, a registered Democrat, may vote for him anyway. He’s undecided between that and writing in another candidate. If he chooses Biden, he said, it would be to “dis-embolden the racists that have been emboldened under Trump.”

“The Democratic Party tactics are really confusing,” Snow said. “Hillary said, ‘I’m not Trump.’ Biden is running on the same thing. ... Anyone can be ‘not Trump.’ That’s just a really low bar.”