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Kendra Brooks captures a Philadelphia City Council seat in a historic win for the Working Families Party and Philly progressives

“For the first time in seven decades, we broke the GOP. … We beat the Democratic establishment,” Brooks said.

Kendra Brooks gives a speech at her results watch party for the Working Families in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, Nov. 05, 2019. Brooks is declaring victory though results are not official as of yet.
Kendra Brooks gives a speech at her results watch party for the Working Families in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, Nov. 05, 2019. Brooks is declaring victory though results are not official as of yet.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks on Tuesday scored an unprecedented victory for a Philadelphia City Council at-large seat effectively reserved for non-Democrats, becoming the first candidate from outside the two major parties to win a seat in the 100 years since Council adopted a modern legislative structure.

“For the first time in seven decades, we broke the GOP. … We beat the Democratic establishment,” Brooks told a raucous crowd of supporters. “They said a black single mom from North Philly wasn’t the right person, but we have shown them that we are bigger than them.”

As expected, the five Democratic nominees — incumbents Derek Green, Allan Domb, and Helen Gym, along with newcomers Isaiah Thomas and Katherine Gilmore Richardson — took the top spots in the at-large race.

The top two vote-getters among non-Democrats were Brooks and Republican incumbent David Oh. Their four-year terms will begin in January.

GOP incumbent Al Taubenberger finished third, followed by Republican Dan Tinney, Working Families Party candidate Nicolas O’Rourke, and another Republican, Bill Heeney.

» READ MORE: What’s the Working Families Party, and how’s it different from regular Democrats?

» READ MORE: Election Day in Pa. and NJ: Delco flips, Kenney wins, Working Families Party makes history

Brooks and Oh’s victories mark the end of an unusually competitive general election season. In Philadelphia, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 7-1, most races are typically settled in the Democratic primary. But the Working Families Party’s campaign, as well as infighting among Republicans that threatened the GOP incumbents, led to uncertainty on Election Day.

As results trickled in, the Working Families Party event looked less like a political event and more like a nightclub, with supporters dancing and singing at New Barbers Hall in North Philadelphia.

Brooks, a community organizer, and O’Rourke, a pastor, set fund-raising records for third-party candidates in Philadelphia and were boosted by an independent expenditure campaign run by the national Working Families Party that spent more than a quarter-million dollars.

Their grassroots strategy — relying on volunteer-based progressive groups to knock on thousands of doors, and amassing scores of small-dollar donors — is sure to be copied by future campaigns in a city long dominated by party machines.

» READ MORE: Mayor Kenney won reelection without even campaigning. Now what?

» READ MORE: The 2023 race for Philly mayor is underway. These 7 people could be next.

They nonetheless had faced long odds because of the way the at-large race is structured, and because of opposition from Democratic leaders.

While seven members of Council are elected citywide, each major party can nominate only five candidates, and each voter can select only five. The arrangement effectively guarantees that two Council members will come from outside the dominant party. Since the Home Rule Charter took effect in the early 1950s, Democrats have always held five of the at-large seats, and Republicans have taken the two others.

The Working Families Party candidates targeted independents and politically disengaged Philadelphians. To win, they also had to persuade thousands of left-leaning voters who might traditionally vote Democratic to forgo one or two of the party’s nominees and instead consider Brooks and O’Rourke.

Their strategy didn’t sit well with the political establishment from either of the two major parties. Facing an existential threat, Philly Republicans and their supporters tried to paint the insurgents as far-left radicals.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, were furious that some in the party would consider not voting for all five of its nominees.

The Working Families Party contended that they were targeting Council’s Republicans, and that, even if their campaigns peeled off some Democratic votes, it wouldn’t be close to enough to threaten one of the party’s five nominees. In recent elections, Democrats typically received well over 100,000 votes, while the successful Republican candidates took about 35,000.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who chairs the Democratic City Committee, has insinuated that committee members and ward leaders who pushed non-Democrats in the election could be expelled from the committee after Tuesday.

Democratic elected officials who have endorsed Brooks include Gym, six state lawmakers, and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

As the Working Families Party candidates’ momentum grew, Republicans and their allies began to see them as a threat. A late push by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia’s political action committee sent out text messages and bought digital ads encouraging voters to choose Republicans and stop the Working Families Party’s agenda of “Higher Taxes” and “War on Middle Class Families.”

Tinney ran a relatively quiet campaign, avoiding the limelight and relying on the backing of the trades unions, including the politically powerful Electricians Local 98, to carry him across the finish line.

Oh, who barely squeaked into the general election by finishing fifth in the GOP primary, turned to his familiar strategy of reaching out to voters beyond the Republican strongholds in Northeast Philly.

Both Oh and Taubenberger had run afoul of some in the GOP base for votes on hot-button issues like “sanctuary cities.”

Councilman Brian O’Neill won reelection in the only other municipal election on Tuesday’s ballot that was expected to be competitive.

O’Neill, a Republican who has represented the 10th District in Northeast Philly for 40 years, defeated Democrat Judy Moore, who had been expected to give O’Neill one of the toughest challenges of his career.

» READ MORE: O’Neill beats back challenge from Moore in 10th District race

In the race for the River Wards-based 6th District, Democratic Councilman Bobby Henon, who is facing federal corruption charges, held a 19 percentage point lead over Republican challenger Pete Smith. Henon and other officials from the Electricians Local 98 under indictment have pleaded not guilty.

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.