The buzz in Field House grew louder every time Sen. Elizabeth Warren wasn’t on screen. The crowd of close to 300 took the opportunity to compare Warren-themed bingo debate watch cards, to go re-up their drink orders, or to check the Phillies score.
When Warren got a question, a literal hush fell over the bar.
“It really does feel like Warren’s show,” said Alex Cupo, 25, of South Philly, “She’s showing what she stands for and I think it’s a good opportunity to hear from the other candidates, but ultimately there’s clearly front-runners and she’s it.”
The event at the bar in Center City, organized by a grassroots local group, Philly for Warren, was likely the biggest public debate watch party in the city Wednesday night, when Warren was the top-polling candidate on stage. Elsewhere, there were smaller get-togethers for Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
While Warren is polling behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, her popularity is growing in the polls and Wednesday night, on a much smaller stage, she was the favorite at this particular bar in Philadelphia.
The mostly under-40 crowd cheered Warren when she defended her decision to name corporations that she thinks are bad actors. “What’s been missing is courage, courage in Washington to take on the giants. That’s part of the corruption in this system," she said. "... I want to return power to the people, and that means calling out the names of monopolists.”
“Yeah it does, Lizzy!" a woman shouted.
There were bingo cards sent over by the campaign with such phrases as “I have a plan for that” and “Cancel student loan debt.” One person was stamping $20 bills with a sketch of Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson.
“I want Warren to talk now,” one woman pouted when the Massachusetts senator hadn’t spoken in a while.
Elizabeth Vale, a friend and former colleague of Warren’s, spoke to the crowd before the debate began, encouraging them to get involved locally in the campaign and to donate what they could.
“Money is unfortunately the lifeblood of these campaigns,” she said. Vale, who was the business liaison for President Barack Obama in the White House when he created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, recalled the fight Warren waged to push the agency through, against the protests and lobbying of big banks.
“If I’ve learned one thing about Elizabeth Warren, it’s never to bet against her. It’s a waste of time,” Vale said to the crowd.
City Council member Helen Gym attended the event, as did Jamie Gauthier, who defeated Jannie Blackwell in the primary race for Council’s 3rd District, covering West Philadelphia. Gauthier said it’s early but Warren is a favorite of hers, whom she wanted to run in the last presidential election.
Ben Weber, 31, an architect who lives in South Philly, wore a T-shirt that read: “Best President that Money Can’t Buy."
“I wish she was on tomorrow night,” Weber said. “I just really want to see her go against Biden. We’re already seeing so, so many of her policies are driving the conversation, what candidates get asked. She’s sounding like a leader.”
The group gathered Wednesday night included a lot of younger, politically engaged people in the city. Anne Wakabayashi, who works at Emerge, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, said Warren represents a new model for women seeking election. “I think this is what it looks like when really technocratic women get on stage and talk about policy," Wakabayashi said. "It’s not something we’ve seen women be successful at for a while, and she breaks things down in an interesting way that’s also engaging. I think it’s great that we get to see so many women running and so many different ways of doing it.”
Beth Finn, a candidate for City Council at-large, said Warren inspired her run. Finn, who cofounded the Philadelphia Women’s March, gushed that probably the best part of the whole campaign (she came out 13th among 28 candidates and lost) was meeting Warren at an event last year. “I love how she thinks about how policies will affect people," Finn said. “She’s exciting, and we need someone exciting.”
The progressive push for Warren appears to be growing nationally, too. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a national group that endorses Warren, launched a “Switch to Warren” campaign this week to post stories of voters who shifted their support to her. The group’s cofounder, Adam Green, said PCCC has one million members nationwide and 25,000 in Pennsylvania.
“The two honey pots for Elizabeth Warren are Biden voters and undecided voters because those two pockets are fundamentally electability voters,” or people voting based on who they think is most likely to beat President Donald Trump, said Green.
“People currently believe [Biden is] electable, but the Biden supporters are ready to bolt at the first moment he does something cringeworthy on the debate stage," Green said. "I think a lot of people have the sinking feeling that he’s not our best foot forward.”