In her bid to win a Philadelphia City Council seat that has been held by Republicans for decades, Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks has drawn endorsements from high-profile elected officials and some unions, anger from the city’s Democratic establishment, and the backing of Philly’s progressive movement.
She’s also raised a record amount of money for a third-party candidate.
By mid-September, Brooks had raised $147,000, and her Working Families Party running mate, Nicolas O’Rourke, had brought in $87,000. They’re also getting help from an independent expenditure campaign by the national party, which hasn’t yet revealed much about its spending.
The previous record for an independent at-large Council candidate was set by Andrew Stober, whose unsuccessful 2015 bid brought in $139,000 over the entire election cycle. Brooks hit her number after about five months.
Fund-raising is especially important for candidates trying to do what Brooks and O’Rourke are attempting: to take from the Republicans the two at-large seats that are reserved by the Home Rule Charter for candidates outside the dominant party, which since the 1950s has been the Democrats. Their campaigns will require massive voter-education efforts because they not only must make their names known but get traditionally Democratic voters to handpick them.
While Brooks’ campaign remains a long shot, her fund-raising prowess makes it more feasible that she could compete with the Republicans. Already, she has surpassed her GOP rivals’ pace in the last few months.
Beyond the topline figures, Brooks’ fund-raising is qualitatively different than that of most candidates. Nearly two out of three donors gave her campaign less than $50, and such small-dollar donations make up a larger share of her money. The approach mirrors those of U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaigns, which have eschewed the traditional courting of megadonors and relied on record numbers of small-dollar backers.
Like them, the Working Families candidates are pushing a leftist agenda. Brooks and O’Rourke support a $15-an-hour minimum wage, ending or modifying the 10-year tax abatement for developers, and reducing the city’s jail population.
Some of that small-dollar fund-raising was a matter of necessity: Without the backing of a powerful political organization in the city, Brooks and O’Rourke have had to build from scratch. No easily nabbed major endorsements, no donor base to call upon, no field organization to crank into gear.
“I didn’t have a machine telling me how to fund-raise. In my mind, I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to raise this money,’” she said.
That worry was compounded, she said, because many of the people she knew personally from her work as a community organizer didn’t have much to spare: “In the beginning, that was my biggest fear: I can go through my phone and get $5.”
She was also cold-calling donors to previous candidates, Brooks said, and receiving lots of rejections, including from those who said they feared angering the city’s political establishment.
Eventually, the data show, Brooks’ campaign began to build financial momentum.
The Inquirer analyzed Brooks’ fund-raising data from the campaign’s start in April through Sept. 16, the latest available. Brooks’ campaign also shared data on small-dollar donors with The Inquirer. (Campaigns are not required to disclose information on donors who give a total of $50 or less in city elections; these “unitemized” donations are reported only as a single total.)
One way to measure fund-raising is to focus on the number of people who gave money instead of the amounts given or the number of contributions.
Looked at that way, Brooks’ donor base grew slowly, especially during the early soft-launch stage of the campaign. A public push began in July, anchored by a major fund-raiser in South Philadelphia and coinciding with the liberal Netroots Nation gathering in the city. “Things begin to take off” around that time, Brooks said.
Separate the large and small donations, and a pattern emerges:
Two-thirds of Brooks’ donors come from the small-dollar group, giving $50 or less; a distant second is the group of $50 to $100 donors.
Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat, personally gave $500, putting her near the top of the donors list.
A soon-to-be colleague of Gym — and of Brooks, if she wins — also donated: Democrat Jamie Gauthier, who is running unopposed in West Philadelphia’s 3rd District after her upset primary victory against 27-year incumbent Jannie Blackwell.
Herself an outsider to the party establishment, Gauthier gave $200, and her campaign gave $500.
Other notable names include Justin DiBerardinis, who lost in the Democratic primary for Council this year and gave $100. Nina Ahmad, the former deputy mayor who resigned to challenge then-U.S. Rep. Bob Brady before running instead for lieutenant governor, gave $75.
Still, while the support of small-dollar donors is significant, political action committees can give much larger amounts. Just eight donations from PACs represent the majority of Brooks’ money raised through Sept. 16.
The largest donor was the 215 People’s Alliance, a progressive group which gave $23,800. Brooks, a longtime activist, serves on its steering committee.
That was followed by the national Working Families Party, which directly gave $16,800 each to Brooks and O’Rourke.
“Maybe a few larger donors will kick in the end,” Brooks said, but she isn’t counting on it. Instead, she’ll ask her supporters to keep giving what they can, even in small amounts: “I’m expecting they’ll continue to give to get us over the threshold in November.”
While Brooks has raised a relatively large amount of money, she is still fighting an uphill battle.
Just keeping up with their opponents may not be enough for the Working Families Party candidates because they have to persuade voters to do something unusual — especially in Pennsylvania, where voters can cast a straight-party ballot.
“They have to both make the case that ‘I am a great candidate,’ and ‘you should resist your instinct to go straight-party, to do something a little extra for me,’” said Robin Kolodny, chair of the political science department at Temple University.
And while Brooks and O’Rourke are targeting Republican seats, the reality is they need traditionally Democratic voters. While there are seven at-large Council members, each party can only nominate five candidates, and each voter can only choose five. Consequently, Brooks and O’Rourke likely need thousands of left-leaning voters to forgo voting for all five Democrats — a reality that has angered the city’s Democratic Party.
To mount that kind of campaign demands money and manpower. Stober, whose 2015 run is considered the best-organized third-party campaign in recent Council history, has said that the experience left him believing that it would require $1 million to win without an "R" or "D" label.
Brooks said she hopes to raise $200,000 by Election Day, meaning about $50,000 in the last six weeks of the campaign. She’ll also be bolstered by an influx of spending from the national Working Families Party, which operates a so-called super PAC that has already begun spending money on campaign literature and other materials. (Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts but are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns.)
Brooks is also making sure there are people knocking on doors and placing calls leading up to and on Election Day. That may be most important, Kolodny said. A supporter who gives very little or nothing may still be willing to volunteer, which can be more valuable.
“It’s the number of voters that makes the most difference,” she said. “And there’s more than one way to get at them.”