In a graffiti-covered room at the South Street bar Tattooed Mom, State Sen. Larry Farnese took the microphone and tried to convince the crowd he’s one of them.

“I was progressive when, quite frankly, it wasn’t that cool to be progressive,” Farnese said during an event last month for the liberal group Philly for Change.

Farnese, a South Philadelphia Democrat, is facing a primary challenge from journalist and author Nikil Saval, a political activist who cofounded the group Reclaim Philadelphia.

It’s shaping up to be the latest battle in the ongoing war between the old and new schools of Philadelphia politics. A win for Saval in the First Senate District, the former bastion of longtime power broker Vince Fumo, would be a remarkable symbolic victory for the new left.

But to some, Farnese, 51, seems like an odd target for progressives who notched big victories in recent years, including the elections of District Attorney Larry Krasner and City Councilmember Kendra Brooks. While Farnese is a product of the older machine politics, he has maintained a liberal voting record in Harrisburg.

In an interview, Saval, a self-described democratic socialist, avoided criticizing Farnese by name, but emphasized his experience as an activist.

“I have a background in labor and community organizing, and that gives me a sense of the way that communities can not only hold legislators accountable, but back them when they want to do ambitious things and stick their neck out,” said Saval, 37. “What we have in mind is vastly more ambitious ... than anything we’ve seen thus far in the state legislature.”

Democratic State Senate candidate Nikil Saval (right), who is running against incumbent Larry Farnese, talks with Anh Nguyen, a census coordinator with VietLead, as he campaigns at the VietLead Lunar Festival in Philadelphia.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Democratic State Senate candidate Nikil Saval (right), who is running against incumbent Larry Farnese, talks with Anh Nguyen, a census coordinator with VietLead, as he campaigns at the VietLead Lunar Festival in Philadelphia.

Reclaim, which was formed by alumni of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, is particularly strong in Center City, Fishtown, and the east-of-Broad neighborhoods of South Philadelphia in the district. But some skeptics of Philadelphia’s progressive ascendancy see Saval’s challenge as having less to do with principle than opportunism.

"You’re seeing an otherwise liberal or progressive elected official with a record who some people think isn’t liberal or progressive enough,” said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive and longtime observer of city politics. “It’s hard to believe it’s about ideology, so you have to wonder if it’s more about expanding the footprint of this new wave of progressive activists.”

Raised in the Los Angeles area, Saval moved to Philadelphia in 2011 and lives in Queen Village.

“It is an increasingly diverse and also an increasingly unequal district," Saval said. “It is a place where people struggle and also a place where people have been organizing for a better life.”

The April 28 primary will almost surely decide the November winner in the heavily Democratic district.

It’s not Vince Fumo’s district anymore

Fumo, who represented the 1st District for three decades before going to federal prison on corruption charges in 2009, said he helped draw the district lines to split it into two ideological camps. Fumo was conservative on issues like gun rights and liberal on issues like reproductive rights.

His strategy: If challenged by a Center City liberal, play to his South Philly base. If challenged in South Philly, appeal to liberals in Center City.

“It was perfectly balanced,” Fumo said. “You couldn’t beat me.”

The district stretches north and east, from Philadelphia International Airport through South Philadelphia, and Center City to Fairmount and Port Richmond.

Former Pennsylvania State Sen. Vince Fumo.
Stu Bykofsky / File Photograph
Former Pennsylvania State Sen. Vince Fumo.

That political balance now appears inverted. And Fumo said he told Farnese that, in Saval, “now they found someone more liberal than you."

South Philadelphia’s 1st and 2nd Wards were taken over in 2018 by Reclaim members, who espouse a more progressive vision for the city than the Democratic City Committee. Saval was leader of the 2nd Ward until he stepped down in January to challenge Farnese. Another Reclaim member replaced him.

Farnese leads Center City’s 8th Ward. He and Mike Boyle, leader of Center City’s 5th Ward, are more aligned with party leadership.

Saval and Farnese can both expect to benefit from the wards aligned with their wings of the party, past election results show. In the 2017 district attorney race, for instance, Krasner’s margin of victory was 10 points higher in the Reclaim-aligned wards than in the Farnese wards.

More than half the district’s Democratic voters, however, live in wards whose leaders are aligned with neither Farnese nor Reclaim.

Farnese recalled being warned, after winning the 2008 primary to succeed Fumo, to keep quiet in the 1st and 2nd Wards about his support for abortion rights, raising the minimum wage, and environmental protections.

“I’ve always held these values," Farnese said. "And I’m just really excited that it’s finally a time when parts of this district have actually caught up to me and my progressive bona fides.”

Clash of titans

Farnese first won the seat in 2008 in a clash of two Democratic titans of the time, Fumo and John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, leader of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Fumo, then under investigation, dropped out and backed Farnese, who defeated Dougherty by 5 points, relying on Center City’s liberal voters. Dougherty’s more traditional base in South Philadelphia neighborhoods like Pennsport couldn’t keep pace.

Farnese’s 2008 victory was seen as an upset then. He hasn’t faced a competitive election since.

Boyle sees potential parallels with the coming primary.

Back then, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were still competing for the Democratic presidential nomination as Pennsylvania’s primary approached. That drove voter enthusiasm, especially among progressives. Boyle thinks Dougherty would have won the 2008 primary if the presidential nomination had been settled.

Twelve years later, Boyle wonders if Sanders will help drive turnout that spills into the state Senate race. “That could determine what happens here,” he said.

Union involvement

Although Farnese is the candidate of the Democratic machine, he won’t enjoy the backing of one of its major constituencies: the building trades unions, which are furious about his support for keeping the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia closed after a catastrophic explosion last year.

While those unions are unlikely to support Saval, who is staunchly opposed to expanding fossil-fuel production, a loss of their support could hurt Farnese.

Farnese said he backs Mayor Jim Kenney’s push for the site to be developed, which may end its use as a refinery. “I certainly want to be supported by all labor and I want to work with them,” Farnese said.

Jim Snell, business manager for Local 420 of the Steamfitters Union, invoked Farnese’s name during a City Hall rally in January to reopen the refinery.

“Hey, look, we had a good relationship until that day," Snell said of Farnese. "This is serious. And when you turn your back on us, I cut you off. You’re done.”

 

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.