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How ‘outsider’ Nikil Saval toppled a longtime state senator in Philly

Saval, a writer-turned-politician, won the Democratic primary for the Pennsylvania Senate’s 1st District, defeating three-term incumbent Larry Farnese.

Nikil Saval outside his home in Philadelphia on June 11, 2020.
Nikil Saval outside his home in Philadelphia on June 11, 2020.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Nikil Saval was taking a moment to breathe.

Six days had passed since the Pennsylvania primary election and results showed Saval with a commanding lead over three-term State Sen. Larry Farnese in the Philadelphia-based First Senate District. But there were still thousands and thousands of mail ballots to be tallied.

Saval sat in Washington Square, watching his 20-month-old son, Ishaan, bounce a green rubber ball and coo at passing dogs. A woman approached, recognizing him despite the mask he wore to fend off the coronavirus.

“Are you … , ” she started to ask, seeming unsure about how to complete the question.

Saval helped her out. Yes, he was the candidate leading in the race. She offered congratulations.

“This has been the craziest thing,” Saval said after she moved on. “I’m pretty uncomfortable with the whole candidate-centric part of the American political process.”

This passing moment in Philadelphia politics shines a light on how unusual the 37-year-old’s victory is: a candidate derided as an outsider in a parochial city, capturing a seat held for decades by a reliable Democratic machine player.

» READ MORE: From before the election: Vince Fumo’s old district is the scene of the latest battle between old and new Philadelphia politics

It also lays bare the bookish nature of Saval, a writer-turned-politician who uses phrases like candidate-centric to restlessly describe his new career.

Saval was born in Los Angeles to parents who immigrated from India and ran a local pizza parlor franchise in Santa Monica. He spent some time working the register there but now regrets never learning how to make a pizza.

He worked in publishing and magazines and moved to Philadelphia when his now-wife started graduate school here in 2011. They live in Queen Village.

Saval, a self-described democratic socialist, worked in the city on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. He and other local Sanders supporters then started Reclaim Philadelphia, a political organization that has played a key role in helping elect progressives, including District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017 and City Councilmember Kendra Brooks in 2019. Reclaim also helped Saval win Democratic control of South Philadelphia’s 2nd Ward.

Farnese, 52, and his political mentor, former State Sen. Vince Fumo, repeatedly cast Saval as an outsider, sometimes in ways Saval saw as “codedly racist” and aimed at the color of his skin.

Farnese, in a letter to all the Democratic committee people in the district, declared himself “a proud native son of our community,” while also touting his grandfather’s immigration from Sicily.

Fumo, who represented the 1st District for three decades before going to federal prison on corruption charges in 2009, was incensed last month when Saval cited on Facebook a 2016 federal indictment that accused Farnese of bribery in a ward-leader election. Farnese denied wrongdoing, fought the charges, and was acquitted in 2017.

Fumo responded to the post, calling Saval, “a real a—hole” and noting the acquittal. “Why don’t you go back to your Socialist Party and to NY, where you came from?” Fumo posted.

“The outsider rhetoric is coded,” Saval said this week. “It’s not just that I’m not from here. It’s that I’m not from here in a deeper sense. I’m just glad it didn’t work.”

Fumo denied any racist intent, suggesting the claim is too common in politics these days.

“I guess that’s the word you use now," he said. “He’s still an outsider.”

» READ MORE: Daylin Leach loses to Amanda Cappelletti in high-profile Democratic primary after #MeToo allegations

That conflict showed the new Philadelphia vs. old Philadelphia nature of the race. Fumo once helped design the district’s borders so he could play up progressive policies to Center City liberals and a more traditional middle-of-the-road approach in old-school South Philadelphia.

“The area of South Philly that you could always count on, the little old ladies, has changed with the quote-unquote progressives moving in,” Fumo said. “They moved in because the rent was cheap.”

Farnese’s campaign said he was not ready to comment on the election results.

The district stretches north and east, from Philadelphia International Airport through South Philadelphia, and Center City to Fairmount and Port Richmond. There is no Republican on the Nov. 3 general election ballot in the 1st District, where 72% of the voters are registered Democrats.

Saval pitched himself as a far more progressive voice for the district, with campaign literature promising an economy, health care, education, and housing “for all.” He capitalized on his newness, saying he is not a “career politician” and is willing to take on political machines.

Farnese tried to counter with his record, saying he took progressive positions before they were popular across the district. He outspent Saval on television ads, trying to hammer home that point.

State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, a former WHYY reporter, is part of the recent progressive wave Fumo laments. Another self-described democratic socialist, she ran for the state House two years ago in South Philadelphia, defeating an opponent who had worked for Farnese and Fumo.

Fiedler, who faced no opposition in the Democratic primary as she seeks a second term, met Saval about six years ago when they were both journalists. She didn’t expect to enter politics back then, and didn’t expect it of Saval either.

Her race two years ago demonstrated how fresh ideas could capture attention in old neighborhoods. Among her supporters were people who didn’t expect her to win.

“It shouldn’t be a question of: Does this person fit a model of who we’ve been told an elected official should look like?” she said. “For a very long time there have been forces across the spectrum pushing the idea that this is impossible.”

That perception, she added, can be surmounted with hard work.

“He is a person who is hardworking, true to his word, and operates from a place of compassion” Fiedler said of Saval.

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Saval did benefit from some old-school Philadelphia political maneuvering, especially as the primary approached. Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of the best-funded political action committees in the state, gave him $50,000 in the 11 days before the primary.

That amounted to about 14% of Saval’s overall fund-raising.

Local 98 is headed by John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, a longtime Fumo foe who was defeated in the 2008 Democratic primary when Farnese first won the seat. Dougherty, who has pleaded not guilty as he now faces his own federal indictment, had clashed with Farnese recently about the closure of a refinery in South Philadelphia.

Frank Keel, a Local 98 spokesperson, said the union bet big on Saval late in the game after doing some “homework” on the race.

“He’s a smart, young, progressive, pro-labor candidate who will fight for our issues in Harrisburg, unlike the other guy,” Keel said.

» READ MORE: Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai expected to resign before the end of his term, sources say

Local 98 members circulated at South Philadelphia polling places on election day, sporting their well-known “big-head” pictures of Saval, a tactic where a large picture of a candidate’s face is mounted on poster board and attached to a long stick.

“It’s as surprising as any number of things that happened in this campaign” Saval said of the big-head treatment. “I’m happy to represent the labor movement in our work. That’s where I come at it.”

Saval credits his previous work in local politics for developing a base of 500 volunteers who made thousands of phone calls to voters during a campaign in which traditional political tactics — knocking on doors, sitting down for coffee meetings and rallies — were not acceptable for a pandemic era.

“We connected with hundreds of people across the district,” he said. “We had a message and a vision that people wanted and thought was the right direction to go in as a district.”