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The progressive Working Families Party is gearing up to try to oust the few Republicans left in Philadelphia government

Kendra Brooks shocked Philly’s political world in 2019. Now the Working Families Party is trying to replicate that historic victory next year.

Nicolas O'Rourke addresses a crowd at a rally outside of Hahnemann University Hospital in 2019. He ran for Council that year and lost, but he's planning to run again as a member of the Working Families Party, the progressive third party aiming to oust Republicans from local government.
Nicolas O'Rourke addresses a crowd at a rally outside of Hahnemann University Hospital in 2019. He ran for Council that year and lost, but he's planning to run again as a member of the Working Families Party, the progressive third party aiming to oust Republicans from local government.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Kendra Brooks shocked Philadelphia’s political world in 2019 when she was elected to City Council as a member of a progressive third party, seizing a seat that had been held by Republicans for nearly 70 years.

Now the Working Families Party is trying to replicate that historic victory next year — perhaps multiple times over.

Brooks intends to run again alongside the Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke, who also sought an at-large seat in 2019 but lost. O’Rourke will officially launch his campaign Wednesday for the seat held by Councilmember David Oh, a Republican who is expected to run for mayor.

Citing former President Donald Trump and the election denial movement, O’Rourke said in an interview that the modern Republican Party “doesn’t deserve governing power.”

“The progressive movement has never been stronger,” said O’Rourke, who is also the organizing director for the Working Families Party in Pennsylvania. “The momentum has been building since Kendra’s election. Now we’re primed and ready and believe it’s possible.”

How non-Democrats win elections in Philly

Winning as a third-party candidate remains an expensive and challenging proposition that takes a large voter-education apparatus.

Council has seven at-large members who represent the entire city, but under the city charter, voters can only pick five candidates, and each party can only nominate five people. It basically guarantees two seats are reserved for members outside the dominant party. The city’s heavily Democratic electorate has meant that five Democrats and two Republicans would win the seats — until Brooks’ victory.

For a third party to beat a Republican, they generally need to siphon away some voters who usually pick five Democrats to instead select fewer Democrats and vote for one or two third-party candidates. (This notably frustrated Democratic Party officials in 2019.)

Brooks did it successfully, leaving Republicans stunned. She said she’s confident her status as an incumbent with a legislative record to run on will help lift the Working Families Party to take both seats.

“There’s no reason we couldn’t take both, and I think the time is ripe right now,” she said. “My record is proof that the Working Families Party is able to deliver for Philadelphia.”

O’Rourke, a pastor at Living Water United Church of Christ in Oxford Circle and a mainstay on the city’s progressive activist circuit, said third parties are increasingly attractive to voters who are “disillusioned and disenchanted with politics.”

“They see two dominant parties and don’t see themselves,” he said. “We have seen again and again that when you have candidates of, and for, the working class, you can cut through the cynicism.”

Republicans are gearing up for a fight

GOP leaders say they’re not taking Council’s minor-party seats for granted and are employing a new strategy this cycle.

The party’s ward leaders last month made a handful of early endorsements — six months ahead of the primary — in an effort to coalesce around the candidates they think can withstand the challenge posed by the ascendant Working Families Party, said Vince Fenerty, chair of the Republican Party in Philadelphia.

Fenerty said he refuses to let the GOP “get our butts kicked by the Working Families Party because we aren’t awake.”

So ward leaders endorsed Drew Murray, a longtime civic leader in Center City, and Jim Hasher, a real estate broker and restaurant owner — both of whom unsuccessfully ran for Council in a special election held last month. Democrats were widely expected to win the seats, given registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city 7-1.

» READ MORE: Philly City Council results: Democrats sweep four open seats in special elections

Fenerty said Republicans were attempting to clear the primary field and now have a year to campaign for Murray and Hasher. While the party will endorse three more candidates later in the process to put forth a full slate, he said it will encourage Republican voters next November to select only Murray and Hasher with the hopes of lifting them to victory.

Murray, a former Democrat, said he plans to tell voters that Working Families Party representation on Council draws the body leftward on policy.

“I know a lot of people are frustrated with the state of the city,” he said. “They believe that we need more balance on Council.”

And Hasher said attempts to portray the Republicans in the race as extreme will fall flat.

“Our politics and our problems are local,” he said. “I’m going to keep centered on the problems at hand.”

Besides Oh, the only remaining Republican on Council is Brian O’Neill, whom the party also endorsed and who has represented his Northeast Philadelphia district for more than 40 years.

WFP candidates want other seats, too

The Working Families Party may also vie for seats elsewhere in municipal government.

Jarrett Smith, an organizer who has ties to progressive labor unions, is fund-raising to run as a Working Families Party candidate for the City Commissioners seat currently held by Seth Bluestein, the only Republican on the three-member elections board. The Working Families Party hasn’t endorsed Smith or any candidate for commissioner.

Bluestein declined to comment. But he’s widely understood to be considering running and has also won the endorsement of the city GOP. Under state law, commissioners are required to recuse themselves from the elections board when they officially become a candidate for office.

Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, nominated Bluestein earlier this year to take over the seat that had been held by his boss, former Republican commissioner Al Schmidt, who resigned to head the good-government group Committee of Seventy.

Progressive organizations, including the Working Families Party, attempted to derail the nomination and said Kenney could have nominated a third-party candidate to fill the seat. A handful of Democratic elected officials joined the effort and called for Council to reject any Republican (though two quickly abandoned that position).

“If a Trump Republican commissioner were to get into that seat — through appointment or the 2023 municipal elections — we believe it is not an exaggeration to say the balance of democracy may fall in their hands,” O’Rourke said at the time. “This is not something Philadelphia can afford.”

Council approved the nomination. Brooks was the only member to vote against it.

Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this story.