Independents are on the rise in Philly. Could they actually win a City Council seat?

Seven third-party candidates filed to run for City Council — with an eye for the two at-large seats held by Republicans.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Independents make up just 12% of voters in Philadelphia. But this year, they’re signing up in droves. More than a quarter of new registrations since the start of this year have been neither Dem or Republican, according to the Inquirer, but independent. That poses a problem for the other parties in the upcoming November election.

Ten third-party candidates filed petitions Thursday to run in the general election — seven of them for City Council’s at-large seats.

(T. Milton Street Sr., the former state senator turned convicted felon turned evergreen political candidate, did not file to run against Mayor Jim Kenney as he announced he would back in May.)

There are seven at-large seats on the legislative body, but voters can pick only five. Two seats are reserved for minority party or independent candidates.

The independents are not likely to best any of the five popular Democrats already on the ballot.

Instead, their gambit is to wrest those two minority seats from Republican control.

History is not in their favor: No independent has succeeded in clawing away one of these seats since the city’s charter was enacted in 1952. All four third-party candidates who ran in 2015 came in dead last, thousands of votes behind the nearest GOP contender.

But 2015 was not 2019, and even Democratic machine candidates have been knocked out of power in the years since the President Donald Trump took over the White House and subsequently animated local politics across the country.

“Unlike four years ago,” said political consultant Mustafa Rashed, “the localization of politics has become more important because of what’s happening at a national level.”

Two of the candidates from one third party are also trying something different in their bid to upset the Republicans: they’re running together.

Teaming up to make a progressive splash

Backed by the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, community organizer Kendra Brooks and the Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke said they each filed the necessary 3,226 signatures to run on Tuesday.

Working Families, a national progressive political organization, has gotten involved in several Philly races in recent years, including District Attorney Larry Krasner’s 2017 campaign. The party is also endorsing Democratic at-large nominees Helen Gym and Isaiah Thomas in the upcoming election.

O’Rourke, of West Philadelphia, says the duo wants to best the five Republican nominees on the ballot. But Democratic party leaders feel that independent bids just steal votes from their ballot of five candidates.

Brooks doesn’t see it that way.

“The Democrats are already secure,” said Brooks, a lifelong Nicetown resident. “We’re hoping to generate a stronger Democratic base by activating voters who are usually disengaged in the process, like folks who are directly affected by gun violence.”

The duo’s financial path to victory remains hazy. Political observers say it would take a lot of money — estimates run as high as $1 million — to pull off an independent upset in this race.

Vanessa Clifford, a political strategist for the Working Families, said neither the national nor state party would be giving money to the candidates, but that the party will offer campaign support like text message voter outreach and other services.

“We’re fundraising with 25 hours of call time a week,” O’Rourke said.

The road to 35,000 votes

Other at-large candidates who filed petitions Thursday include: Libertarian and gun-rights activist Maj Toure; Steve Cherniavsky from the “Term Limits Philadelphia” party, which is pushing to enact strict term limits; Independent Clarc King; and independent Joe Cox, a bike courier whose signature pink mohawk has become a fixture in weekly CIty Council sessions.

“I’ve been to every single Council session since I announced,” Cox said. “That’s more than three or four incumbents.”

Cox says he’s running to “look out for the city’s homeless” and “make Philadelphia less racist.”

Sherrie Cohen, an attorney and popular LGBT rights advocate, also filed petitions to run as an independent. She ran as a Democrat for City Council at-large earlier this year before she got dropped out of the race.

Libertarian Matt Baltsar, independent Karla Cruel and independent Greg Paulmier all filed petitions to run in district council races.

One candidate showed up after Thursday’s 5 p.m. deadline in City Hall, only to be turned away.

It’s not clear how many signatures each candidate submitted. Some could face legal challenges in an effort to get them knocked off the ballot.

For those who survive, the hill ahead is steep.

Democrats running for at-larges seats normally clear 100,000 votes in the general election, while the two top Republican candidates secure around 35,000 votes. Historically, independents have had trouble keeping up with even the least popular Republican hopefuls.

During this same race in 2015, Andrew Stober, a former policy aide to Mayor Michael Nutter, managed to get 16,300 votes — less than half of what he needed to edge out any of the Republicans.

And the Republican competition will be putting money into its own race for those two seats this year. A faction within the party is dead set on unseating incumbent Republican Councilmember David Oh.

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Kendra Brooks