Election 2020

This left-wing organizer wants to snag a powerful PA Senate seat from Philly’s Democratic machine

Nikil Saval of Reclaim Philadelphia hosts his first fundraiser next week.

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Saval: Author photo; Farnese: District office
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Updated 10 a.m.

A left-wing political organizer and South Philadelphia ward leader is exploring a run for one of the city’s most historically powerful seats in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

Nikil Saval, leader of the city’s 2nd Ward and cofounder of Reclaim Philadelphia, launches his first fundraiser next week for a potential bid against state Sen. Larry Farnese. In question is the First Senatorial District, a massive block that covers parts of the River Wards, most of Center City and just about all of South Philly.

The two previous seat-holders rank among the most iconic Philly political bosses — and both ended up behind bars. Farnese himself has already weathered a federal bribery case, though some described the allegations as a stretch.

Saval is Farnese’s first rumored challenger in the 2020 primary. The 36-year-old’s candidacy would represent the latest matchup between the Democratic party’s establishment players and progressive newcomers who have upended local politics in recent years.

The event scheduled for Saval’s exploratory committee next week seeks contributions ranging from $25 to $1,000.

“I am considering a run for the first Senate District to fight on the state level for transformative policies,” Saval told Billy Penn.

He declined to elaborate on a fundraising goal that would make or break his bid. Though he has already outlined a number of policy ideas that align closely with those touted by insurgent progressive politicians. Among the core proposals: statewide rent stabilization, subsidized family care and a Green New Deal for Pennsylvania.

A Philadelphia resident since 2011, Saval came to politics via the pen. He writes about urban policy, architecture and design for the New York Times and the New Yorker, and has authored a book on office workplace culture.

He is also one of the founding leaders of Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive political outfit that developed out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. The organization has since matured, helping elect several local officials on a platform that organizers say values working class people over monied corporate interests.

Elected leader of South Philly’s 2nd Ward last year, Saval has been critical of the local Democratic party’s politics. His candidacy for state office would follow another rising star in his political circle. In 2017, Reclaim-backed state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, a former WHYY reporter, took over a seat long held by old-guard Democrats.

1st Senate District

A hub for Philly’s Democratic machine 

The history of Pennsylvania’s First Senatorial District doubles as a guide to Philadelphia machine politics.

In the 1960s and 70s, the seat was held by the late Henry J. Cianfrani, known to friends and foes as “Buddy.” A mentor to Democratic City Committee Chairman and former Congressman Bob Brady, Cianfrani was a South Philly-bred powerbroker who controlled patronage jobs and, for many, the keys to higher office. He was ultimately convicted on racketeering charges.

Enter former state Sen. Vince Fumo — an early mentor of Mayor Jim Kenney. The infamous senator held court for three decades until his fall on federal corruption charges in 2008. A jury eventually convicted him for misappropriating millions in state dollars, among other charges. Fumo served a four-year sentence until his release in 2013, and remains active as a lobbyist.

Farnese emerged in 2009, vaulting from politically unknown Center City attorney to the party’s darling heir. Observers described Farnese as a relief from his predecessors’ often ruthless personalities, though his tenure hasn’t been without scrutiny. Federal prosecutors indicted him in a vote-buying scheme in 2016 over a $6,000 payment related to his work as a ward leader. A jury acquitted him on all charges the following year.

In his last electoral battle, Farnese coasted to victory. His Democratic challenger was at one point temporarily removed from the ballot over a petition challenge, and Farnese went on to clinch the primary with 74% of the vote.

On his fundraising page, Saval took a jab at Farnese’s backers as he detailed his own prospects in the race.

“We won’t have the money that our opponent, a corporate lawyer in Center City, will undoubtedly have — I do not take donations from the fossil fuel industry, real estate developers, or education privatizers,” Saval wrote. “But we intend to put our money to use: hiring field organizers, paying them a living wage, and knocking 100,000 doors in the district.”

Farnese’s latest campaign finance report from 2018 showed he had around $62,000 cash on hand.

The state senator could not be reached for comment.

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Larry Farnese