Independent Joe Cox speaks at the Friends of Free Library forum, next to fellow third-party candidates Sherrie Cohen and Kendra Brooks

One of the only public forums leading up to Philadelphia’s November City Council election was dominated by third-party candidates Monday night — because they’re the only ones who showed up.

Hosted by the Friends of the Free Library at the Lillian Marrero branch in Fairhill, the session was open to everyone running for one of Council’s seven at-large seats. But only two of the five Republican at-large nominees attended, and none of the five Democrats made the trip.

In front of a crowd of 40-plus neighborhood residents, advocates grilled those who were there around the role of Philly’s public libraries — an issue that has become a political pressure point in City Hall amid staff shortages and limited hours in the city’s 54 branches.

“Libraries saved my life,” said Kendra Brooks, a Working Families Party who has won support from Democratic leaders.

Brooks and her running mate Nicholas O’Rourke, who also attended the panel, both said that libraries are stable shelters from the crises — particularly gun violence — that engulf so many of the city’s neighborhoods. They pushed for later hours and more voluntary funding from the city’s wealthy universities, which are tax-exempt.

“Libraries in Philadelphia are more than just ‘oh, let me go take out a book,’” said Friends of Free Library volunteer Erica Zurer.

Teenagers without anywhere to hang out after school, people in recovery looking for a meeting space, Philadelphians with low-literacy skills who need help interpreting a letter — the city’s stock of libraries serve a huge population of the city with few indoor public spaces at their disposal, Zurer said.

Monday night marked the advocacy group’s first time holding a candidates’ forum in a political race, according to Zurer.

Inviting the at-large candidates makes sense. Unlike district councilmembers, these reps are tasked with repping issues with citywide implications.

Seven at-large seats are up for grabs on Nov. 5 — five of which are expected to go to the Democratic majority, while Republicans, Independents and third-party candidates duke it out for the two seats set aside for a minority political party.

City council candidate forum for the at-large seat, held at the Lillian Marrero Library Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers / WHYY

Keep libraries open later, get Penn to pay

Candidates took questions on a wide range of topics — from immigration to police accountability to mass incarceration — but the emphasis was on libraries as community hubs that demand to be part of the political conversation.

The underlying query: If elected, would you fight to increase funding for the library system?

Kendra Brooks called to expand hours at city libraries need to stay open until 7 or 8 at night. The Inquirer found last year that libraries in low-income neighborhoods close earlier than other better off neighborhoods.

Brooks and O’Rourke called for enforcing PILOTS — or payments in lieu of taxes — with wealthy nonprofits like Penn. They would also fund library growth by reforming the 10-year property tax abatement, a popular target for Council candidates this year.

Sherrie Cohen, a former Democratic candidate now running as a third-party candidate, said she would support increased funding across the board.

Republican Councilmember David Oh noted his feuds with library leadership over the years. In 2013, when the library system sought to stop collecting fines from children with overdue books, Oh introduced a measure to keep collecting those fines. (Unrelatedly, the library is now looking at wiping at fines entirely.) Oh suggested that any increased library funding should be focussed on expanding technology in the facilities.

Steve Cherniavsky, from the Term Limits Philadelphia party, mostly tried to sell his appeal as a “single-issue candidate” whose sole promise was to install a two-term limit for city lawmakers. Independent Clarc King spent most of his microphone time criticizing what he described as the private sector’s encroachment on government.

Republican Matt Wolfe was also present. Councilmember Allan Domb, though he didn’t make it, was the sole Democrat who responded to the invitation, said Frank Ginyard, a staff member with Friends of the Free Library.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...