‘Regular people’ over Wall Street: How the Working Families Party could shake up Philly City Hall

As the first third-party member of City Council in eons, Kendra Brooks’ presence has big implications.

Kendra Brooks at her victory party Tuesday night

Kendra Brooks at her victory party Tuesday night

Natalie Piserchio / WHYY
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City Council convenes for its first regular session of 2020 on Thursday. Politically speaking, it’ll be the most diverse legislative body Philly has ever seen.

For the next four years, it won’t just be Democrats and Republicans introducing the annual thousand-plus roster of bills and resolutions in the 17-person chamber. Newly minted Councilmember Kendra Brooks brings the Working Families Party into the mix.

After a historic election victory last year, Brooks is the first elected official outside the two major parties to hold a seat on Council in over a century of Philadelphia politics.

The Working Families Party first gained traction in New York, but it does have early Philly ties — and operatives say that after Brooks’ success, they’re eyeing expansion across Pennsylvania.

Here’s what the WFP’s newfound power bodes for Philly’s future.

A pro-labor experiment with early Philly ties

Founded in New York in 1998, WFP styled itself as an independent, experimental alternative to the state’s Democratic machine. The party married pro-labor politics with aggressive outreach to mobilize working-class voters.

One of WFP’s founders was Jon Kest — a UPenn grad who became a widely known progressive organizer. Before returning to New York in the 1980s, Kest founded the Philly chapter of ACORN and helped lead a nationwide squatting campaign that pushed the federal government to begin selling abandoned properties to low-income families.

In New York, unions like the United Auto Workers and AFSCME were early champions of the neophyte liberal party. Labor leaders viewed it as a remedy to a corporate-friendly New York political establishment that Maurice Mitchell, WFP’s national national director, described as “more accountable to Wall Street than to working families.”

WFP made it a mission to groom non-wealthy candidates, and set them up for success.

“We wanted to change the conditions so that regular people, in a non-delusional way, could contend for power,” Mitchell told Billy Penn.

New York’s “fusion voting,” which allows multiple parties to list the same candidate on a given ballot, also helped build WFP’s clout. The system, currently used in a handful of states, makes it easy to give endorsements that cross party lines.

But in the last decade, WFP has made inroads with traditional single-party voting ystems as well — like in Pennsylvania. The party now has an active organizing presence in 18 states, according to its website.

WFP’s win in Philly was big: ‘a major shift’

History hasn’t been kind to third-party candidates in Pennsylvania or Philadelphia, so Brooks victory in the nation’s sixth biggest city was a major milestone..

Brooks, a small business owner and mother of five, ran a grassroots campaign that at first had little support. She ended with a historic fundraising totals and a mountain of endorsements from Democrats — one of them even running in the same race, in the case of Councilmember Helen Gym.

Despite its local origin ties, WFP had never before made real gains in Philly politics. The group had a presence at Occupy Philly and the DNC. It endorsed progressives like District Attorney Larry Krasner. Candidates had run under the party’s own banner in a few elections past, but none were deemed credible.

Brooks’ election raised the party’s standing virtually overnight.

“Having a third party alternative that aligns with the ideological beliefs of a city or region is probably a major shift in Pennsylvania politics,” said Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “There was an opening, and the WFP seems to be closing in on some of those voters.”

Does it mean an upset for the so-called Democratic agenda that reigns in Philadelphia’s City Hall? Not exactly.

How they could tilt the political scales in City Hall

Economic equity issues are paramount for many voters drawn to the Working Families Party — and not just on the labor front. Brooks and others within the party push for more progressive local policy on environmental issues, criminal justice reform, affordable housing and public education.

Terry Madonna, a pollster from the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said WFP is a player in the progressive zeitgeist sweeping the nation in the last few years.

“The progressive agenda has now emerged as a significant part of Philadelphia politics,”

Madonna said. “The Working Families Party is likely to push the Democratic party itself into a more progressive stance as you’ve seen in many other large cities.”

Technically, Brooks and her running mate Nicolas O’Rourke were challenging Philly Dems in last year’s at-large Council race. But they campaigned as alternatives to Republicans, going for the two seats on Council reserved in the city charter for members of the non-dominant political party.

Local Democratic figures have dismissed differences with WFP as inconsequential. As local Dem chairman Bob Brady said after Brooks’ solid showing in the November general election: “Everybody had the same message, everybody supports families.”

But Brady also made threats against Democratic leaders who broke party lines to endorse Brooks in that primary.

The Working Families’ rising power appears to have made some Philadelphia special interests quite nervous. In the leadup to the November election, the local chamber of commerce ran a pro-Republican media blitz warning voters about the “radical” WFP takeover.

Could WFPers take out Philly Dems? Not so fast

With the party now in City Hall, many will be watching the relationship between Brooks and her Democratic colleagues.

Mitchell, the party’s national director, said in some cities, there is strong alignment between Democrats and their WFP colleagues. In other cities, not so much.

“There are some places where the relationship is more tense, because it’s run by more top-down party bosses instead of grassroots Democrats,” Mitchell said. “Ultimately our goal isn’t to be antagonistic… It’s to make sure organized people take control of the government instead of the government being run by big businesses.”

It’s too early to know whether Brooks’ victory signals a bigger future for the WFP in Philly.

As the Inquirer noted in November after the historic upset, Brooks could not have prevailed without help from a preexisting network of Democrats and progressive groups whose members knocked on doors and helped boost her campaign. The party will continue to rely on Democratic power to win and keep elected office.

Madonna said if Democrats adopt the progressive policies pushed by the WFP, it would make future matchups very difficult for the less established party.

“Right now we don’t know whether [WFP] will be able to continue to win seats,” he added, “or if the Democrats will usurp their positions and hold onto their traditional centers.”

Party to expand across PA ‘as it makes sense’

The Working Families Party endorsed over 1,000 candidates nationwide last year — most of them Democrats.

“[We have] always been a party that worked with candidates who are running for office and has been an often sought-after endorsement,” said ontime City Council hopeful O’Rourke, who is now heading WFP operations in Pennsylvania.

Those endorsements haven’t come without blowback. See the party’s backing of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign, which set off a firestorm with Bernie Sanders’ supporters. (The WFP had endorsed Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016.)

In his new role, O’Rourke said he’ll be looking for candidates to “carry the WFP banner,” but wouldn’t say which races the party had its eye on, or whether it had scouted any candidates yet.

Pundits say the party’s left-leaning reputation could make inroads difficult outside of urban centers. But O’Rourke indicated that the WFP’s sights extend beyond the Philly region.

Per O’Rourke: “As it makes sense, we’ll engage across the Commonwealth.”

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