Nicholas O'Rourke in 2019 (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Four years after Republicans gave up one of their two at-large seats on City Council to a progressive challenger, they’re fighting not to lose another.

For decades the GOP held both of the seven at-large positions reserved for non-majority parties, in addition to one or two district Council seats.

But Kendra Brooks of the Working Families Party in 2019 shocked the political establishment by nabbing an at-large seat. And though he fell short of winning a spot, fellow WFP member Nicolas O’Rourke also performed well — garnering more votes than all GOP candidates who weren’t incumbents.

“We got caught flat-footed,” Jim Hasher, a Republican candidate in this year’s at-large race, said about the party’s local performance.

In addition to Hasher, other Republicans making at-large bids are Drew Murray and Sam Oropeza. Current Republican At-Large Councilmember David Oh is planning instead to run for mayor.

Brooks is running for reelection, and O’Rourke hopes progressive-minded voters — who recently propelled candidates like former Councilmember Helen Gym and District Attorney Larry Krasner to big wins — will help the Working Families Party gain a seat.

“It’s high time that Philadelphians recognize that you don’t just have Republicans or Democrats to choose from,” O’Rourke said. “If you don’t want to vote for a Republican or default a seat to a Republican then you can vote for a Working Families candidate that is going to be more aligned with your values.”

Republican candidates say they’ll appeal to a large swath of voters worried about crime and economic issues.

“The majority of people in the City of Philadelphia are not dissimilar to me. They’re moderates,” said Murray, a sales manager who is the 15th Ward Republican leader. “The challenge is a lot of those moderates don’t vote. And that’s a challenge for me to motivate those people to get out and vote.”

Creating ‘a city of opportunity’

O’Rourke, a pastor at Living Water United Church of Christ in the lower Northeast, enters the race with some name recognition.

In 2019 he got the fourth most votes among at-large candidates who were not Democrats. He received fewer votes than Brooks, Oh, and incumbent Republican Al Taubenberger, and more than several other Republican candidates.

He and Brooks are counting on people who might usually vote for five Democrats to instead press at least one of the buttons for a Working Families candidate.

Four years ago that strategy raised hackles among Democratic officials, who feared some of their judicial candidates could suffer if voters didn’t cast straight-ticket ballots. But Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady said he’s not concerned this year.

In 2019, “our Democrats got over 100,000 votes more than [Working Families candidates] did. So they were fine,” Brady said.

Unlike the Democrats and Republicans, Working Families does not have a primary in May, so O’Rourke’s name will not be on voters’ ballots until the November general election.

He hasn’t yet laid out a specific campaign platform, but said he’s focused on hearing what voters are concerned about and on creating a “city of opportunity that works for everybody.”

“I hope to represent myself as a candidate who’s concerned with jobs, with the climate, with justice reforms, with education, with housing, and gun violence,” O’Rourke said. “I pray to be that.”

Lowering taxes and bringing back ‘common sense’

Hasher and Murray are both endorsed by the Republican City Committee. They both have experience with Council campaigns, having run last year in special elections for at-large seats vacated by former councilmembers Allan Domb and Derek Green. They each received about 17% of the vote in their respective races, with the winning Democrats getting about 80%.

Hasher, a real estate agent and pub owner, is the longtime athletic director and president of Torresdale Boys Club. He ran for Congress in 1994 and has served as 65th Ward leader.

He said he’s running to be a voice for small business owners on issues like licensing of restaurant streeteries, which the city has been accused of bungling.

He’ll also push for a law waiving the city’s real estate transfer tax for first-time homebuyers, he said. When a home is sold, the buyer and seller together pay the city a transfer tax of 3.278% of the price. At the median home price of $245,000 that would amount to $8,031. The state has an additional 1% tax.

Hasher cited Philadelphia’s tax as one of the highest in the country, and said it deters people from moving here.

“I’d be putting something forward to say, hey, we really want to retain the occupancy here and bring more people in, especially with all the things we’re facing now, the stigma we’re seeing, the crime,” he said.

Jim Hasher (Hasher campaign)

Murray, a resident of Logan Square, chairs the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition and serves on the board of the Center City District. He switched from Democrat to Republican five years ago.

He said residents are overwhelmingly focused on crime, so it’s his top campaign issue. As a councilmember he would pressure Krasner to “allow our police force to do their job,” he said.

“We need to bring common sense back to the government in the City of Philadelphia,” Murray said. “Whether it’s the district attorney or the current mayoral administration, they’re clearly failing.”

He said he would also promote charter schools, as well as trade school programs as an alternative to college for some students.

Drew Murray (Murray campaign)

An advocate for youth

Republican candidate Sam Oropeza is a Port Richmond resident and a real estate agent in Kensington. He was previously a union tradesman, working at refineries and other sites, and was a boxer and MMA fighter.

He ran in a special election for the Pa. Senate 5th District last year, and received 43% of the vote but lost to Democrat Jim Dillon. He runs a volunteer group called Rescuing Streets Through Cleanups, which cleans up illegally dumped trash around the city.

He was endorsed by Councilmember Oh, who described Oropeza as a “workhorse.” He did not seek an endorsement from the local Republican party.

Sam Oropeza (Oropeza campaign)

On Council, Oropeza wants to focus on public safety and education. He said he would push for programs to help people injured by gun violence and advocate for more resources to prepare young people for employment.

He believes many Democrats will choose him over the Working Families candidates, who he describes as anti-police and weak on crime.

“To the majority of Philadelphians, it’s these progressive, pro-criminal policies that put criminals first and victims last that are destroying our public safety and our quality of life,” he said. “Especially right now, people are going to be really open to [voting for me]. Just because there’s an R next to my name, I don’t think they’re going to say no.”

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...