Working Families Party candidate Nicholas O'Rourke in 2019. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Democratic party has started expelling committeepeople who endorse Working Families Party candidates, fulfilling a threat first made by party chair Bob Brady four years ago.

Kate Rivera, a committeeperson in the 31st ward in East Kensington for two years, was told two weeks ago she’d been booted from her position for supporting WFP City Council candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke in the November election.

“By the rules of the Democratic party, you are no longer a committee person in the 31st ward because of support for Working Families,” ward leader Peg Rzepski told Rivera in a voicemail message, which Rivera shared with Billy Penn. “Thank you, and have a great life.”

Rzepski was a community liaison in Brady’s office for 16 years when he was in Congress, and more recently worked for U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle. She could not immediately be reached for comment.

The expulsion is the first to result from a long-brewing internal party battle over whether Democrats can officially support the Working Families candidates, who are running for at-large seats. 

Brooks left the Democratic party in 2019 to run on the WFP ticket, and won an upset victory to become the city’s first third-party councilmember in at least a century. O’Rourke fell short and is making another attempt this year.

The action against Rivera comes as the Working Families Party and their Republican rivals make their final big campaign pushes ahead of Nov. 7. 

WFP today released an open letter written and signed by Rivera and 100 other Democratic ward committeepeople endorsing Brooks and O’Rourke, in open defiance of Brady’s repeated warnings not to do so. WFP also says it’s spending $250,000 on TV and digital advertising, including an ad in which Gov. Josh Shapiro endorses Brooks. 

Republican candidate Jim Hasher, who is receiving financial support from building trades unions, has reportedly spent $100,000 on TV ads so far, while his fellow GOP nominee Drew Murray is focusing on billboard ads, door-to-door canvassing, and Election Day get-out-the-vote work.

Accusations of ‘siding with Republicans’

The Democratic committee members who signed the letter say they’re supporting two like-minded progressives in order to keep Republicans off Council and motivate residents to vote in other important races, especially the contest to fill a vacant state Supreme Court seat. 

“Faced with two possible outcomes — letting Republicans gain power in City Council or electing third-party candidates with Democratic values — Bob Brady is siding with Republicans. He is endangering Democratic turnout by removing the very people who do the most work to engage Philly voters,” the letter reads.

Some of the five Democratic candidates for Council’s seven at-large seats say they’re concerned about losing votes to Working Families. But those supporting Brooks and O’Rourke say it’s inconceivable that any Democrat could lose enough votes not to win a seat, given the party’s 7-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans.

The signatories to the letter argue it’s counterproductive for Brady to punish them and others for these efforts.

They include members of the 2nd ward in South Philly, which recently became perhaps the first Democratic ward ever to officially endorse non-Democrats

Rivera said she doesn’t know exactly why she was targeted for expulsion from the 31st ward committee, although it may be due to her membership in the Riverwards Area Democrats, a group that recently voted to endorse Brooks and O’Rourke.

“It’s scary and it’s disappointing,” Rivera said. “It’s hard to understand when we’ve got prominent Democrats, like our own governor, endorsing Kendra Brooks. I feel like I’ve been kind of rejected by my own party for unclear reasons.”

Top Democrats who’ve endorsed at least one of the Working Family City Council candidates include Shapiro, Sen. John Fetterman, Pa. Sen. Nikil Saval, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, and others.

A warning after mixed messages

Brady, Philly’s Dem party boss since 1986, has put out conflicting messages on the Working Families dispute. On some occasions he’s threatened to boot endorsers, and on others has shrugged off the supposed WFP threat. He did not return a Friday message left with the Democratic City Committee.

Before the 2019 general election, then-councilmember Helen Gym, state Rep. Chris Rabb, and others endorsed both Brooks and O’Rourke. Brady was reportedly “furious” and threatened to expel committee members who followed suit. The worry was reportedly that people who didn’t vote straight-Democratic tickets would hurt lesser-known judicial candidates who needed every vote they could get. 

But Brady didn’t end up expelling anyone, and this past January said he wasn’t concerned about securing enough votes for his at-large Council contenders.

“Our Democrats got over 100,000 votes more than they did. So they were fine,” Brady told Billy Penn about the 2019 WFP contenders. He said much the same thing in a TV interview last month.

After the May primary, however, as Brady trumpeted victories by mayoral nominee Cherelle Parker and other establishment candidates, he sent out a letter warning against supporting non-Democrats. “Compliance with this foundational rule is essential and non-negotiable,” he wrote.

At Brady’s annual Jersey Shore party in August, Parker told the crowd that, as a ward leader, she had gotten the letter. “The 50th ward is going to abide by the rules, Mr. Chairman,” she said, per the Inquirer.

The party chair last month once again expressed anger at committee members who endorse WFP candidates, apparently in response to concerns from at-large candidates Nina Ahmad and Jim Harrity that the WFP is telling people to vote for the other Dems: Rue Landau, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, and Isaiah Thomas

Working Families say there’s a rumor circulating that they’re instructing voters to pick only the latter three, which they deny. Voters in Philadelphia’s general election may vote for five at-large candidates of any party, and in public campaign messages WFP has been asking voters to vote for any three Democrats, in addition to Brooks and O’Rourke.

Brady may also be feeling pressure from ward leaders who resent committeepeople who veer from their door-knocking assignments. Leaders contacted by Billy Penn last month said their bylaws and common sense dictated that Democratic party officials need to stick to endorsing Democrats.

“Bob didn’t take action four years ago. There were a lot of people pushing this time for him to take action,” said 27th ward leader Carol Jenkins, whose ward covers University City and Southwest Philadelphia.

“In order to support Working Families or Republican candidates, we would need to cut one of our own,” said Michael Sullivan, leader of Ward 39B in deep South Philly. “If we’re not unified as Democrats, what the hell are we doing?”

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,...