Philadelphia City Hall. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

When the results from Tuesday’s election are tallied, there’s a slim chance Philadelphia City Council could be without a Republican member for the first time in modern history.

A total GOP shutout would only happen if District 10 in the far Northeast flips after four decades of reelecting Republican Councilmember Brian O’Neill. His opponent, Democrat Gary Masino, has garnered more support than usual for a challenger in that district, but is still considered a longshot.

There’s a very real possibility, however, that Republicans could lose their at-large seat.  

City Council has 10 members elected from geographic districts and seven at-large members who run citywide. Two of those at-large seats are effectively reserved for non-majority parties, because Democrats can only put forth five candidates, per the city charter. 

Republicans held those two seats for seven decades, until four years ago, when Working Families Party Councilmember Kendra Brooks surprised the establishment by winning her spot.

This year, Brooks is joined on the campaign trail by Working Families Party member Nicolas O’Rourke, who came close to winning a seat when he ran four years ago. In the at-large Council election, the seven candidates with the highest citywide vote counts win. 

Philadelphia voters overwhelmingly tilt Democratic. As of Monday, per state data, there were about 778k registered Democrats versus 116k Republicans — a nearly 7 to 1 ratio. There are also about 113k registered voters with no party affiliation. 

Brooks and O’Rourke are both former Democrats who in 2019 switched to the New York-based Working Families Party. This year, the WFP candidates have been endorsed by a wide range of Democratic elected officials, including U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, state legislators, and others. Gov. Josh Shapiro even appeared in a Brooks campaign ad.

The support came despite exhortations from Philadelphia’s Democratic party chair Bob Brady to only endorse Dems. He threatened to expel ward committeepeople — the hyperlocal, precinct-level party members — who openly endorsed Brooks or O’Rourke. 

The party did expel at least one endorser, but more than one hundred other Democratic party officials and candidates  — including councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Isaiah Thomas — publicly supported at least one WFP candidate without official repercussions. There are nearly 3,400 committeepeople in total across the city.

The city’s Republican party vowed to campaign vigorously for the at-large seats this year, putting forth candidates Drew Murray and Jim Hasher.

Murray, a former Democrat who chairs the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition, an umbrella group of registered community organizations, raised more than $140,000 and was endorsed by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hasher, who owns a realty firm and a pub, raised more than $280,000, much of it from building trades unions, according to city campaign finance data. 

They campaigned on tough-on-crime and tax-cutting platforms, criticized the city’s progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner and called for increased police department funding. Recently they highlighted the Working Families candidates’ position on safe injection sites, which Council voted in September to effectively ban in most of the city.

“The Working Families Party is opposed to cutting taxes for working families. The WFP is opposed to putting more money in the pockets of working families. The WFP stands for themselves and their ideologies, not working families,” Murray wrote on Facebook.

A super PAC called the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth sought to influence the race, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads that tried to link Brooks and O’Rourke to safe injection sites and the “defund the police” movement. Main Line conservative mega-donor Jeffrey Yass reportedly contributed $300,000 to the PAC a few weeks before the election.

Brooks and O’Rourke together raised more than $1 million in campaign contributions, far more than they collected in 2019, and last month launched a $250,000 ad buy on TV, streaming channels, and online, according to the Working Families Party. 

While the city’s Republican councilmembers have tended to be political moderates who often vote with the Democrat majority, Brooks and O’Rourke sought to tie Hasher and Murray to Donald Trump and other national GOP figures who are unpopular in Philadelphia. 

“Racism. Abortion bans. Transphobia. Union bashing. Attacking immigrants. Climate denial. The list could go on,” O’Rourke wrote on Facebook, after a Republican presidential debate in September. “Whether we’re talking about the White House or City Hall, this party has NO business being in power.”

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,...