Councilmember Kendra Brooks and councilmember-elect Nicolas O'Rourke at Roar Nightclub in Northern Liberties, Nov. 7, 2023. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

The Working Families Party on Tuesday night pulled out another historic win in Philadelphia. WFP candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke garnered enough votes to win the two City Council at-large seats effectively reserved for a non-majority party. 

That leaves Philadelphia without an at-large Republican councilmember for the first time in modern history.

Brooks, who in 2019 was elected the first third-party councilmember in generations, had 6.95% of votes in the at-large race as of midnight with 95% of divisions reporting. O’Rourke’s 5.83% positioned him to win his first term. 

In the at-large Council election, the seven contenders with the highest citywide vote counts win. There were nine candidates total this year, and the five Democrats won easily, as expected after the May primary.

Rue Landau (who pulled in 14.9% of the vote) will become the first openly LGBTQ member of Philly City Council. Nina Ahmad (15.6%) will be the first South Asian member. Incumbents Isaiah Thomas (16.7%), Katherine Gilmore Richardson (16.1%) and Jim Harrity (13.2%) all held their posts.

The Republican candidates, Jim Hasher and Drew Murray, fell short with 5.37% and 5.34%, respectively.

Brooks and O’Rourke gave victory speeches at a joint party at Roar Nightclub in Northern Liberties. The mood was jubilant. Along with other supporters, progressive local elected officials like District Attorney Larry Krasner and State Representative Chris Rabb were present.  

Striding on stage to calls of “minority party leader,” Brooks led the crowd in a chant that channeled the vibe.

“When I say ‘Working Families’… You say ‘Party!” she intoned. The room echoed her back.

O’Rourke took the stage in a similar manner. Introduced for the first time as future councilmember, he pulled up on the mic and asked for people to follow his lead in shouting:

“I. I believe. I believe that we will win!” He started again, bringing the place to its feet: “I. I believe. I believe that we HAVE WON!”

The wins by the two progressive candidates means City Council will have just one Republican member, Brian O’Neill, who has represented district 10 in the Far Northeast for 44 years. O’Neill was leading 61% to 39% over Democratic challenger Gary Masino, who put up as good of a challenge as any to date.

With the winners of the mayoral race and most Council seats effectively decided by the Democratic primary in May, the at-large and district 10 races provided the drama this fall.

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 New York-based Working Families Party. 

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. 

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.”

Brooks and O’Rourke are both former Democrats who switched parties in 2019 so they could run for the two at-large council seats reserved for non-Democrats. A wide range of councilmembers, state legislators, and other elected Democrats officials endorsed them this year, including U.S. Sen. John Fetterman. Gov. Josh Shapiro endorsed just Brooks and appeared in one of her campaign ads.

The support came despite threats from city Democratic chair Bob Brady to expel ward committeepeople 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.

On Election Day, the progressive vs. establishment split resulted in a few tiffs. A person who’d signed the WFP letter was reportedly handing out literature in South Philly when someone who said they worked for Brady snatched it away. A WFP poll watcher was reportedly denied entry to a polling location by Democratic party members, and had to call in the DA’s election task force to get inside. 

Meanwhile, the city’s Republican party had vowed to campaign vigorously for the at-large seats this year after the historic loss to Brooks four years ago.

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. 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.

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. 

“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.

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.

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.

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,...