Rachie Weisberg, the field director for Rick Krajewski’s Pennsylvania House campaign, was working a phone bank from her home in West Philadelphia when she smelled tear gas. It was only a few days after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, leading to a wave of protests against racism across the country. The police had begun shooting tear gas at demonstrators on 52nd Street—two blocks from her apartment—and the wind was carrying it through the neighborhood. She had to pause to rush and close her window. It felt as though the fight for justice were converging on several fronts at once, both in the Democratic primary campaigns and in the streets. “We’re trying to get these progressives elected and push the conversation outside the field of just electoral politics,” says Weisberg. “One can’t really exist without the other.”
Two weeks later, Krajewski—who is young and embraces the Green New Deal—declared victory in the Democratic primary over James R. Roebuck, who has represented the 188th District since 1985. Roebuck had been unsuccessfully challenged three times in the past 10 years, and his loss to Krajewski is part of a larger shift.
Across the Schuylkill River, fellow progressive Nikil Saval also won his race, against incumbent state Senator Larry Farnese. Farnese’s influential mentor and predecessor Vince Fumo has repeatedly expressed his displeasure over Saval’s candidacy and other progressive developments in the city, including the recent removal of the statue of Philadelphia’s notoriously racist former mayor Frank Rizzo. “Why don’t you go back to your Socialist Party and to NY, where you came from?” Fumo posted on Facebook during the campaign.
But even as Fumo seethes, airing grievances in Facebook posts and reminiscing about the days when he represented the Italian bloc in South Philadelphia, the death knell is sounding for the political machine that once backed him. It’s being replaced by something new: an operation run by community organizers who care more about electing progressive candidates than they do about protecting the interests of the Democratic mainstream. The candidates they champion have strong relationships with left-leaning groups. Their attention to issues like racial and environmental justice means that they are looking to bring communities into the political process that are traditionally ignored by it, like Black residents disproportionately affected by pollution in South Philly and those pushed out by gentrification in West Philadelphia. In many ways, the changes in Philadelphia are a testament to the importance of a good ground game, which is keeping the Democratic establishment in the city and state on its toes.
The grassroots electoral strategy that has elevated candidates such as Krajewski and Saval is one that organizers have been refining for years, and it has only gained momentum as they have homed in on strengthening local networks of care and solidarity. As insurgent candidates struggled to reconfigure their game plans when the Covid-19 pandemic led to closures across the country, Krajewski and Saval turned their phone-bank operations into mutual aid hotlines, connecting voters with local groups and resources. Electoral and nonelectoral groups are working together, forming alliances that close the gap between issues in the streets and at the ballot box. These alliances are all the more urgent as residents mobilize around racial justice campaigns to defund or abolish the police or remove them from schools. If the annoyance of Democrats like Fumo seems inconsequential, it’s because these races aren’t just about sticking it to the party; they’re about building and retaking power among constituents.
Recently, the consequences of other long-simmering injustices have become clearer. There’s the festering asbestos in public schools in the face of a barely reformed tax abatement and an Ivy League school’s steady refusal to pay property taxes; the declining rates of Internet access, especially in poorer communities of color, when Comcast is headquartered in the city and enjoys a near monopoly as a network provider; and the racism institutionalized in poverty rates and health conditions made starker by the recent high-profile closure of a hospital that served mostly Black patients. The 2016 election of Donald Trump, who won Pennsylvania, prompted many in the strongly Democratic city to realize that the threat of white supremacy was all around them, including in the state legislature.
For Saval’s field director, Aileen Callaghan, who lives in a poor, majority-Black area between Kensington and Port Richmond, the election was a reinforcement of what they always knew: For most politicians, people in the neighborhoods they are meant to represent just didn’t count.
”When it comes to people who are trying to do constituency services in their communities to make sure that they maintain reelection, they don’t look at my neighborhood at all,” Callaghan says. “And they are going to have to now, because of the organizing that we’ve been doing in my community since 2017.”
That was the year Callaghan got involved in Larry Krasner’s high-profile campaign for district attorney. He ran as a progressive—and has since been criticized on a number of fronts, most recently for his reluctance to drop charges against protesters arrested during recent demonstrations against police violence. But the leftist shift to electoral organizing didn’t begin that year; in 2015, an organizer named Helen Gym ran for the Philadelphia City Council. As a former executive director of the Chinatown-based community organization Asian Americans United, Gym had worked on campaigns to fight the construction of a stadium and later a casino in Chinatown. She was known for her fiery speeches on abysmal funding gaps in the public school system.
Like Krasner, Gym’s bona fides as a progressive have been questioned, such as when she stood by a well-known union leader indicted for corruption and, more recently, when she (along with every other Democrat on the City Council) voted for an annual budget that did not meet growing demands to defund the city’s police department. The progressive label has become a coveted one during these elections, but its application is still mostly validated by grassroots organizations that endorse and then mobilize around certain candidates. As Krajewski acknowledged, the incumbent in his district was known for his record on education and had voiced concerns about the proliferation of charter schools, but Krajewski’s campaign and victory in West Philadelphia were styled as a needed insurgence against an older politician entrenched in the Democratic machine who had failed to address urgent issues like gentrification and asbestos in schools. Farnese, the incumbent ousted by Saval, complained about the label’s being wielded against him. “I was progressive when, quite frankly, it wasn’t that cool to be progressive,” he said during his campaign. But the mobilization of grassroots organizations spoke louder.
Today, Gym is the most popular City Council member, by far. She received over 60 percent more votes than her nearest competitor in last year’s Democratic primary election, the most crowded race in 40 years, with 28 candidates running for just five majority-party at-large seats. Weisberg, who was then a fellow at the youth-led climate justice group Sunrise Movement, remembers the outcome of that primary as a hard loss: Apart from Gym, none of the candidates the group endorsed won.
“It was a punch in the gut because what we realized—and what I think a lot of groups around Philly realized—was that we had all been working separately,” Weisberg says. “Each organization kind of headed toward different people, and I think there was some reconciling there that we needed to be a much more unified force. I think we were all coming off the [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] high.”
But things turned around when, leading up to the general election in November, Sunrise and several other groups coalesced around a new strategy to replace Republican council members with progressive candidates. The City Council is composed of 17 members: 10 elected by district and seven elected at-large. Of those at-large members, at least two must be from a minority party.
Since the system was put in place over 60 years ago, those two seats have always been held by the GOP. In 2019 the Pennsylvania Working Families Party put forward two candidates, Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke, for those seats.
In a matter of months, Weisberg and others from groups like Reclaim Philadelphia and Democratic Socialists of America were knocking on doors for Brooks and O’Rourke. Tess Kerins, who was a fellow at the WFP at the time and later worked on Saval’s campaign, remembers spending a lot of time explaining the mathematics of their ballot choice to voters. While Democratic at-large winners have usually gotten over 100,000 votes in the city, Republicans have received only a small fraction of that. It took persuading thousands of left-leaning voters to drop two Democrats on their ballots in favor of O’Rourke and Brooks to swing the scale. Kerins and Weisberg remember the campaign as energetic, if a little frenzied. “Each candidate had so many coalitions together, we couldn’t know where the other organizations were canvassing, we couldn’t coordinate with them,” remembers Kerins. This was due to not only campaign finance laws regulating independent expenditures but also the sheer number of groups involved in the canvassing effort, from labor unions to neighborhood groups.
Democratic City Committee leader Bob Brady warned rank-and-file Democrats against voting for the WFP, saying that any committee members who backed non-Democratic candidates would lose their membership and be denied street money and printed ballots on Election Day. But the strategy was a success, at least for Brooks: She ended up winning 4.55 percent of the vote—enough to secure a seat on the council and oust an incumbent Republican.
After the City Council primary, Weisberg says, there was a much stronger understanding among progressive groups that some kind of coordination would be needed from the start. During their races, Krajewski’s and Saval’s teams were in close contact.
More convergence between groups doing electoral and nonelectoral work began, too, especially in the lead-up to the election. In 2019 the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia was created, a coalition of over 40 groups, including Reclaim Philadelphia, doing electoral and other work. When the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic led to mass unemployment and a public health crisis, they came together to call for a people’s bailout.
Saval’s campaign responded with a shift to focus on aid. Phone bank scripts were altered so that in addition to asking whether people knew their polling location, callers began with a check-in to see if neighbors had what they needed in terms of food and medicine; workers then connected residents with resources or relayed those requests to aid groups in the area.
Callaghan talked with volunteers about how to hold space for people who wanted to process what was going on. “The amount of conversations we had that would end up lasting about 15 minutes or more…folks were really hungry for human connection. It was really, really important for us to make sure that people were feeling a sense of hope.”
Just a few days before this year’s June 2 primaries, mass protests against police brutality and racism began to shake the city. “We noticed that people were talking about issues of racial justice more than ever before,” says Weisberg. “What that means is that these protests are bringing these things to light and people are thinking about them. And then we are there to bridge that gap between issues of racial inequality and police brutality. And what does that have to do with who represents us in office?”
On the day of the primaries, volunteers for Saval formed a group chat to keep one another updated from different polling locations. They continued to use the group past the elections, texting to meet at actions or provide remote support. In mid-June, when white supremacists attacked protesters near the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, members of the group arranged cars to help get people out of the area. For Callaghan, that continuity embodies the culture of care that has been embedded in the city’s growing leftist community. “You would imagine there’d be a lot of burnout right now, right? There isn’t. Like, we’re taking the streets. A part of that is because we are centered in collective care.”
Callaghan’s neighborhood is close to an area where neo-Nazis were recently seen marching while police stood by. They say the organizing that people have witnessed and participated in over the past few years has served to transform political apathy in a neighborhood where people are used to being ignored by those in power.
“We can’t just keep buying into this idea that if we as individuals work a little bit harder and then if we just help out our next-door neighbor, then hopefully our next-door neighbor will have our back. It has to be targeted at the people who have the power to change these things and don’t even respect us enough to pander to us,” Callaghan says. “If we just work together, toward this common goal, then we can really flip this stuff like a pancake.”