On Monday, Philadelphia City Council Member Helen Gym, a Democrat, endorsed Kendra Brooks, who is backed by the progressive Working Families Party in her campaign for City Council. The local Democratic Party was incensed by the endorsement, which Bob Brady, chair of the Democratic City Committee, said was “stupid,” reasoning that it would hurt Democrats by taking votes away from their slate of candidates.
There are 32 candidates running in the November election for City Council, a 17-person body with 14 Democrats and 3 Republicans. Brooks is running as an independent for one of two open at-large seats reserved for minority or unaffiliated candidates, which have long been held by the GOP. The Working Families Party — which operates as a progressive electoral organizing body in some states, and an official third party in others — is also backing Nicolas O’Rourke, another independent candidate and longtime community organizer, in hopes of one day building a progressive majority on the City Council.
Gym has company in her alleged stupidity. Brooks has been endorsed by Democratic Pennsylvania state Reps. Chris Rabb, Elizabeth Fiedler, and Malcolm Kenyatta, all of whom entered office in the last three years with the backing of the Working Families Party. (They have all endorsed O’Rourke as well.)
Following Gym’s endorsement of Brooks, Brady, a former U.S. representative for Pennsylvania, “half-jokingly suggested” that the Philadelphia Democratic Party might reciprocate by replacing Gym’s name with Brooks’s on the sample ballot it distributes to voters, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The Working Families Party’s attempts to expand its influence on the Philadelphia City Council, and in Pennsylvania more broadly, is a microcosm of a strategy it has been testing out across the country in recent years: work with — and, in many cases, seek out — progressive candidates who can excite voters and capture the spirit of pro-working class politics. The WFP helps provide them with the tools they need to go up against the Democratic establishment, often with the collaboration of insurgent Democrats like Gym — an inside-outside strategy that infuriates party leaders.
The Working Families Party started its political experiment more than 20 years ago in New York, with the goal of pushing the Democratic Party further left by pairing pro-labor policies with aggressive outreach to working class voters. In Albany, where the WFP is an actual political party, it recently helped put the nail in the coffin of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, a group of state legislators who for seven years orchestrated a power-sharing arrangement with Republicans. The IDC broke up in 2018 under pressure from progressives, only to have six WFP-backed candidates replace their former members.
The WFP has also been heightening its profile outside of New York — it made its first national political endorsement for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2015 — and it has ballooned in size over the last several years, now with chapters in 18 states and the District of Columbia. As part of a 2020 endorsement process, the party interviewed Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker this month using questions submitted by WFP members. The group has an annual budget of $10 million between its state and national committees.
Its expansion has come with growing pains, including the very public exit of several important unions that at one point made up the bulk of its base. At the same time, the WFP has developed a more deliberate strategy of trying to retake state and local governments, which Democrats largely controlled throughout the 1960s and ’70s but have now become the GOP’s domain.
In 2017, nearly two-thirds of the over 1,000 candidates the Working Families Party endorsed won their elections, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. Just last year, the party helped install 457 candidates in local and statewide offices, out of the 820 candidates it endorsed across 38 states. The electoral successes the party shared in 2018’s blue wave have continued into 2019: Over the course of five months, their chosen candidates were elected into more than 50 offices at local and municipal levels, including on city councils and school boards, in nine states.
The organization in some ways serves as a complement to at least a wing of the Democratic Party: by focusing on nonpartisan positions in local politics, the group has been able to install progressive officials on city councils and school boards, while also helping increase voter turnout for both partisan and nonpartisan elections. As Bob Brady’s reaction to Kendra Brooks demonstrates, however, Democrats don’t always see it that way.
“We should be seen as a welcoming force to build the Democratic Party toward 2020,” Brooks, a small business owner and mother of five, said in an interview last month. “It doesn’t have to be ‘either or,’” she continued. “It should be ‘this and.’ Like, yes, the Democratic Party is the largest party here in Philadelphia. And why can’t we have a strong independent base as well? So we, together — Democrats and independents — can have a stronger base toward 2020.”
The WFP is known for running independent progressive candidates that challenge corporate-friendly Democratic politics. Their vision is to not only win races but organize around local and municipal elections, building capacity for the left to make gains beyond Election Day. Their policy priorities include expanding workers’ rights, opposing right-to-work laws, raising the minimum wage, reforming drug scheduling and misdemeanor sentencing, and establishing paid family medical leave.
In local elections in nine states so far this year, dozens of candidates were elected running on that policy platform, boosted by WFP, alongside other groups they work with, like the Democratic Socialists of America and Run for Something, a political group founded after the 2016 election to support young progressives running for office at local and state levels.
In Chicago, the United Working Families, a Chicago affiliate of the WFP, helped reelect two incumbents and install seven new aldermen — including five democratic socialists, who were also backed by the Chicago DSA — to City Council, unseating corporate Democrats with close ties to the Chicago machine. They knocked on more than 500,000 doors and sent 230,000 texts to voters between September and the runoff in April. The upsets were a solid repudiation of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and spoke to the group’s success in not only establishing and maintaining an active base in the city, but expanding it after helping push Emanuel into the city’s first mayoral runoff since it started holding nonpartisan elections in 2015.
In Wisconsin, a state largely considered the birthplace of voucher and charter schools in the U.S., WFP helped elect five new pro-public school candidates to the nine-member Milwaukee Public School Board. The party recruited four of those candidates to run. They joined incumbent Tony Baez, who WFP backed in 2017, in building a crucial base of support for Tony Evers, a first-term, pro-public school Democratic governor, in the state’s largest city.
In Phoenix, Arizona, community organizer and migrant rights leader Carlos Garcia, who co-founded the WFP’s Maricopa County chapter, won a competitive City Council race to beat former council member and lobbyist Mike Johnson. Previously, Garcia helped lead the human rights organization Puente Arizona, which was instrumental in the takedown of former sheriff Joe Arpaio and led opposition to the state’s controversial SB 1070, the “show me your papers” law that endorsed racial profiling. There, the WFP helped to contact more than 15,000 working-class voters.
In Morgantown, West Virginia, where WFP launched its chapter just two years ago, every member of the party’s seven-candidate slate — which included five incumbents, one write-in candidate, and a newcomer against a former council member — was elected to City Council in April.
The party’s Texas chapter helped elect former City Council Member Stephen Mason as mayor of Cedar Hill; Mason is the city’s first black mayor. The WFP also backed three successful candidates for city councils in Lancaster, DeSoto, and Balch Springs.
In Pennsylvania, the state’s WFP chapter backed Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s reelection bid, and supported Gym, the Democratic City Council member who endorsed Brooks, and insurgent Democratic candidate Isaiah Thomas, who is running for City Council, in their primary races. Monica Taylor, who the party backed in a May primary, will head to the general election for Delaware County Council in November.
The Oregon WFP helped elect a total of 28 candidates across five counties in Oregon. They include 24 pro-public school officials who are now serving on school and community college boards, as well as four Parks and Recreation board members in Willamalane and Tualatin Hills. Ahead of the May municipal election, the state chapter conducted candidate training and helped coordinate staff and volunteers who knocked on 1,500 doors and sent 2,500 text messages.
In Denver, Colorado, five of six people who ran on the WFP slate in June were elected to City Council. Among them is Candi CdeBaca, the Council’s first ever democratic socialist, who was also backed by the DSA. The social worker and activist, who was connected to WFP through one of their weekend candidate trainings, defeated a two-term incumbent who was previously the top fundraiser in one of the city’s most expensive districts. She has already made an impact: This summer, she led the Council in opposing a total of $10.6 million in contracts from two private prison companies seeking to run halfway houses for the city.
What WFP is demonstrating through its chosen candidates, said Maurice Mitchell, the group’s national director, is that “in every single region of the country, we’re running on a brazenly, unapologetic, progressive agenda, with grassroots folks who represent their communities, and are running grassroots volunteer-focused and volunteer-powered campaigns. And they’re winning.”
Through candidate trainings and workshops, WFP works hand in hand with established and upcoming leaders in communities that already have strong organizing roots but might lack the resources to effectively translate that power into office.
This type of work couldn’t be done without the trust WFP has cultivated in communities where it has chapters, said Abdullah Younus, DSA National Political Committee member and former co-chair of NYC-DSA. The party “has a lot of institutional knowledge, holds a lot of relationships, and can provide infrastructure and rigor that was otherwise unattainable for local grassroots groups previously — or maybe not attainable at the same level as it can be,” he said.
They work in conjunction with local grassroots groups as well as national political and activist organizations, like DSA; Run For Something; Sister District, which provides services like fundraising, canvassing, and phone banking for candidates running in state legislatures controlling redistricting in 2021; and Forward Majority, which focuses on flipping state legislatures in areas with heavy gerrymandering and evidence of voter suppression.
In Phoenix, for example, WFP worked with the Campaign for Better Neighborhoods, a group that organizes around local races on issues like education and government accountability, to contact 15,000 voters before Garcia’s May runoff election. The candidate, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 5, already had deep ties in the community. He had a reputation as a respected and effective activist through his work with Puente, the grassroots human rights organization that challenged Arpaio’s policing.
The goal, in some ways, is to fill in for a Democratic Party that now more or less ignores state and local elections, and even more so municipal elections, which are largely nonpartisan and therefore off-limits for the national party. “What we’re doing is stuff that at one time the Democratic Party did,” Andy Cockburn, who chairs the party’s West Virginia chapter, said. “Over the last 20 years or so, that has completely disappeared here. The state party in the November election — the only campaign they did was a series of mailers all for Joe Manchin for Senate.”
But the objective, also, is to make room in politics for people who are often neglected by a political system that is too often beholden to corporate dollars.
“We’re interested in building institutions and building infrastructure, before, during, and after,” Mitchell said. “So after an election, even in a scenario where there’s a loss, because of the way that we conducted the election, we surfaced grassroots leaders who otherwise wouldn’t be involved in politics.”
Over the past couple of years, the party has had success with that playbook in Wisconsin. Following the election of three progressive candidates to the Milwaukee school board in 2017, “we kind of saw an appetite for more,” spurring the WFP to get more involved in that city, said Priscilla Bort, who managed the WFP’s 2019 slate for the board. In 2018, working with local partners like the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association to oust former governor and anti-public education stalwart Scott Walker, they helped elect former educator Tony Evers as governor. That election cycle laid the groundwork for the election of pro-public school candidates in Milwaukee in 2019; their platforms include a commitment to fighting back against the interests that pushed to expand private education, voucher systems, and charter schools in the state.
“I think we carried the momentum from Governor Evers’s election too, in that, ‘Hey, somebody who cares about public education is in a statewide office,’” Bort said. “To have people who have been in our schools be in statewide office, and have taught in our schools be in statewide office, we used our momentum.” They pulled it off with help from teachers who would work all day and go out to knock on doors at night.
With a national political conversation focused heavily on the 2020 presidential election, WFP and its partners remain focused on what they see as the bigger picture: wresting control of state governments, even as they organize in battleground states, like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that decided President Donald Trump’s 2016 win. The group believes that supporting candidates for down-ballot races can in some ways be more important than focusing on federal offices or even the White House. How well they’re able to do that alongside Democrats remains to be seen.
“Who is the president is going to matter a lot less if we don’t take back state chambers ahead of redistricting,” Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder of Run for Something, told The Intercept. “I think it’s bigger than most people understand. A lot of people get the idea that we could lose Congress for another 10 years,” he explained. “If we aren’t able to flip some chambers or, at the very least, win back some of the seats that we’ve lost over the years, we might win or at least fight to a stalemate at the federal level. But we’re gonna lose these state legislative battles.”
The ultimate goal, even when it comes to nonpartisan races dealing with bland topics like garbage collection and street maintenance, Cockburn said, is that “down the road, some of these people may run for higher office.”
“The Republicans have been very, very good about putting up candidates for all these sort of — city council races, school board races, county commission races, just so that people get experience running elections, get their name recognition up, and then they can run for state legislature and it’s easier to make the jump up,” he explained. “We see Republicans running for multiple races. One will run for sheriff and then run for school board — things that make no sense at all in terms of expertise. … So we’re trying to do the same thing: to build our bench.”
Correction: August 29, 2019, 5:02 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Tony Baez had won re-election. He is in his first term.