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Sitting in the corner of Fergie’s Pub in Center City, Philadelphia, Kendra Brooks wishes she could stay in the corner. She’s an introvert, she says, and the room is packed with guests who came to see her—a mother of four, grandmother of three, and a public education organizer and activist running for City Council. Guests came to Fergie’s for a mid-July fundraiser for her and another Council at-large candidate with the Working Families Party, Nicolas O’Rourke, a community organizer and pastor in the city, who has worked on anti-poverty, anti-mass incarceration movements and brings those issues forward in his campaign.

The Working Families Party usually endorses Democrats, but is running these two candidates as independents to challenge the Republicans in Council. The two Republicans, Brian O’Neill and David Oh, take the seats typically reserved for Republicans—a 1952 city charter made it so that two seats must be filled by minority party or independent candidates.

Brooks and O’Rourke’s platform includes fighting for a $15 minimum wage, ending police stop-and-frisk and investing in the health of public schools and re-entry programs for those returning from incarceration. “People say they are movement candidates, but I really mean I’m a movement candidate,” Brooks said of the grassroots-style of her campaign. When campaign workers grab the mic to ask for donations, their ask is as low as $25.

Kendra Brooks describes herself as a “movement candidate” in her run to oust Republicans from Philadelphia City Council.

Earlier that week, Brooks was returning to her home in Nicetown, a north Philadelphia neighborhood, after another campaign fundraiser. As she arrived she saw there was a crime scene out on her block. “I couldn’t even ask about it, because I already knew that somebody had gotten killed,” Brooks said. Less than a year ago, the victim’s mother buried another son after a shooting at a barber shop.

Brooks choked up as she shared that as a mother of four daughters, she’s seen too many of their friends killed—“I’ve buried a lot of young men.” She started holding “Stand up, Nicetown!” events to bring neighbors together to discuss the gun violence and managing conflict for young people.

Her proximity to the issue of gun violence, public school closures, and neighborhood disinvestment are what motivated her to run for City Council. She’s her family’s matriarch, her home always filled with her children, grandchildren, her two sisters and their children—but she always keeps the home open to her community as well. “A lot of times people are running because it’s theory, it’s ideals,” Brooks said. “For me, it’s my life.”

Brooks didn’t stay in the corner at Fergie’s. Much like when she organized against school closings in Philadelphia or against gun violence, Brooks took the mic at the fundraiser. She stood next to O’Rourke to share a message of gratitude with her supporters who filled the top floor of Fergie’s on a stormy summer night.

“I had to kick this off because other women like me, little girls need to see something different than what we currently see,” Brooks said. “We need to change the narrative of what we see and what it means to be a young teenage single mom and put yourself through college and still be able to say I’m running for City Council.”

Movement in Philadelphia

Brooks would also take the mic in front of a crowd of 3,000 Netroots Nation guests who came out to see presidential candidates take community questions at a forum. When it was her turn at the podium during Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s round of questions, she raised the issue of public education.

“Here in Philadelphia we have been ground zero for the decimation of public education, for corporations trying to privatize education, for over-policing of black and brown students and for massive school closures,” Brooks said.

Brooks became politically involved after she lost her job as camping director with Easter Seals following former Gov. Tom Corbett’s education cuts. She then joined hundreds of parents, educators, and students to fight the privatization of Philadelphia’s schools. Before asking Warren about her plan for education, Brooks ended on a positive note: “We are also the home of a true movement for public education.” 

O’Rourke, who is running with Brooks, sees a movement in Philadelphia and identifies as Brooks said, as a “movement candidate.” May’s primary drew a surge of newcomer candidates, when two millennial candidates were among the top-five vote getters.

Nicolas O’Rourke, a pastor and community organizer, is running with Working Families Party for Philadelphia City Council.

The top vote-getter was another Working Families Party-endorsed incumbent—Helen Gym. Gym’s background includes community organizing focused largely on education and criminal justice. Her initial election in 2015 coincided with an evolving independent political base, which helped her victory.

“Since then we’ve seen some significant efforts to keep organizing that includes the election of Larry Krasner as district attorney in 2017, and then in the 2019 race a slew of women and women of color ran for a whole host of seats including a sheriff, a west Philadelphia district seat, and an LGBTQ judge,” Gym said.

Krasner has been at the center of national attention for his reformist work as district attorney including bail reform, and recently requesting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. He built a career as a public defender and then a private defense attorney before running for D.A. on a platform to end mass incarceration. 

O’Rourke worked closely with Krasner in his work against mass incarceration with POWER, an interfaith Philadelphia organization. He sees this Council election as part of the same movement. “The idea is to oust the Republicans who do not have the interest of the lion’s share of the city, and to build a progressive caucus on Council,” O’Rourke said. “Most of the time we have conversations with folks, the reaction is ‘why have we not thought about this before?’”

Republicans in a progressive city

Besides the two Council seats reserved for minority candidates, Philadelphia is largely run by establishment Democrats in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 7-1 ratio, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

”Republicans, without a real command of the 6th largest city in the union, still just by osmosis gets these two seats,” O’Rourke said.

Progressives are targeting established Democrats in Council as well. O’Rourke says it will take a progressive movement to help the 26% of Philadelphians who live in poverty—making it the poorest of America’s large cities. “Though Philadelphia markets itself as a progressive city, it’s still profoundly unjust,” O’Rourke said.

No independent candidate has succeeded in pulling away a Council seat from a Republican since the city’s charter was enacted. But O’Rourke and Brooks filed twice the number of signatures to get on the ballot—WFP political strategist Vanessa Clifford sees that as a sign of the momentum the two candidates are riding on the way to the November 5 election.

Candidates won’t file fundraising reports until late-September, and Clifford declined to share details. “They know what they’re talking about, they know the issues, they’ve been on the forefront their whole lives, people know them and like them,” Clifford said. “You can’t make up campaigns like this.”

O’Rourke led the audience at the Fergie’s fundraiser in a spiritual song. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” he sang, and the room swayed.

“We’re gonna run the Republicans out of Philadelphia,” Clifford concluded.

Alexandra Arriaga

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....