By Endorsing Third-Party Candidates, Philly Democrats Have Lit a Fuse Under Their Own House

Several prominent elected Democrats are supporting Working Families Party candidates for City Council at Large because they want to oust Republicans. But where do they think those votes are going to come from?

philadelphia primary election

Photo by Jason Doiy/Getty Images.

Next Tuesday’s general election in Philly is shaping up to be an epic showdown between Democrats and … Democrats. They say a house divided cannot stand, but someone should also tell them that impact trumps intention.

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve probably heard of Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke, the two self-proclaimed progressive candidates from the Working Families Party who have raised an unprecedented amount of money and garnered some high-profile endorsements from elected Democrats who hope to keep incumbent Republicans from securing their traditional two minority at-Large seats on City Council.

Councilmember Helen Gym, who is also running for reelection in the at-Large race, was one of the first from the left to back Brooks. Brooks has also received endorsements from Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren and several others locally. O’Rourke just received a notable endorsement from state Sen. Vincent Hughes. State reps Chris Rabb, Brian Sims, Malcolm Kenyatta, Elizabeth Fiedler, and Movita Johnson-Harrell, along with state Sen. Art Haywood, want you to vote for Brooks and O’Rourke. And if you thought it couldn’t get any crazier, DA Larry Krasner canvassed with the two candidates over the weekend.

This is strange. This is bizarre. But above all else, this is stabbing lesser-known Black candidates running for Council in the back.

Simple math suggests that Democrats outnumber third-party candidates in such a way that none of the five Democrats running for at-Large should have anything to worry about. But by blatantly endorsing Working Families Party candidates, these Dems are suggesting to voters: “Hey, we know we’re going to win because we always do — so let’s also tell you who else to vote for.” What’s even worse is that because each voter may select only five candidates for City Council at Large, these Democratic endorsers are effectively asking you to not vote for two Democrats in favor of Brooks and O’Rourke.

Out of the five Democratic at Large candidates, four are of color (Gym, Derek Green, Isiah Thomas, and Katherine Gilmore-Richardson) and one is white (Allan Domb). Gym and Domb were the top primary vote-getters, while Thomas, Green, and Gilmore-Richardson were the bottom three, respectively. Based on primary votes, that means Green and Gilmore-Richardson are being swapped out for Brooks and O’Rourke on the election day slate. It should also be noted that none of the Democrats backing Brooks and O’Rourke have explicitly told voters which particular Democratic candidate to trade them out for — which is their passive-aggressive way of lighting the match without setting the fire.

If I were any of these Democratic at-Large candidates whose last name wasn’t Gym, I would be pissed off right now. Imagine running in one of the most competitive Democratic at-Large primaries in decades and your fellow party members are indirectly asking for someone not to vote for you because they presume you already have it in the bag. Imagine seeing them host fundraisers and canvass in the district you live in telling your neighbors about another candidate who isn’t even in your political party — especially when you had to bust your ass to make it in the top five.

The ambitious intention to unseat two Republican seats at the expense of throwing respected Black Democratic candidates under the bus tells us more about the current state of Philly Democrats than it does about the party they are trying to oust. Brooks and O’Rourke are running against other third-party candidates (Sherrie Cohen, Clarc King, and Maj Toure, to name a few) but are relying primarily on Democrats betraying their slate in order to secure their votes.

If this weren’t the case, why isn’t their grassroots strategy to appeal directly to registered independents, who now outnumber Republicans? Easy answer: Why expend the effort to convince a non-monolithic base of independent voters when you can easily rub shoulders with the establishment party, who can afford to lose a few votes to get you elected — which only suggests that the system can be rigged in their favor.

The damage has been done, the game has now completely changed, and Pandora’s box has been opened. The same Democrats backing Working Families Party candidates today might rue the day in the near future when said third party gets cocky enough to put up challengers against them in other races. (It’s already happened earlier this year.) Brooks and O’Rourke might truly be Democrats in Working Families Party’s clothing, but this current endorsement cycle has revealed some deep cuts within our current politics that won’t be easily healed.

Even if Brooks and O’Rourke lose next Tuesday, which I believe they deserve to on principle, the mere audacity and betrayal of their Democratic endorsers tells us that party unity is lost at a time when we need it most for 2020.