West Philly’s Rick Krajewski on Running for Office, Defunding the PPD and the National Leftist Uprising

Helped by an endorsement from Bernie Sanders, the activist-turned-politician's victorious primary campaign in West Philly's 188th District is being mentioned with those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Brown and his friend Nikil Saval.

Rick Krajewski announcing his campaign at a Reclaim Philly meeting last fall. Photo by Jason Lozada

West Philly’s Rick Krajewski has never been much for the status quo. Raised by a working-class single mother in the South Bronx, he’s used his position as an outsider — first at an elite New York City private school, then as an engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania — to wage a battle for equal access to opportunity and representation in Pennsylvania. The moment that radicalized him, he says, was when the STEM curriculum he developed at West Philadelphia’s Samuel B. Huey Elementary School was shelved in 2016 after the school was shuttered to make room for a privately run charter academy with a lottery system that left many neighborhood children lacking a high-quality public education. From there, he rose through the ranks of Reclaim Philadelphia — founded by former Bernie Sanders volunteers — where he fought to elect District Attorney Larry Krasner and spearheaded a successful grassroots campaign to get publicity for progressive judgeship candidates in down-ballot elections.

Now he’s flipped the switch, having become the progressive politician whom those fed up with the establishment organized to elect. In June’s Democratic primary, Krajewski ousted 35-year incumbent James Roebuck to become the presumptive state Representative-elect for the 188th District. He ran an unorthodox campaign, pivoting from a classic get-out-the-vote operation to launch a mutual aid program as the novel coronavirus left many in his district unemployed and without food or access to health care. Running unopposed in November in his heavily Democratic district in West Philly, Krajewski has plans to take a platform steeped in direct action, decarceration, and education reform to Harrisburg. Philly Mag spoke with him on the phone to learn more about his plans, his hopes for activism in Philly, and where he falls in the progressive surge overtaking local office.

Philadelphia: You’ve been an organizer for a while with Reclaim Philly. What made you want to pivot and run for elected office yourself?

Rick Krajewski: I’m supportive of the other progressives that are in the State House, like Chris Raab and Summer Lee, which is why I knocked doors for [City Council candidates] Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas and Kendra Brooks. Having all of these people in strategic positions has made it more effective for us to push for our issues. Kendra, Jamie Gauthier and Helen just pushed the Emergency Housing Protection Act, which will extend relief for renters throughout the year, for example. That legislation wouldn’t have happened without them. What I’ve realized while doing community organizing is the importance of having allies in office that will work with you.

Also, I’ve spent my whole adult life — the past 11 years — in Philadelphia, and the majority of that time in West Philadelphia, first as an undergrad at Penn and then as a resident. I love this place. It’s my home … and it’s become clear to me that with the current trends around our education system and housing market, I won’t be able to have a secure future here. I can’t say that I’m going to be able to send my child to a well-funded local public school if I start a family. I can’t say with certainty that I’ll be able to own a home here. That sucks! It sucks to feel like you can’t have permanent residency in the place that you call your home. So there are political and strategic reasons that led me to pivot, but also personal ones.

Your campaign had a decarceration plan that was focused first on decreasing state prison funding and then on the effects of COVID-19 on prison populations. How have the events of the last month changed what’s politically possible around that issue?

This doesn’t change my vision in that I am fundamentally an abolitionist: I envision a model of safety and accountability that isn’t upheld through prisons, mass policing, and mass incarceration. Defunding the police is about divesting from police and their militarized violence by investing in the root causes of violence — like systemic poverty — and putting resources into them. So if anything, this moment has just expedited our ability to win some of these demands. It has made it more politically possible to defund the police and fund communities right now, vs. thinking that it’s a multi-year agenda. We now even have Republicans that are voting on policing reform bills. You have bipartisan appeals. You have protests happening across the state, even in places where there aren’t Black people. What that signals is that our movement for decarceration is at its peak. This is the peak of possibility for us, so it has allowed us to act with more urgency.

Rick Krajewski at the June Defund the Police protest. Photo by Matt Barber

You’ve recently pushed Mayor Kenney to defund the Philadelphia Police Department by $120 million, which did not occur. [Council and the Mayor passed a budget that reallocated $14 million of PPD funds.] Where does that number come from, and why are so many demonstrators rallying around it?

The $120 million number was pushed by a couple of groups acting on the ground, like the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia. It is how much the PPD budget has increased over Mayor Kenney’s administration, so it’s gone up by 20 percent over the past five years. It’s an extreme amount of money that actually does not show a [corresponding] decrease in violence.

All of these protesters are coalescing around defunding the police because it’s not just that the increase [in police funding] is happening; it’s that it’s happening as schools are experiencing austerity cuts. The school I used to teach at was shut down in 2015 and turned into a charter school, and other schools are dealing with asbestos and with lead in their drinking water. So to see this increase not actually accomplish anything when the money could go to all of this other stuff that could actually result in lifting people out of needs-based crime is enraging.

Your plan to defund the police calls for reinvesting funds diverted from policing into education, arts, and other community programs. Whom do you need to work with at the city and state levels to make this happen, politically?

City Council is going to be a big part of this equation because of their ability to engage around the budget. The truth is, we’re going to need a bloc that goes beyond Councilwoman Brooks, who voted against the recent budget. We’re going to need other people who want to step up and be in favor of this issue. On the state level, it’s going to have to involve other legislators who are advocating for policing reform. I’m really encouraged by the work of legislators like Joanna McClinton and Jordan Harris, who have been taking the lead in introducing several policing bills after that direct action when they occupied the House floor. I want all to be passed, and two already have, but we still need a lot more.

As someone who has pivoted from ground-level activism to a presumptive seat in the legislature, what advice would you give BLM organizers who may be considering a similar long game about how to channel the energy of the moment into real momentum?

I’ve always thought that this movement was particularly powerful because people are continuously hitting the streets to protest, which raises the necessary public tension. We are not allowing anyone to forget that these are our demands and that defunding the police will live or die based on the activity out in the streets. But what I’m really excited about is that there are people who are using that public energy and translating it into the need for officials to capitulate to our demands. So my advice is for us to always take the tension we create with public outrage, like protests, and use it as leverage to get elected officials to do what we want and hold them accountable.

In the same vein, how do we keep white and non-Black allies invested in and advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement?

You have to take their moment of piqued interest and hit them in their gut with how it affects them, too. White people need to understand that under a white supremacist structure, it is the violence and oppression that is being enacted upon Black and brown people. But it’s dehumanizing anyone who doesn’t benefit from the structure, which includes anyone who is not a cis-hetero white dude in their 50s who’s a capitalist. So how do you take people from that point of entry? There is that first moment of politicization where you become agitated to think more deeply about your conditions, which should lead you down a path of reflection that causes you to become more committed to the work. White people need to do that and think beyond solidarity with Black lives. It’s one of the biggest challenges, because while this work is centered around the Black and brown experience, building cross-racial solidarity is what is going to take us to the next level.

Can you take us back to the moment when you found out Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed you? Was it a surprise?

It was a bit of a roller coaster. I had been trying to work on getting the endorsement for some time because I knew I had friends who were a part of his team. Then I found out Nikil [Saval] got endorsed, and — to be frank — that lit a fire under my ass. I went into overdrive and kept bumping my emails with his political director. The moment it happened, I was in the CVS right next to my house. I was waiting to be checked out. [Sanders’s] political director calls me and she’s like, “You got endorsed!” I started immediately flipping out and was so grateful, so I couldn’t wait to tell everyone. We hang up, but I’m still in the checkout line. I needed to call my campaign manager and my mom to let them know the news. It has never felt so long being in line as it did in that moment.

The media has begun to mention your campaign in the same breath as those of AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and your friend Nikil Saval — do you see yourself as part of this leftist surge?

I do! Because what this surge represents is that our people, our movement, is not satisfied with the way the establishment is doing politics anymore. All of us — myself, Nikil, Jamal, AOC — all ran on a commitment to go above and beyond what is expected of elected officials. Jamaal Bowman went on a bus tour in the middle of COVID, going around the Bronx to engage with constituents. AOC has been a firebrand who’s been willing to hold her colleagues accountable. Both myself and Nikil are holding town halls and did listening sessions about housing, workers’ rights and mass liberation. Our campaign was also the first to launch a mutual aid program regarding food service in the time of COVID. All of those things are not the normal modes of operation for politicians, and normal isn’t working anymore.

As we look to November, when the Democratic party is backing a decidedly centrist candidate in Joe Biden, what do victories like yours and some of the ones we’ve mentioned say about the dynamics in the broader party? Can the party hold together?

With all of these insurgents winning and taking office, I hope that we can all unite under the left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party, because while their agenda is horrible, there are some things about [that group] that I admire. They know how to be ruthless about what they want and to not compromise, and that’s why their agenda won despite their being a small contingent when they started. Our movement needs to do the same thing — we need to come together, build a collective agenda, and continue to get people into office while building alliances where we can. We must be ruthless about what we aspire to do, and by that, I mean just simply being courageous and unwilling to capitulate. What Jamal, AOC, Nikil and myself have in common is that we didn’t come with some weak shit. We didn’t come with a weak platform. We came out strong, and the party was forced to respond. I hope we have enough force that the party must be accountable to us, which will help us move the Democratic establishment back toward its roots as being people-powered.