In Philadelphia, the local Democratic Party chairman has promised to expel party ward leaders who support the socialist city council candidates. It threatens to depress already sagging voter turnout in the 2024 presidential elections.

Philadelphia Democratic Party chairman Bob Brady greets President Joe Biden at the Philadelphia International Airport, October 13, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

“To hell with them.”

That’s what Philadelphia Democratic Party chairman Bob Brady had to say about Kendra Brooks, Nicolas O’Rourke, and their bid to break the Republican Party’s grip on Philadelphia’s city council. Brooks and O’Rourke are running on the Working Families Party (WFP) ballot line for the council’s two “minority party seats,” which, by law, Democrats cannot hold. Yet Brady is conducting a scorched-earth campaign against WFP and effectively in support of their Republican opponents.

In an upset that shocked the city and dismayed both the Democratic and Republican establishments, Brooks captured the first minority party seat in 2019 (O’Rourke also ran that year, but came up just short). Since then, Brooks, a socialist organizer and former nursing assistant, has consistently advocated for pro-working-class policies like rent control and fully funding public schools. She led the council to unanimously pass emergency support for renters during the depths of the pandemic. And even when she could not move her colleagues to her position — like when she was the sole vote against the council’s ban on overdose prevention sites — she was willing to take lonely stands.

Brooks is now up for reelection, and O’Rourke is taking another swing at the second minority party seat. The local Democratic Party, for its part, remains committed to ensuring they fail. The Democrats’ preferred tactic? A purge from party leadership of democratically elected left-wing officials and representatives who support Brooks and O’Rourke.

This approach is a direct assault on the Left. But it is also a parochial act of national self-sabotage — an internal party purge will likely further depress already sagging Democratic turnout in Philadelphia, endangering the party’s ability to hold on to the White House in 2024.

Democrats Against the Left

The party is arguing, as it did in 2019, that voting for the WFP slate means “cutting” two Democrats from a voter’s ballot. Technically, that’s true — voters may only select five candidates, and voting for two WFP candidates leaves room for only three Democrats.

Practically, though, the argument doesn’t make much sense. Philadelphia’s voter registration skews seven-to-one in favor of Democrats. As such, when Brooks first won her council seat, she received about 113,000 votes fewer than the worst-performing Democrat. It is nearly impossible that supporting Brooks and O’Rourke will harm the Democratic candidates. And the Democrats know it — Brady has even admitted as much.

Back in 2019, Brady issued similar public threats to expel from the Democratic Party’s leadership structure any elected officials who dared endorse the WFP candidates. Soon-to-be state senator and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Nikil Saval, former councilmember Helen Gym, and state representative Chris Rabb were the party’s primary targets that year. They held their ground, Saval penned a public defense of his support for Brooks and O’Rourke, and the party backed down.

This year, Brady is taking his saber-rattling up a notch. Maybe he’s still feeling the sting of 2019. But the context on the ground has also changed: the establishment’s grip on the party has loosened, and Brady’s escalation can be seen as an attempt to reestablish control.

There have been two major developments since 2019 on this front. First, a slew of socialists with growing profiles have won local elected office, including Senator Saval, Representatives Elizabeth Fiedler (elected in 2018) and Rick Krajewski, and Councilmember Brooks herself. Second, and less commonly understood, socialists and progressives are asserting increasing influence through the esoteric but important ward structure.

Philadelphia is composed of more than 1,700 divisions, each containing approximately five hundred to a thousand voters and represented by two committee people per political party. Divisions are grouped into sixty-six wards, with the committee people in each ward electing a ward leader. One key role played by committee people is voting for party leadership; if the Left wins enough committee posts, it can dislodge Brady and his allies from power.

Even more critical, committee people and ward leaders determine who the party endorses in primary elections; the more wards controlled by the Left, the more progressive candidates can tout the official Democratic endorsement on primary election day. As organized progressives take control of more and more of the ward structure, it’s no surprise that Brady is feeling the heat.

To raise the pressure this time around, Brady began communicating his threat months earlier in the election cycle, and he took it upon himself to deliver the message to certain wards in person.

Now he’s followed through. Earlier this month, the party expelled members of the 31st Ward from their positions as elected committee people. More expulsions are expected to follow, as the 2nd Ward, under DSA-member ward leader Will Gross, became the first to collectively endorse a non-Democrat and as one hundred committee people from across the city just released a public letter endorsing the WFP slate.

A Dangerous Gambit

Just looking at local politics, Democratic leaders’ position may seem irrational. After all, Brooks and O’Rourke’s policy priorities are quite similar to those the Democrats purport to hold — prominent Democrats in Philadelphia regularly proclaim their support for affordable housing, public services, and working people. Yet by siding with Republicans, the local Democratic Party is choosing tax cuts over functional libraries and recreation centers, and representation for real estate interests rather than for workers.

But in the national context, Brady’s stance becomes even more bizarre and dangerous — risking not just city hall but also the White House. By threatening to expel dissenting committee people, Brady is jeopardizing Democrats’ ability to turn out for the 2024 election. That’s because, in addition to voting on party leadership and endorsements, committee people serve as the party’s get-out-the-vote “foot soldiers,” tasked with informing their neighbors about the election and its stakes, and encouraging them to cast their ballots for the Democrats. In Brady’s own words, committee people are the “backbone of our democratic process.”

Recently, however, that backbone is looking rather fragile. As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, many of the party’s committee people haven’t voted recently, don’t live in the neighborhood they represent anymore, have died and gone unreplaced, have been convicted of political corruption, or are simply not known by their neighbors.

Many more committee person seats are simply vacant. Indeed, the local establishment is so incapable of recruiting replacements that Brady has told reporters, “We’re lucky to have any of them.”

In short, Democratic Party leadership appears to be asleep at the wheel, driving Philadelphia’s voter turnout off a cliff. And according to Brady, there is no plan to reverse the trend: “I don’t know . . . I wish I would know. I would try to do something to increase it.”

That’s a problem for national Democrats. Philadelphia functions as an essential bulwark against Pennsylvania’s otherwise right-leaning tendencies; without strong turnout from predominantly Democratic voters in Philadelphia, the state could easily go Republican (as it did in the 2016 presidential election).

And Brady’s purge of democratically elected left-wing officials — often younger and highly motivated, located in some of the only wards with increasing voter turnout and likely responsible for some of that increase — may be actively undermining the party’s chances next year. Even if the purge remains relatively contained, the fear, disillusionment, and resentment Brady is fomenting will likely depress participation in and enthusiasm for the presidential election among the party’s foot soldiers. With the ominous polling for Joe Biden hard to miss, alienating the base is a risk the Democrats can ill afford to take.

Local Democrats are undermining the national party’s effort to hold on to the presidency because the local and national parties’ interests have diverged. While Biden wants to win reelection, Brady wants to maintain his little slice of power in Philadelphia. Of course, selling out national Democrats to Republicans for his own benefit is not new to Brady — when he was a congressperson in the 2010s, he rallied behind a GOP gerrymander in Pennsylvania that secured his seat against black primary opponents while weakening Democrats’ prospects across the rest of the state. Frustrating Biden’s aspirations for a second presidential term is more of the same.

Brady and the Philadelphia Democrats are playing with fire. By aligning themselves with Republicans and against working-class demands like rent control and fully funded public schools, the party is taking positions that most Philadelphians will find repugnant.

But it also presents left-wing leaders like 2nd Ward leader Will Gross the opportunity to lay the stakes out clearly: “It’s time for our Democratic Party to recognize that if we are to be the party of poor and working-class people across this city, we must support Kendra and Nicolas in their fight against the GOP.” In doing so, left-wing groups like DSA and the WFP can rally working-class Philadelphians under their banner and start building an alternative to the neoliberal Democratic establishment.

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