Meet the Working Families Party duo looking to oust Republicans from City Council

Of the seven at-large seats available on Philadelphia City Council, two are reserved for minority party or Independent candidates. A voter who steps into the booth on election day can pick five candidates, the same number each party is allowed to nominate under the Home Rule Charter, thus clearing the way for members of a rival political party to step up to the legislative plate. 

For the last several decades, this has allowed the extraneous two at-large seats to fall at the feet of the Republican party in the out-and-proud, largely-Democratic city of Philadelphia. Backed by the Working Families Party, two candidates with strong community organizing roots, Kendra Brooks and Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke, have teamed up in an attempt to dislodge right-leaning politicians from the at-large spots, which are currently held by Republican Councilmembers Al Taubenberger and David Oh.

And their efforts are being noticed. 

Brooks, who hails from Nicetown, has been endorsed by 2020 presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who herself was endorsed Wednesday by Mayor Jim Kenney — and Councilmember Helen Gym, who recently championed an “inclusivity package” of legislation for trans and gender-nonconforming protections. State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Brian Sims have also endorsed Brooks. She is also credited with raising more campaign funding than any other third-party candidate in Philadelphia history. 

O’Rourke is a pastor at Oxford Circle’s Living Water United Church of Christ, which he describes as a 21st-century, affirming congregation that fully embraces the city’s LGBTQ folks, diverse communities and people of various faiths. Kenyatta and Sims have also endorsed O’Rourke. 

The Working Families Party describes itself as “a progressive grassroots political party building a multiracial movement of working people to transform America.” O’Rourke and Brooks are running on The People’s Platform for a Just Philadelphia, which emphasizes eight subject areas including providing public school funding, ensuring affordable housing, initiating a living wage of at least $15 per hour, addressing the mass incarceration of people of color and implementing a Green New Deal. 

The two candidates recently spoke out against Oh, who this month incited a Facebook controversy after sharing an article from a religious news outlet about Warren supporting health care coverage for gender-affirming surgeries. 

“2019 should be the year that Philadelphia sets forward a human rights agenda for all Philadelphians, particularly our transgender, gender expansive and marginalized communities,” the duo said in a statement to PGN at the time. “We need full health care that’s fully inclusive and free, affordable and accessible housing, real employment opportunities to all people and deep conversations about safety and stemming the high murder rates for particularly Black trans people. We are running because there’s no place for Trump’s party in City Hall.”

In an interview this week with PGN, O’Rourke reiterated the importance of having councilmembers who support LGBTQ health care.

“Making sure that those seats are no longer being occupied by persons who are advocating for the oppression and suppression of queer-identifying folk is a major issue,” he said. “I look forward to replacing them and making sure that there is another voice on council and seats — that have not been historically advocacy seats — [for] the mission that we’re pushing for queer folk.”

For Brooks, having a 20-year-old gender-nonconforming child who came out as a young teen inspires her to champion LGBTQ rights, she said. 

“Everyone deserves equality, equal rights and to love who you love and be who you are,” Brooks added. “Nobody else has the right to judge you or exclude you and everyone should stand toward making sure that you’re not discriminated against and that you have the same access to health care, jobs, housing, employment as anyone else.”

O’Rourke describes the efforts of the Working Families Party candidates to break up the Democrat-Republican status quo in city government as “a mass education push.”

“The two seats are not Republican seats, they’re the people’s seats,” he said. “Having a viable third party option, not just names that we write in, but some folks who actually are doing the best we can and going all out to advocate for the presence of independence in the city and their viability I think helps people to reimagine and also deeply understand how this is supposed to work. Those two seats are to ensure diversity, not Republican presence.”

Brooks said that the insurgent campaign has stimulated a new dialogue, particularly among disenfranchised voters — some who were unaware it was possible to cast split-ticket votes. 

“We’re talking to folks in marginalized communities that typically do not trust politicians, do not trust elections, do not trust the system,” she said. “To have those folks willing to come out and support us in a way that we’ve never seen before has been very humbling for me, and it shows the strength of the idea of a third party.” 

“We’re creating a more educated voter network, and I think that’s going to be helpful onwards toward 2020 elections,” Brooks added.