Political devolution: In Philly, socialists maneuver to win local office

“Our power does not come and will never come from currying favor with the Democratic Party,” said Kshama Sawant

Published July 28, 2016 8:00PM (EDT)

Seattle's socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant  (Reuters/Jason Redmond)
Seattle's socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant (Reuters/Jason Redmond)

On Sunday, activists and neighbors gathered at a North Philadelphia church waved fans against the stifling heat and applauded angry criticism of Temple University’s proposal to build a $126 million, 35,000-seat football stadium in the middle of the downtrodden but gentrifying neighborhood. Rather more boldly, speakers also derided the Democratic Party as a tool of the ruling class. It's a fight over a stadium that socialists hope might also function as a springboard to challenge Democrats' 64-year hold on city government.

“Our power does not come and will never come from currying favor with the Democratic Party,” said Kshama Sawant, a Socialist Alternative City Council member visiting from Seattle, surrounded by the historic Church of the Advocate’s late-19th century stained glass and mid-1970s murals portraying black American history through the lens of Biblical narrative.

The Stadium Stompers event, six miles up Broad Street from the Democratic National Convention, drew a racially diverse crowd that Socialist Alternative, a Trotskyist party, hopes will lay the groundwork for a possible race against Council President Darrell Clarke in 2019. Not so long ago, such an endeavor would have been laughable. Today, it’s still a real longshot. But leftists energized by the Bernie Sanders campaign hope that socialist challengers up and down the ballot, inside the party and out, can now win.

“I think we’re in a historic moment for sure," says Anna Barnett, a Temple rising senior and Socialist Alternative member. "I’m pretty young, so this when I’m becoming more politically engaged.”

Young people like Barnett, who is white, face a bleak economic future after graduation, and hope to make common cause together with people in a historically-black neighborhood where economic crisis has been the norm for decades.

“You don’t have any guarantees now," adds Barnett.

Sawant built her surprising 2013 victory in Seattle on a campaign for a $15 minimum wage. In Philadelphia, Socialist Alternative mounted a similar campaign that ultimately faltered over concerns that a local wage floor would be out of line with state law. But they hope that a movement against Temple’s expanding footprint will pay off where 15 Now didn’t, laying the groundwork a third-party challenge under their banner, or perhaps under a new one.

Temple, a public university, was founded to educate working-class locals. In recent years, however, it has been subject to paltry state funding, and is looking to a higher national profile and football for salvation. The stadium, part of that plan, would land in the middle of a neighborhood where long-running anger over university expansion has reached a fever pitch as privately-owned student housing tears through at a breakneck pace. As Philadelphia Magzine put it, the irony is that "the citizens it’s displacing are those it was founded to serve."

Jacqueline Wiggins, an area Democratic committeewoman and Stadium Stompers leader, echoed common complaints about loud and drunk students. “Putting a stadium there,” Wiggins told the crowd, “is just going to make matters worse.”

Another neighbor, Kenneth Johnson, compared the project to “putting a whale inside of a goldfish bowl,” worrying that his grandson would one day be unable to live in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. “It’s a plan for profits over people,” he said.

Joan Briley, a lifetime neighborhood resident, says that she has been heartened to see students and residents working together.

“It’s going to effect all of us, not just us in the neighborhood” but also students who could see tuition rise further, she says. “It made me feel really good to see them there.”

Party socialists, long relegated to selling boring and didactic newspapers at political rallies, hope that putting in hard work on local fights, at a moment of historic political shifts, will help deliver electoral power. In Philadelphia, that will be extraordinarily difficult.

For one, challenging Clarke in a district seat means that Socialist Alternative will bypass an opportunity to seek one of the two at-large positions reserved for minority parties and currently held by Republicans—a tantalizing option for third party leftists in a left-leaning city. Running citywide, however, is tough. They would also pass up taking a stand in what seems like a more welcoming West Philadelphia district, diverse and boasting a large number of left-wing residents, held by Jannie Blackwell.

In North Philadelphia, Clarke has deep roots, and his position as City Council president makes him among the most powerful figures in the city. What’s more, the fight might not be an ideal electoral vehicle to challenge him: Clarke has in fact criticized the stadium, saying that it can’t be built without community support, and so has avoided playing the useful role of villain. Indeed, Socialist Alternative’s biggest problem might be that they win the stadium fight too soon. Clarke has signaled his skepticism and Temple President Neil D. Theobald, the motor behind the plan, was recently ousted.

According to Clarke’s office, there is no visible plan to build a stadium at this point — just talk from an apparent minority of administrators.

"Council President Clarke has made it abundantly clear that he would only consider the merits of a stadium proposal if it was shaped by the concerns of affected residents and businesses,” said Clarke spokesperson Jane Roh in a statement. “Not only does that not appear to be happening, it is apparent that many residents are simply not being heard at all.”

Yet Temple’s Board of Trustees just two weeks ago authorized $250,000 more for stadium feasibility, bringing their total declared preliminary expenditures to roughly $1.25 million, according to a statement from the university. Temple contends that it is working to take community concerns into account, and did not provide any hints in their statement that the proposal was being scrapped.

But Wiggins isn't convinced that Clarke, who has taken political hits over pell-mell Temple development in the past, is on their side, saying he has come across as arrogant to stadium opponents.

The coalition between largely white young activists, and older black residents, she says, holds promise. But there have been growing pains, says Wiggins, who young activists address as Miss Jackie as a sign of respect. Young activists, however good their intentions, must step gingerly when working in neighborhoods they are new to.

Yet Wiggins is convinced that the city’s Democratic Party, she says, needs to be “shaken the hell up.” She’s open to someone, including a socialist, challenging Clarke.

“Whatever’s going to work,” she says, to bring about the “change that we need.”

The change that Socialist Alternative seeks is radical. In Seattle, Sawant hasn't been shy about making revolutionary proposals — like, say, seizing a Boeing factory and placing it under worker control. But she is also what might be described as a socialist who likes to get things done, building her campaign on a call for a $15 minimum wage. Legislation to do just, albeit gradually, became law in 2014. Her victory, followed by Sanders’ improbable success, inspired leftists around the country.

At a time of economic crisis and inequality, people are willing to give socialists, whether hard left or social democratic, a fresh look—particularly, Socialist Alternative hopes, in a district that includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest cities in the country.

The last year of American politics have for better and for worse cast longtime political certainties into doubt from the presidency on down. In Philadelphia, years of social movement mobilization against school budget cuts, closings and charter expansion propelled Helen Gym, a leading left activist, into City Council last year—albeit in the more traditional guise of the Democratic Party.

Ironically, Socialist Alternative might benefit from the very sort of neighborhood changes they decry, as Clarke’s black base gives way to a growing number of young white people. But Sunday’s mass meeting makes it clear that longtime black residents might also be receptive to their message. During the Democratic primary, it became conventional pundit wisdom that black people are allergic to socialism. In reality, a majority of young black primary voters, the generation out in the raucously streets protesting for black lives, backed Sanders. So did Wiggins.

“They better make a change,” says Wiggins of the Democratic Party establishment. “They better pay attention.”

Otherwise, she warns, they will have a revolution on their hands.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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