Newsletter #70: Doing the Work in Philadelphia, with Helen Gym and Nikil Saval

Newsletter #70: Doing the Work in Philadelphia, with Helen Gym and Nikil Saval

By Michal Schatz

If you want to win, you have to do the work. Variations of this refrain, first drilled into my head by the organizers working on my graduate student union campaign, echo repeatedly in my mind on a regular basis. In Philadelphia, a new generation of organizers are doing the work, and we have the elected officials to prove it. The Dig’s recent interview with mayoral candidate Helen Gym and State Senator Nikil Saval, both of whom I worked closely with in Philly, brought me home to the movement that trained me into an organizer. Listening to their conversation, I was reminded of a moving reflection Nikil published on his experience as a super volunteer for Bernie Sanders’s campaign shortly after Bernie lost the Pennsylvania primary. The piece was a meditation on the nature of political commitment, on how inadequate anything other than total dedication can feel when there is so much work to do. In Philly, Nikil, Helen, and a growing cohort of organizers have given themselves over completely to the cause of progressive politics.

Philadelphia is a diverse, gritty, vibrant city whose residents deserve far more than what they’ve gotten from decades of neoliberal, corporate-aligned mayors. When I first moved to Philly in 2015, I kept hearing one name spoken among left circles: Helen Gym. With her successful bid for an at-large city council seat in 2015, Helen delivered a blow to the city’s deeply entrenched Democratic Party machine and laid the groundwork for a new era in Philly politics. Since then, left and progressive grassroots organizers have built a movement rooted in popular support to successfully unseat long-time incumbents at all levels of city and state government. This year, Helen is running for mayor in a primary race that will put this progressive structure to the test.

Leftists have long passionately debated whether electoral politics is the right place, strategically, to focus our energy. In Philly’s case, prioritizing electoral organizing has been transformative. Shortly after Helen won her 2015 election, Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Democratic primary campaign mobilized previously untapped organizing energy and capacity. When Bernie’s primary bid ended, newly trained and politicized organizers and volunteers founded and filtered into new organizations, especially Philly Democratic Socialists of America and Reclaim Philadelphia. In 2017, Reclaim ran its first candidate, Larry Krasner, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, in a district attorney’s race. When Krasner won, he instantly became one of the most progressive DAs in the country, firing thirty-one assistant district attorneys and instructing police not to criminally charge marijuana possession. The following year, Reclaim-recruited candidate Elizabeth Fiedler shocked the city when she won a tight state representative race. Since then, Reclaim has recruited and successfully run other candidates — State Senator Nikil Saval and State Representative Rick Krajewski, for example. This year, Reclaim co-founder Amanda McIllmurray is running for city council at-large.

For the Philly left, this election is about halting the inertia of corporate greed that is bleeding the city dry while pricing its residents out of their homes. As Nikil and Helen explain, electing movement candidates into office is not sufficient in itself to instigate radical change, but it creates the necessary conditions for visionary policies — like Nikil’s Whole-Homes Repair Program and Helen’s Eviction Prevention policy — that are often shrugged off as too bold to become legislation. With record rates of gun violence and rising housing costs in the US’s poorest big city, now is not the time to play it safe.

Further Reading and Listening If you want to learn more about Reclaim Philadelphia, you’re in luck. Before he was a state senator, Nikil joined The Dig along with Amanda McIllmurray and Rick Krajewski to talk about Reclaim and Larry Krasner’s election. To learn more about the structure of Philly’s progressive electoral movement, check out this Philadelphia Inquirer article. Helen’s plans for reducing Philly’s gun violence are unmatched in the mayoral race. Read more about her plans here.