In Philly, progressive candidates slug it out with Democratic incumbents

Italian Market in South Philadelphia, the site of what could be one of this spring's mostly closely watched Democratic primaries (Image via WikiMedia Commons)

A pair of Philadelphia primaries will pit a progressive activist group against two entrenched Democratic incumbents.

The ideological distinctions between the competitors are slim. But the results will still be two of the most watched races come April. 

“We are in a political moment where we need to do more and demand more of our elected officials.” Rick Krajewski, a progressive political organizer running against 18-term Rep. Jim Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, told the Capital-Star.

Challenges against conservative incumbent Democrats electrified the left in 2018. Think U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset win in a Queens congressional primary, or the twin victories of democratic socialist Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato in Pittsburgh.

But after a wave of retirements from Pittsburgh’s South Side to Reading, many of progressives’ top incumbent targets are headed out the door. It’s left a slate of primary challenges coming at reliably liberal — even progressive — lawmakers more over tone than substance.

Such primaries can be seen elsewhere in the commonwealth, from Allentown to Delaware County, but it’s especially clear in the City of Brotherly Love.

In West Philadelphia, Roebuck, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee and a staunch defender of public schools, faces a challenger who was born seven years after Roebuck first went to Harrisburg.

Across the Schuylkill River, Sen. Larry Farnese, a Democrat representing South Philly and Center City, is also getting an intra-party challenge from Nikil Saval, the 37-year-old founder of grassroots activism group Reclaim Philadelphia. The group, which has powered multiple progressive wins, has links to both upstarts.

First elected in 2008, Farnese has legislated from the left, pushing, unsuccessfully in the GOP-controlled Senate, for a LGBTQ non-discrimination law. In the last year, he voted for a compromise bill increasing the state’s minimum wage, and against immigration status checks for construction workers.

“I was progressive when, quite frankly, it wasn’t that cool to be progressive,” Farnese said at a campaign stop in January, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Despite Farnese’s record, Saval’s campaign argues that the incumbent’s record isn’t the “bold leadership” the party needs, on everything from the Green New Deal to housing guarantees to union rights.

Then there’s the demographic changes. South Philly was once the heart of Philly’s aging Italian-American population. 

Now, according to Statistical Atlas, the South Philly district is still majority white — but much less so. The area also has burgeoning populations of Black, Latino and Asian-American residents. 

With the district “growing increasingly diverse, people deserve to have someone who looks like them representing them,” Saval’s campaign manager, Amanda Mcillmurray, told the Capital-Star.

And it’s not just growing racial diversity. Farnese’s 1st District seat is also among the youngest districts — it’s home to the highest percentage of 20- and 30-somethings in the state. That could end up working to the 37-year-old Saval’s advantage against the 51-year-old incumbent. 

‘Put in a warehouse’

The age gap between district and rep is also in play in West Philly.

Roebuck’s 188th House District in West Philadelphia includes University City, Spruce Hill, Walnut Hill and Garden Court. It has the third-highest concentration of college-age individuals in the Commonwealth, according to the Statistical Atlas.

His challenger, Krajewski, is 28, while Roebuck is 75. Krajewski has been alive for less than time then the 35-year veteran Roebuck has served in the Capitol.

Roebuck insisted that he would not “be carried out of Harrisburg.” Instead, he contended his challenge reeks of ageism.

“If you’re old, you should be put in a warehouse and forgotten about,” Roebuck told the Capital-Star Tuesday. “That seems to be the philosophy.”

Speaking after he dropped off petitions in Harrisburg, Roebuck expressed frustration with what’s now a four-way primary fight between him and three opponents. 

Roebuck insisted he had education policy changes he still hoped to make if he wins the April 28 primary, and if Democrats win a House majority in November. For that to happen, they need to pick up nine seats in the 203-member chamber

“It’d be nice trying to get rid of Republicans instead of good Democrats,” he said.

Krajewski sees it differently. His race is not an “anti-Roebuck” campaign, he said.

“I respect that he fought for public education and stood up against [charter schools] at a time [when] it was extremely unpopular,” Krajewski added.

Instead, Krajewski said he’s running to build a progressive blueprint for a Democratic majority.

Together with such like-minded lawmakers as Philadelphia Democratic Reps. Chris Rabb and Elizabeth Fiedler, Krajewski argued that his election would clear the way to accomplish big policy goals, from abolishing the death penalty to a fair education funding formula, when Democrats are on top.

Progressive roots, progressive candidates

Philadelphia hopefuls Krajewski and Saval both previously worked for Reclaim Philadelphia. The grassroots group was founded in 2016 to “bring racial, gender and economic justice to the city of Philadelphia.”

The group played a big role in electing both progressive Democratic District Attorney Larry Krasner, but they haven’t hesitated to break from the party. 

Despite backlash from the city’s powerful Democratic committee, Reclaim worked to elect Working Families’ Party Councilmember Kendra Brooks to an at-large seat on the city’s council.

Reclaim also previously backed Roebuck, which the incumbent noted. In an email, Sergio Cea, Reclaim’s West Philadelphia organizer, said that Krajewski won the support of 98 percent of the group during its  endorsement vote.

Cea pointed to a split between Krajewski and Roebuck on their endorsement applications on the death penalty and pro-business tax credits. Roebuck supported both, while Krajewski was opposed.

“Reclaim is lucky to have had two qualified leaders seek our endorsement for the race in the 188th, but we believe that the leader with the boldest vision and the person most committed to our shared values should represent us,” Cea said. “That is why we are proud to endorse Rick Krajewski for State Representative in the 188th.”

Roebuck has faced three primaries in the past ten years according to Ballotpedia, winning all with a majority of the vote. But looking at outsider progressive runs for city offices last year, both Saval and Krajewski have some reason for hope. 

According to Philadelphia election blog Sixty Six Wards, Brooks did well in Roebuck’s gentrifying district, as did another successful council challenger, Jamie Gauthier. 

In South Philly, unsuccessful outsider city commissioner candidate Kahlil Williams put up good numbers in the neighborhood, Philly 3.0’s Jon Geeting noted in a September web post. The political group is aligned with Mayor Jim Kenney.

“To the extent that Farnese is viewed as a more traditional Party figure in a similar political camp as [Lisa Deeley, Philadelphia City Commissioner] a candidate who was able to appeal to Williams’s voters could be competitive,” Geeting wrote.

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed to this story.