This Minority Party is Making Waves in Philadelphia and across the Country
By Brendan Lui
“Together, we can make the future and build a country where everyone can thrive.”
This is the mission of the Working Families Party, a minority party working to elect progressive candidates to office, up and down ballots, across the country. WFP members strive to create a new American future, where the government serves the needs of everyday working people, not the wealthy and powerful. They want to ensure that safe communities and clean water, well-funded schools and community services, freedom and equality, are guaranteed to all. They bring labor unions, community organizations, and social movements together in a multiracial, working class coalition.
And WFP is always strategic. Unlike better known minority parties, such as the Libertarian and Green Parties, who frequently run “spoiler” candidates to split the vote for a major conservative candidate, WFP has no plans to spoil elections. They have plans to win, in city council elections up to the U.S. senate and presidential contests, running candidates on either the Democratic or their own ticket line.
According to a 2016 report by the Atlantic, the Party scored its first political victory shortly after its founding. In the 1998 New York governor’s race, Democratic candidate Peter Vallone received 50,000 votes on the WFP ticket line. Vallone did not, in fact, unseat the incumbent governor, George Pataki. But, according to The New York Times, his concession speech to his “surprisingly upbeat” supporters indicated how the WFP approaches winning, losing, and learning:
“This is really not cause for sorrow or complaint,'' Mr. Vallone said, flanked by his family, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and former Mayor David N. Dinkins. ''We knew from the start that this was going to be an uphill race. The odds were long. The campaign dollars were always a little short. But there was a need to be filled, an obligation to be met.”
Since then, WFP has expanded far beyond New York, with active operations across the country, from "blue’"states like New Jersey and Connecticut, to "purple" states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, to "red" states like Texas.
As the day of the 2020 presidential election drew closer, all eyes fell on Philadelphia. Pundits across the political spectrum said voter turnout levels in the city would be critical, if not determinative, to winning Pennsylvania in the electoral college contest. Throughout the race, national news outlets widely reported on the Biden and Trump campaigns’ get-out-the-vote efforts. But behind the scenes, WFP began mobilizing their own grassroots voter turnout operation.
After presidential nominating contests came to a close, WFP rallied behind Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate. After announcing their endorsement of Biden in August, they got to work. WFP mobilized its network of volunteers, activists, unions, and community organizations to engage and turn out voters across the country. A September 2020 memo outlined a detailed voter turnout strategy, with primary operations in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, cities in "purple" battleground states.
They would rely on new and old grassroots organizing tactics: phone banking, texting, social media outreach, relational organizing, and postcard writing, targeting newly registered voters or people who only voted twice between 2008-2016, so called low-propensity voters.
In Pennsylvania, WFP set ambitious goals: organizing 1,000 activists in the state, making one million voter contact attempts, and turning out 100,000 low-propensity voters. Their “Vote Today, Philly!” campaign sought to increase early voter turnout, helping people avoid the anticipated long lines and technical difficulties on election day. The campaign was a stunning success, turning out 47,000 early voters and helping deliver Biden 81% of the vote in Philadelphia.
But WFP did not just bring people to the polls, they brought a party. Voters rejoiced in live music and dancing at polling sites in Philadelphia and around the country, thanks to their “Joy to the Polls” program. This was not simply a voting amenity. It was also a de-escalation tactic. The 2020 election was fraught with widespread allegations of voter fraud and misinformation, leading to conflict, voter intimidation, and threats of violence which were particularly targeted at low-income people of color in urban areas. When faced with rage, the WFP responded with love. And through song and dance, people who turned out to vote found comfort and security.
Before their success in 2020, the Party had already seen major victories in Philadelphia. In 2017, WFP-endorsed candidate Larry Krasner became District Attorney. And in 2018, residents of the 184th House District elected another WFP-endorsed candidate, Elizabeth Fiedler, to the state legislature. More recently, in 2019, Kendra Brooks and Nicholas O’Rourke ran for City Council on the WFP ticket line.
Emma Wennberg, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, worked on that campaign. She phonebanked and “textbanked” in support of Brooks and O’Rourke, part of a team of 250 volunteers. Wennberg said that most people she contacted were, at first, skeptical about voting for unknown candidates from an unknown party. But after explaining the mission and platform of WFP, she found that people overcame these initial reservations and were widely receptive to supporting the candidates.
And the work paid off. In 2019, Kendra Brooks won a seat on the City Council, the first WFP candidate in history to do so. “I was happy to see that the message got through to people,” Wennberg said, adding that “I was [personally] super happy; it was my first time doing political volunteering and canvassing work in Philly.”
Wennberg was also encouraged by Brooks’ public service since joining the City Council, particularly during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. And she sees no sign of WFP slowing down: “The City’s Democratic party felt threatened by WFP and [Brooks’] candidacy. It signified the strength of the leftist progressive wave in Philly and it’s an inspiring sign of what’s to come.”
Although Democrats and Republicans have monopolized the political landscape for years, minority parties like WFP are working to change this reality. They have put together a working class, multiracial coalition, organizing and mobilizing through savvy, grassroots electoral tactics. Their successes up and down ballots, in Philadelphia and across the country, show that they are a formidable force that’s here to stay. As WFP continues to grow in size and scope, they may well rewrite the political narrative in the years to come.