Standing before a sea of supporters on election night, District Attorney-elect Larry Krasner called his election a “movement.” Just a few blocks away in Center City, Controller-elect Rebecca Rhynhart was telling her fans this was the start of something bigger.
“This is just the beginning,” said the 43-year-old Democrat. “We are going to lead a quiet and peaceful revolution in Philadelphia’s political establishment.”
Both candidates — who did not fit the traditional picks for those posts — felt empowered by their victories in a city that often elects party stalwarts in off-year elections. Krasner, 56, has spent decades defending criminals and Rhynhart has worked for two mayoral administrations but had not been involved in local politics.
Whether their elections truly reflect a movement — or were just flukes in a year when voters were angry and wanted change – is a question that can’t be answered in the fresh glow of an election before either has been sworn in.
But longtime political observers, and even entrenched members of the establishment to which Rhynhart referred, agree the time and conditions could be ripe for such upheaval.
Many of the old-guard Democrats who controlled the city may appear to be on the down slope of their tenures — though not necessarily ready to step aside. The city is teeming with millennials entering the life stage of having children, looking into schools, paying mortgages, and focusing on party registration. The 2016 election ignited a firestorm of interest in national politics that seems unlikely to wane anytime soon.
ICYMI: Here are the strongest performing wards in the 2017 District Attorney General Election as well as the wards that improved the most since 2013. #Election2017 #PhillyVotes pic.twitter.com/r52yqjLr65
— Al Schmidt (@Commish_Schmidt) November 10, 2017
Some political operatives cautioned that one election cycle doesn’t signal a trend. And that money will continue to be a big factor in coming elections.
But the days of organized machine politics being a dominant force are nearly gone, said State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who is also the Democratic leader of the Third Ward in West Philadelphia. The local party, he said, “has to evolve” to remain relevant.
“There’s a new voting base,” Ron Donatucci, longtime register of wills and leader of the Democratic 26th Ward in South Philadelphia, said of the young voters. “If we don’t take notice of this, then I think it’s stupid.”
He rode the antiestablishment moniker – and the financial support of a New York billionaire – through the general election, with promises of significant reform in the priorities of the District Attorney’s Office. Both won by landslide margins, amid a 20 percent turnout – about 50 percent higher than the 2009 or 2013 citywide elections.
“You are the ones who made it,” Krasner told the mostly younger crowd of supporters who filled a cramped ballroom at the William Way LGBT Community Center, a nontraditional site for an election-night victory party. “And you are the ones who, even if you were never in politics before, you need to know that you can do this yourself again and again and again.”
— Al Schmidt (@Commish_Schmidt) November 8, 2017
The pair of once unlikely wins “opens the door for a lot more independence in our election process,” said Eryn Santamoor, a former Nutter administration aide planning to run for Council-at-Large in 2019. “No longer can you win with just party backing. You have to find a way to connect outside of the party.”
Ali Perelman, executive director of the reform-focused PAC Philadelphia 3.0, said the goal is to start making change within the party from the ground up. Her group is helping people run for Democratic city committee posts in 2018 and then for City Council in 2019.
“Get as many people into these seats as possible because the climate is so ripe for political action right now,” Perelman said.
Along with CrowdPAC and the Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia 3.0 is hosting a class Nov. 29 on how to run for public office, with a focus on filing deadlines for candidate paperwork, campaign fund-raising and planning. Nearly two-thirds of the 100 class slots are already filled.
Former Mayor and Gov. Ed Rendell called the increase in political activism “the Trump phenomenon.”
“A lot of new voters went to the polls who normally wouldn’t vote,” Rendell said of the recent election. “People aren’t willing to sit back and let the system run. … You will see more Rebecca Rhynharts.”
Some say the influx of money Krasner got from billionaire George Soros — nearly $1.7 million — made the difference. And that outside money could still dictate the outcome of political races going forward.
“I think that you’re going to see … super PACs pick winners and losers,” said political consultant Dan Fee. “All DA candidates were very reform-minded. What separated them? Money.”
Mark Nevins, also a political consultant, said the elections “showed what is possible if candidates who fit that [progressive] profile are able to raise the money and organize in an effective way.” But, he said, “it’s hard to take 2017 elections and make it determinative for 2019 elections.”
For Rhynhart, the challenge was getting the ward leaders to support her in the primary. Some wouldn’t even allow her to speak to their committee people because they were already set on supporting Alan Butkovitz, the incumbent and party favorite. That’s what she says she would like to see change.
“My win and the level of support for my win shows that real change is necessary,” she said in an interview Friday.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, for decades the city’s Democratic Party leader, said he welcomed more progressive and younger members.
Rhynhart said she had been fielding calls from other women and progressive Philadelphians who want to run for office, including Santamoor, asking her about the basics — how she started, how to set up a political action committee.
“There are a lot of voices that want to be part of this system, and the old guard needs to be, at some point, ready to step aside,” she said. “But for right now, Brady and others need to allow newcomers to come in.”