Progressive Philly Rising after the People's Campaign

Progressive Philly Rising after the People’s Campaign

A couple Thursdays ago I woke up to a barrage of texts and emails: “Hanger is withdrawing from the race!” I opened my computer to vet the rumors: “Former DEP Secretary John Hanger will end his campaign for governor today at an 11am press conference…”

In January, the Maypop Collective joined a new coalition of grassroots organizations under the banner Progressive Philly Rising (PPR). PPR aims to build a united front of shared progressive power in the city sharing a belief that uniting across diverse struggles helps us get at root causes of economic injustice.

PPR engaged in the PA governor’s race as our first shared project – a springboard for the coalition. We pulled from strategies that treat election cycles as platforms for organizing, including the Rainbow coalitions of the 1980’s. We learned about what some call an inside-outside strategy – supporting progressive currents inside the race while also building our strength and ability to work together outside of and beyond the election. John Hanger’s People’s Campaign – his reliance on grassroots support instead of big money, strong defense of public education, and explicit indictment of the school-to-prison pipeline – presented an opportunity to engage in such a strategy. So we went all-in with John Hanger and the People’s Campaign.

Before Hanger bowed out, PPR made significant headway. We started building relationships among ourselves, held a large community event at the beginning of February, and supported Hanger to force progressive issues onto the table. In Maypop, we hosted a gathering of environmental organizations where we shared info about PPR and discussed what it would look like for environmentalists to ally with those fighting against school privatization, mass incarceration, and economic inequality. We were feeling great, being challenged to grow, beginning to feel our power as we prepared to get out the vote!

So the news of Hanger’s withdraw came as a surprise for many of us, and I’m left with lingering questions and reflections about our strategy.

What Worked? What Did I Learn?

I was most challenged around how I see elections relating to long-term organizing. Before pulling for Hanger with PPR, I was more likely to throw up my hands in dissatisfaction with electoral politics. I might have said that electoral politics distracts us from “effective” organizing and community building by legitimizing corrupt politicians’ power at the expense of people power. And much of the time that’s probably true! But engaging with PPR nuanced my view. I was pushed to see that because elections are already a popular form of political engagement, they can be important sites of organizing and political education. Furthermore, because media focuses heavily on elections, electoral engagement can be a way to  lift up our priorities and values.

Before Maypop joined PPR, I might have lumped all the democratic primary candidates together – “they’re just the Democratic wing of the capitalist party.” Maybe so, but looking deeper into candidates’ differences can help weaken their power. Carl Davidson argues that if we look inside the formal Republican and Democratic parties and examine politicians’ behaviour instead of their affiliation, we could divide them into six distinct parties. Part of PPR’s “inside” strategy was to pull a progressive candidate Left on issues to uncover and highlight these differences between the candidates. By strongly endorsing a candidate’s platform, other candidates are pushed to take sides in ways that weaken their collective politician power. Randy LoBasso noticed this about Hanger’s campaign while commenting on his withdraw:

…Hanger’s candidacy was able to do something almost as important as winning: He stayed in, and, by doing so, forced his opponents to the left on issues—or, at the very least, put them on the record.

I was also struck by the “outside” portion of the inside-outside strategy. Campaigning for Hanger brought different groups in the room, gave us a shared project, and offered a platform to have broader movement conversations as we forged new relationships.

Moving Forward

Alongside these lessons, I have lingering questions, doubts, and reflections – ones I’m excited to dive into with PPR, Maypop, and others.

For instance, in a February article in Waging Nonviolence, Daniel Hunter warns how inside strategies can restrict campaigns to politician’s timelines, leading to discouragement and fatigue. He offers examples of Philadelphia campaigns – Unite for Peace’s resistance to the Patriot Act in 2001, and grassroots struggles against casino development – where organizers flipped the script and put officials on their own campaign timeline. Among PPR, we knew John Hanger was a serious underdog in the race, but we still relied on his candidacy throughout the primary – that’s why his withdrawal felt somewhat demobilizing. Is there a way to assert our own timeline in the electoral context? How can we honor our “inside” achievements over the last months to ground us for next steps and move us beyond any immediate discouragement?

How successful were we at asserting our values: that school privatization leads to unequal and unjust education and negatively impacts other fights for social justice, that big money corrupts politics? As we attempted to shift the balance of forces in the electoral context, Hanger’s candidacy acted as the conduit for our principles and vision. Is there a tension between doing successful inside strategy and expressing our true values and positions?

Carl Davidson ends his analysis of inside strategy with a rhetorical: “We have to keep in mind, however, that ‘shifting the balance of forces’ is mainly an indirect and somewhat ephemeral gain. It does ‘open up space’, but for what?” While we open up space, how do we offer powerful vision and build towards it concretely?

The push for John Hanger was always about building our power beyond the election, whether he won or lost in the primaries – one stepping stone to building stronger social justices forces in Philly. Even though the Hanger withdrawal changes the game, I’m hopeful that we can hold the strength we’ve built so far and envision a way forward together. I’m excited to see where PPR goes next.