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Third-Party Candidates Want to Knock Republicans Off Philadelphia City Council. Is It Possible?

Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym, a popular Democrat, has endorsed a third-party candidate for another at-large seat. Is it enough to get a third-party candidate elected to Council for the first time?

NBC10 Philadelphia

What to Know

  • A third-party candidate has never won a seat on Philadelphia City Council.
  • For years, liberals in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly 8-to-1 have sought to take advantage of at-large Council races.
  • Minority party candidates, including the GOP, are guaranteed at least two of seven at-large seats. Republicans have always won them.

Maj Toure is a lifelong North Philadelphian who travels the country promoting gun rights for urban Americans.

He is running as a libertarian third-party candidate for City Council in November. But he's not going around talking party politics.

"I don't mention my party. I don't party much," Toure said of interacting with city voters. "If you are a Democrat or Republican and you vote for me, let it be based on policy."

Courtesy of Maj Toure

Does he have a chance? Do any of the six third-party candidates on the upcoming general election have a chance? History says no. But their supporters say the two-party system is at its breaking point, and the opportunity has never been better.

Philadelphia's governing body presents an interesting test case for that theory, with what some believe is a unique pipeline for third-party candidates.

One of Philadelphia's most popular politicians, Democratic Councilwoman Helen Gym, stoked local enthusiasm by endorsing a third-party candidate in the November election, against the wishes of fellow Democrats.

Here are the candidates running, and the path they have to two seats on Council.

Why Is Philadelphia City Council a Place Where Third-Party Candidates Can Unseat Republicans?

Of the 17 Council members, 10 are elected to represent districts and seven are elected as "at-large" representatives. The incumbent district council members currently consist of nine Democrats and one Republican. (The lone Republican, Brian O'Neill, has represented Northeast Philadelphia longer than the millennial generation has been alive).

The at-large representation is where opportunity potentially exists for progressive outsiders to seize two seats reserved — thanks to the city Charter — for minority party members.

Here's how it works: In the primary election, registered Democrats and Republicans choose five at-large candidates to go onto the general election ballot. Between the primary in May and the general election in November, independent and third-party candidates can submit petitions to get on the November ballot.

At the general election, all city registered voters are able to pick five candidates.

The system, established in 1952, guarantees at least two of the seven seats go to minority party members in a city where Democrats have long greatly outnumbered Republicans and independents.

Republicans have always won those two seats, though with much small vote totals than the five Democrats. For instance, the top two Republicans won slightly more than 34,000 votes in the 2015 election, while all five Democrats received more than 130,000.

Why Do Third-Party Candidates See an Opening?

Progressive Democrats have believed for at least a couple election cycles that an independent candidate — or two — could get more votes than Republicans by convincing enough Democratic voters to cast ballots for them instead of other Democrats.

That way, all five Democrats could still comfortably win their at-large seats with 70,000-80,000 votes and two third-party or independent candidates would top Republicans with the tens of thousands of votes from the excess Democratic tally.

"Since the 1950s, those seats have defaulted to the Republicans, and they don't have to," the Rev. Nicolas O'Rourke, a Working Families Party candidate, said. "Those two seats shouldn't just be given away."

Courtesy of Nicolas O'Rourke

O'Rourke and other liberals believe the city's electorate would be better served without Republicans. Still, Republican voters total 117,000 in Philadelphia, as of May.

On the flip side, the GOP was recently passed by unaffiliated/independent voters for the first time, according to those May statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of State, which showed 125,000 people now registered outside the Democratic and Republican parties.

Who Are the Candidates Running as Independents or Third-Party?

The third-party and independent candidates running in the November election are (their affiliation is in parentheses):

- Kendra Brooks (Working Families): Brooks is running as a slate with O'Rourke, and she recently received an endorsement from incumbent Councilwoman at-large Helen Gym.

- Steve Cherniavsky (Term Limits Philadelphia): Cherniavsky's main objective is to raise awareness about establishing term limits for Council members, as his party name clearly states.

- Joe Cox (Independent)

- Clarc King (Independent)

- Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke (Working Families): O'Rourke is pastor of Living Water United Church of Christ in the Oxford Circle section of Northeast Philadelphia. 

- Maj Toure (Libertarian): Toure says he has helped raise more than $200,000 in the last couple years, which he gave back to communities across the country through firearms training sessions and Second Amendment educational seminars.

Why Won't It Be So Easy for Them to Unseat Republicans?

Only four years ago, Democrats were optimistic that Andrew Stober, a well-known independent candidate with good credentials from years working in former Mayor Michael Nutter's administration, could tally more votes than four of the five Republicans on the ballot and snag a spot on Council.

Stober came up well short of the Republicans, grabbing only 16,000 votes. His tally did much to douse liberals' flames of optimism at the time, but apparently not for long.

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