Sanders Activists Already Agitating in Philadelphia

(Photo: Sipa via AP)

In February, Black Lives Matters protesters showed their support for Bernie Sanders in Philadelphia.

Independence Blue Cross CEO Daniel J. Hilferty lives in the Sylvan byways of Ardmore. It’s one of those neighborhoods on Philadelphia’s Main Line that epitomizes a certain vision of what the American suburb looks like. Big houses, green lawns, gently winding lanes with few sidewalks, because no one is driving very fast anyway.

And it’s quiet, the kind of place where birdsong sounds cacophonous.

That’s probably why five police cars arrived ten minutes after a mob started chanting slogans in front of the insurance mogul’s house on Wednesday night.

This is the latest manifestation of Reclaim Philadelphia, an activist group comprised in part of former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers and volunteers. The group is demanding that the Democratic National Convention Host Committee reveal its financial records and the names of its donors. Organizers also want those at the head of host committee—Hilferty, Comcast nabob David Cohen, and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell—to resign.

Hilferty’s house was activists’ last stop on Thursday. Earlier in the evening, the protesters had also caravanned between the homes of Cohen and Rendell to protest on their literal doorsteps.

At Hilferty’s stately stone manor, the delegation of 30 to 40 protesters taped its demands to Hilferty’s front door, and chanted through a cycle of protest cries, starting with “Independence Blue Cross, you profit off our loss” and ending with a rousing round of “Hey hey, ho ho, the host committee has got to go.”

In a Census tract occupied by residents with a median income of $110,887, the ruckus created a relative chaos that shattered the otherwise-quiet early summer evening. Dogs were barking, the neighbors on their front lawns muttering, and one of the activists launched into a passionate speech denouncing Hilferty’s checkered ties with special interests.

“The common theme across everyone we visited today is that special interest and money in politics transcends any given candidate, any given political issue, and any given election,” says Sameer Khetan, one of the organizers with Reclaim Philadelphia and a former volunteer on the Sanders campaign. “Now thankfully in this current national election, we’ve seen the veil drop on the influence of dark money in politics. But with these guys and their refusal to reveal their donor list, they’ve brazenly mocked the gains we’ve made.”

Khetan rattled off the names of politicians who received contributions from Hilferty in the 2016 election cycle, which sounded like a who’s-who of so-called establishment Republicans: Chris Christie ($2,700), John Kasich ($2,000), and Jeb Bush ($2,700). He also gave Hillary Clinton $2,700. The loudest chorus of boos came when Khetan revealed that Hilferty gave $10,000 to a PAC backing arch-conservative Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey.

It was about that time that the cops and arrived and the protesters, already drifting toward their cars, decisively scattered. The officers were left to pick through the bushes, and contemplate the “Resign Hilferty” signs left behind.

 

Reclaim Philadelphia is one of a profusion of left-wing groups across the country that have popped up in the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign. These loosely knit activist organizations seem to be largely independent of their erstwhile presidential hopeful, and are preparing plans of their own, regardless of his next moves.

After Sanders endorsed his Democratic primary rival, Hillary Clinton, he blasted an email to supporters promising “the creation of successor organizations to carry on the struggle.” (In The Washington Post, his campaign manager said as many as three new organizations could be in the offing.) But groups like Reclaim Philadelphia aren’t waiting around for their former candidate to act. 

“There’s too much money in politics,” said Xelba Gutierrez, one of the media representatives for the organization and a former Sanders volunteer, as she headed off on Wednesday toward the first house on Reclaim Philadelphia’s list. “It’s like we don’t have a voice, like we don’t have power, like not even voting gets the job done. That’s the whole point of what we are doing, to work on the issues.”

Asked how she feels about Sanders endorsing Clinton, she just smiles and shrugs. The people who were never going to vote for her won’t, she says, and those who are willing to will pull the lever. “He said from the beginning that he would endorse the winner,” says Gutierrez. “We are glad that he pushed the Democratic platform to be more progressive.”

For the past several weeks, Reclaim Philadelphia has focused on the quarterly fundraising reports the host committee files with the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (the public institution that extended the convention $15 million on credit). Although Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records demanded the reports be released last month, the host committee hasn’t complied. and is fighting the issue in the courts. That’s why Reclaim Philadelphia is engaging in its own pressure campaign.

“We decline to comment on the group's activities,” wrote Anna Adams-Sarthou, media representative of the host committee, in an email. “Regarding the finance component: We are fully in compliance with the law, and to state otherwise is to not understand the facts. As we said repeatedly, we will disclose our donors 60 days after the Convention, in accordance with the FEC.”

Last week, Reclaim Philadelphia delivered letters to the Center City Philadelphia offices of Hilferty, Comcast’s David Cohen, and ex-Governor Rendell, who is also Philadelphia’s former mayor. They were rebuffed, so this week they went to the three men’s houses. Next week will see a further escalation of tactics, organizers say, although they would not share the details.

Reclaim Philadelphia is far from the only organization with ties to the former Sanders campaign that has big plans for the weeks and months ahead. The group Democracy Spring has promised to mass activists for civil disobedience during the Democratic National Convention July 25–28, although they have released sparse details about when and where.

“The Democratic Party must live up to its name and do whatever it takes to make this the last corrupt, billionaire-dominated, voter suppression-maimed election of our lives,” wrote Kai Newkirk, Democracy Spring’s mission director, in a press release. Newkirk has previously been arrested for speaking out against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling during its oral arguments. “Hillary took a big step in laying out a strong democracy reform agenda on Tuesday, but we need to hear a pledge from her and Congressional leaders that they will pass it as a first priority if elected.”

The group wants electoral reforms, including the abolition of superdelegates. To press their campaign, they claim to have more than 100 people signed up to perform acts of nonviolent civil disobedience during the convention, including a few celebrities, like actress Rosario Dawson.

“We were inspired by Bernie Sanders, but the political revolution wasn’t about him,” says Desiree Kane, the media representative of Democracy Spring. “This is our democracy too, and we’re here to participate.”

There are other groups inspired by Sanders, whose organizers are more reluctant to try to force change on a resistant Democratic Party. A local organization called the Philly Socialists, which does not directly involve itself in electoral politics, is helping to put together a “Socialist Convergence” during the week of the DNC to game its next steps. Although all the groups involved predate the Sanders campaign, some of the largest endorsed him, including the Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative. All of them hope to use the momentum and excitement generated by his effort for their own campaigns, on down-ballot races, or for the Green Party.

But at the Reclaim Philadelphia actions on Wednesday evening, the rhetoric wasn’t often directed against the Democratic Party, per se. Many people spoke of their excitement about the party’s new platform, which is being called the most left-wing since George McGovern’s nomination in 1972. Reclaim Philadelphia’s demands for the resignation of the host committee’s top leadership isn’t just about the records, organizers say, but about their suspect status as Democrats.

Cohen supported and raised money for the extremely unpopular former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, who slashed education budgets and crippled school districts across the state (Philadelphia’s suffering was especially acute). Rendell is very much the kind of Third Way, pro-business Democrat that Sanders supporters have reviled, and he recently allied himself with Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles in a campaign to “Fix The Debt” by cutting Social Security and Medicare.

On the doorsteps of Cohen and Hilferty, Reclaim Philadelphia declared Wednesday that men like these aren’t the future of the Democratic Party. The effort seems unlikely to topple these three men. But the party’s rich and powerful players, while they will always have influence, may now be forced to share the stage with a profusion of Sanders-inspired activists who are trying to push the Democratic Party to the left.

“[David Cohen] demonstrates through his values that he does not represent the Democratic Party,” declared Emily Strausbaugh on Wednesday, standing on the Comcast executive’s front steps with a bullhorn. “David Cohen is not an appropriate person to have at the top of our party.”

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