West Philadelphia is perhaps best known outside the region for a certain ‘90s pop culture reference. But it’s also home to a history of radical struggle against the police state and the University of Pennsylvania. Walking along Baltimore Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares, you’ll see Black families who have lived here for decades next to college students packed 10 or 12 to a rowhome, an anarchist-run community center, and countless longtime small businesses and hipster hodgepodge all on top of each other. Many of the biggest tensions in the city are on display: racial inequity, gentrification, and rapid displacement.
Criminal justice organizer Rick Krajewski is running for state representative here in Pennsylvania’s 188th district, going up against a 35-year incumbent, James Roebuck, Jr., in a town notorious for its messy entrenched Democratic machine. And in case he didn’t have enough challenges to confront, Krajewski is running his campaign during a pandemic.
But, he says, “If there was any campaign that was suited to reground itself and organize in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s our campaign. We’re fairly young, we’re tech savvy, we know how to organize. And I think as an organizer, you’re always prepared for moments of crises, because we just talk about them and reflect about them all the time. Crises are why we do this work, because I think moments of crisis are flash points for all of the structural injustices.” And Krajewski feels confident about the level of progressive policy that may be able to be pushed through during this period.
With that perspective, Krajewski and his team have shifted their campaign for state rep to focus on supporting mutual aid work in light of COVID-19. The primary was slated for April 26, but has been pushed back to June 2 because of the pandemic. The campaign has committed to keeping all four campaign staff members employed throughout this period, made more difficult by the primary’s postponement and the need to extend their budget further out. In the meantime, the Rick for West Philly campaign is treating this as an opportunity to prove their values.
“The [postponement] is a big adjustment,” says Pele IrgangLaden, Krajewski’s campaign manager. “We were getting ready to go into four weeks to Election Day,” and suddenly the campaign needed to buckle down for twice as long. But even before the primary was postponed, the Krajewski campaign knew this moment required a change of plans. They converted their dogged field program into a phone-banking operation on behalf of a local mutual aid coalition, calling people throughout the district to ensure they have enough food, access to healthcare, and funds to get through the month. If they don’t, the campaign puts them in contact with the mutual aid coalition, who then gets them the care and services they need.
In addition to their mutual aid work, the campaign announced an emergency response platform, which called for a rent moratorium, the release of incarcerated people, the end of ICE detention, and a wealth tax to create an emergency fund for laid off and furloughed Pennsylvania workers, in coordination with fellow candidate Nikil Saval who’s running for state senator in Philly’s 1st district.
“As of now we’ve made about 10,500 calls and so that’s still the main voter [contact]—we’re still doing that same thing of mobilizing our base to connect people to mutual aid,” says IrgangLaden.
Krajewski is proud to offer support to mutual aid organizing, as he and people close to him have been impacted by the pandemic’s economic effects. He has three cousins who are essential workers in New York City, risking their lives everyday on behalf of millions. “People can’t pay their rent and that’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he says. “I am currently unemployed and I had to talk to my landlord, and thankfully he’s been pretty understanding, but a lot of people have slumlords.”
The mutual aid work may stem from a place of empathy, but it’s not just about that. “It’s showing up for people and really being in solidarity with a community that we care about and that I identify with, but it’s also about ‘this is what leadership is,’” says Krajewski. “It is still proving to people that I’m the person that should be State Rep.” Instead of disappearing into the confusion of COVID-19 or pretending to go along with business as usual, the Krajewski campaign decided to respond to this moment by pushing full-throttle for the values they espouse.
Krajewski, through it all, is keeping his eye on the long game. Suddenly progressive policies like Medicare for All, paid sick leave, and guaranteed housing are being seriously considered even by Republicans and establishment Democrats as temporary measures to help people cope with the pandemic. But Krajewski doesn’t feel guaranteeing these basic rights only during a pandemic is enough. “We have to have people who are going to be in office, who are clear that we need to have those things long term.”
Krajewski, 28, is originally from New York City’s South Bronx. He moved to West Philly as a college freshman starting at UPenn, and he’s been here ever since. “I’ve been here my entire adult life, which feels like an eternity for me, but then you tell some old head [who’s been] here for 50 years and they’re like, ‘I have pants older than you!’” he laughs.
Krajewski has a lot of love for where he’s from, and credits it for his critical analysis on how cities serve some residents and neglect others. “Growing up in the Bronx was really this bifurcated experience, where on one end, it was a place of a lot of culture, it’s one of the birthplaces of hip hop,” he says. “And that was a really important experience that gave me a perspective of inclusivity and diversity.” He attended the prestigious Horace Mann School on scholarship, carrying the hopes and dreams of his hard-working single mother.
But Krajewski knew that there were structural forces at play in his neighborhood, causing mass policing, a housing crisis, and displacement. “You had neoliberalism. You had the tough-on-crime agenda enacted on communities like mine, and the one that I grew up in. So I saw a lot of those effects firsthand… I didn’t have the language around race or class or poverty as to why those things were happening.”
Krajewski’s “bifurcated” lens stayed with him throughout college and into his postgraduate career (he worked as a software engineer) remaining in West Philadelphia. In 2015, he started volunteer-teaching at a local elementary school, hoping to work against the structural inequities that might hold some kids back from having the same opportunities he’d had. The school was ultimately converted into a charter school, a common story in the city.
Philadelphia’s public school district was under state control for 16 years, and control only returned to the city after a citywide campaign in 2017. The impacts of that period include a high number of charter schools—which receive state funding but are privately run—invading the city, to the detriment, many parents allege, of local public schools, which experience high teacher turnover and asbestos-ridden classrooms.
Krajewski, who supports a moratorium on all new charter schools in the city and plans to fight any legislation that might pull funding from public education and give it to charters, cites the school’s charterization as a radicalizing experience. “That combined with 2016 really left me in a state where I started to feel deeply agitated by what was happening,” he recalls. “Particularly with Trump and feeling the rise of white nationalism, naked white nationalism, and for me as a young Black man in that political environment, it was almost like an ancestral response” to get involved, he says, with community organizing.
In 2016 Krajewski began volunteering with local group Reclaim Philadelphia, and in 2017 he quit his job as a software engineer to become Reclaim’s lead decarceration organizer. Reclaim is an issue-based and electoral campaign organization which grew out of the 2016 election; it was started by former local Bernie campaign workers who protested the 2016 Democratic National Convention, which was in Philadelphia that summer. Now, Reclaim endorses candidates that reflect its progressive platform, which includes ending mass incarceration, passing a living wage, and guaranteeing housing, and then helps run the ground game for those candidates. In his time with Reclaim, Krajewski worked on the campaign to elect Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Later, Krajewski was involved in a co-governance model with DA Krasner where activists met monthly with Krasner’s office following his election. This helped local organizations set the platform for Krasner’s term, pushing for policies like eliminating cash bail and increased diversion programs. These policies have made Krasner very unpopular with the Philly Fraternal Order of Police, among others, but have also become a template for progressive campaigns in cities nationwide.
For Krajewski, whose criminal justice platform includes eliminating all cash bail and ending the state’s death penalty and mandatory minimum laws, Krasner’s election showed him “that you can have a relationship with an elected official that’s collaborative, not adversarial, and the power that you get when you have that kind of relationship. And ultimately, as an organizer, one of my core motivations is, how do we build community power?”
It became obvious to Krajewski that Philly needed more Larry Krasners: progressive champions in strategic positions of power who could push through the change the city needs. “We can’t expect a political revolution if we don’t actually enact one. And I think part of that is getting our folks in office.”
For campaign manager IrgangLaden, 2016 changed how he approached politics, too. A longtime local organizer in labor and social movement spaces, IrgangLaden recalls, “When I started organizing here, having progressive politicians that spoke about the values that I care about was not a thing that I was familiar with… That changed when Bernie Sanders ran for president. He was the first politician that I really saw speaking to values that resonated with me.”
Since then, IrgangLaden has concentrated on trying to get progressives elected in Philadelphia. “I started looking for candidates who were talking about issues that I cared about, who came from communities that understood struggle, and who were willing to unapologetically fight for bold progressive issues and fight back against things like xenophobia, racism, and anti-semitism.” IrgangLaden first met Krajewski while Krajewski was organizing for Krasner’s election in 2017. He’s been running Krajewski’s campaign since last fall, and the pair, as well as their field staff and volunteers, have been knocking doors across West Philadelphia since November—often in areas that, according to IrgangLaden, usually get ignored by politicians like Krajewski’s main opponent, incumbent Jim Roebuck.
There are two other candidates running in the Democratic primary: Southwest ward leader Gregory Benjamin, whose campaign is mostly stagnant and whose campaign website appears to be defunct; and Karen Dunn, who is still actively campaigning and seemingly in support of many of the same policies as Krajewski. Neither Benjamin nor Dunn is running the same level of campaign as Krajewski, seeming to lack the organizing infrastructure of his campaign. No Republicans have filed to run.
“The structure’s been there for so long, but has also not engaged the community in so long, that the vast majority of people just haven’t been canvassed, period. They’re on no team, because no one’s actually engaged with them,” Krajewski says, recalling the successful tactics employed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. “That’s what allowed us to really double down on, “okay, if we just knock enough doors, we’ll win.” Because there’s all these people who have not been engaged at all who are ready for someone to talk with them and that’s what we have to do, because they’re not doing it. No one else is running a real strong field program in this race. We know that because we haven’t seen them.”
When IrgangLaden is asked if he expected their supporters to be the stereotypical picture of progressive campaign supporters—white, gentrifying, DSA-card-carrying members in their 20s and 30s—he admitted that the campaign might’ve originally expected their supporter base to look one way, but their strategy of knocking doors everywhere has introduced them to a widening supporter base. IrgangLaden adds, “At this point, we are knocking everywhere in the district, talking everywhere in the district, because we find that everywhere, people are sick and tired of politicians who are entrenched and are unable to rise to the moment we’re in.”
The cornerstones of the campaign’s platform—increasing public school funding and fighting charter schools, Medicare For All, paid sick leave, $15 an hour minimum wage, supporting the Green New Deal, abolishing the death penalty and mandatory minimums, and increasing harm reductionist policies in response to the city’s opioid crisis—reflect the existing strong progressive politics and movements in the city at large. Krajewski has also netted a number of key endorsements, from the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization for Women to various student coalitions at UPenn to the Philly Democratic Socialists of America.
Policies like the ones Krajewski espouses on his campaign website are sorely needed in the 188th district, and especially the ones related to housing. Philly has gentrified more rapidly than most other American cities; on average, in the hardest-hit neighborhoods—which includes West Philly—as over 700 black residents moved out, over 700 white residents moved in. Historically, the area was made up of black families. Now, a few blocks at a time, West Philly is getting whiter.
The Krajewski campaign sees problems on all sides of the gentrification issue. “You have a continuous influx of young renters who literally cannot live anywhere else because of commuting reasons, financial reasons, whatever, so it has just become a market developer’s paradise,” Krajewski says. “[The developers] can always find someone else if you don’t submit to their terms.”
“The amount of Penn students that are in overpriced, bad housing is totally unjust, and that sets the precedent for overpriced, bad housing for the rest of the district,” IrgangLaden agrees. “There is a real self interest in people, in this community, no matter how long you’ve lived here, to make sure that housing is affordable and that it is good housing.” Both IrgangLaden and Krajewski see their targets as bigger than the college students and New York expats.
“I’ve thought often about what are the forces behind gentrification, displacement, in West Philadelphia,” Krajewski says. “Who are the actors and institutions that are accountable for it, and given that, what are the demands we have for them?”
Penn is first on his list. “Penn is the largest employer, it’s the largest property owner, it has a $13 billion endowment, it is one the main lifelines throughout the district and West Philadelphia, and it is doing a whole lot of PR and very minimal actual community engagement, is my analysis of what’s happening.” He ticks off all the things they could be doing differently: “Where’s the fact that you’re paying $0 in property taxes? Where are the community benefit agreements where you’re trying to prioritize affordable housing and rent control, both for students but also for surviving home owners?”
Krajewski also sees his campaign—and possible win—as an opportunity to hold Penn accountable: in office, he hopes to fight a state exemption for non-profits that Penn uses to evade taxes. “Time and time again, we move the needle as much as we can here in Philadelphia, and the politicians here and largely—not all, but largely—shrug their shoulders and say that’s a state issue,” IrgangLaden says. “And then you go to the state politicians, and they say, well, the Republicans control the legislature so there’s nothing we can do.” Both Krajewski and IrgangLaden envision their campaign as a chance to throw a wrench into that system.
Krajewski is also pushing for universal rent control, investment in affordable housing, supporting public housing, and eradicating homelessness. “Renters, homeowners, they’re all getting screwed over by the market because the market has all of the power right now,” he says. He hopes that the broad vision that they’re bringing to this issue, as well as the other issues they’re campaigning on, will help voters see their interests represented.
“I love this area, I love West [Philly], it feels like home to me in a lot of ways,” Krajewski says. “West, in particular, is like this strange bizarro land of immigrants and queer people and older black folks, and we’re all in this place existing together. That’s great, and at the same time, our schools are fucking crumbling. Our houses are tearing down.”
Just as much as he wants to represent the values and interests of his neighbors, he’s running with his own self-interest in mind, too. “I want to stay here. I want to be able to own a home. I want to be able to have children that can go to the school that’s near my house, and right now, neither of those things feel tenable at all,” he says. “And our political establishment is responsible for that… Part of what we’re seeing politically is that the establishment, the machine —even separate from us challenging it—they didn’t have a succession plan. They didn’t have anyone. They just wanted to hold onto power until the end of time and weren’t even clear about what they would do with it.”
Philly’s political machine—and its residents’ distrust of it—are viewed as just as intrinsic to the city as its potholes and its reputation for unwieldy sports fans. The urgency to wrest power from existing leadership seems especially pressing to the Krajewski campaign. “Rick is 28, I’m 27, and we’re young people watching the generation above us utterly fail to meet any of the challenges of our moment,” says IrgangLaden.
17-year-old Ed, a junior in high school from West Philly, is a Krajewski campaign volunteer who feels the urgency of the moment, too. An organizer with the local Sunrise Movement chapter (which has endorsed the campaign), Ed offered to help Krajewski collect signatures to get him on the ballot. When Ed realized he was too young to collect signatures himself, he went along with Krajewski for a day pounding the pavement in their neighborhood.
Since then, he’s been a frequent volunteer, spending time phone-banking for Krajewski’s mutual aid work, in addition to his work for the Sunrise movement. Even though he could be stressing about college applications, Ed says, “I just view [organizing] as so much more important than worrying about myself at the moment.”
This sense of urgency is deeper than the generational divide, and feels like part of a paradigmatic shift in Philadelphia that has been building for years. Between the elections of DA Krasner and the Working Family Party’s Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, elected in 2019, as well as the successful fight against cash bail, there’s a sense that a moment is emerging. “This is a place that has people with fairly radical politics. There’s no reason why West Philly couldn’t be at the lead of doing some very transformational electoral organizing,” says Krajewski.
Krajewski traces his campaign back to 2016, to the “mass political awakening” inspired by Bernie Sanders’ loss and Donald Trump’s win; through the wins of Reclaim Philadelphia in 2017 and 2018, pushing through Larry Krasner; then through the wins of City Councilpeople Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks in 2019; and now to his own candidacy. “This is our next foothold, right? We have Krasner, we have Kendra, you see that this district is ready for change because of what happened with [Gauthier] last year.”
Krajewski hopes to join existing progressive state reps like South Philly’s Liz Fiedler and Pittsburgh DSA electeds Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, and he sees his organizing background as a needed force within the existing contingent. Says IrgangLaden, “For Rick to be elected, not only would he be a part of this progressive wave of people coming into office, he would also be the organizer of the progressive caucus. He would be the one to bring this experience together to build a unified platform, and organize together in [the capital] Harrisburg, and in their communities back home to start to move the needle on some of these big issues.”
To hear Krajewski talk about it, by assisting his fellow progressive state reps, the goal is to move other districts to the natural progressivism of his own. The core problem within the 188th district, to Krajewski, is that its current representative isn’t meeting the values of its constituents.
In the last election, Reclaim Philadelphia endorsed current State Rep. Roebuck, a long-time champion for public schools and House Education Committee Minority Chair. Reclaim West Philly organizer Sergio Cea told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star that this time, Krajewski won 98 percent of the support in the group’s endorsement vote, and though both are “qualified leaders,” Krajewski has “the boldest vision” and is “most committed to our shared values.” Cea pointed to the two’s policy responses to Reclaim: though they shared many stances, Krajewski was against both the death penalty and tax breaks for businesses, while Roebuck was for both.
Krajewski and Roebuck haven’t engaged in mudslinging, and Krajewski is clear that his campaign is against the Democratic machine, not Roebuck as an individual. As for Roebuck himself, he seems more involved in the hectic schedule of governing during a pandemic than campaigning, or in shifting his remaining centrist policies to the left.
The tension at play here is in some ways replicating the national discourse: Are progressive voters a Tea Party-like insurgency, or a bigger majority? Is it all a matter of running on the right platform to get voters to the polls, or are Democratic centrists correct when they dismiss progressives as a small, loud minority? These same questions have given me concern while following this campaign. Especially while stuck indoors, how can you measure the support of a racially and age-diverse neighborhood going through extreme changes, now exacerbated under a pandemic?
Roebuck has been unsuccessfully primaried three times in the past 10 years, according to BallotPedia. It’s hard to say whether Krajewski’s bet on his own field strategy will be enough to overwhelm an incumbent who’s been around for decades, but based purely on media coverage and social following alone, Krajewski is the more visible face. Krajewski also has Reclaim’s mobilizing forces behind him, and their successful electoral track record, which suggests he might be right to expect a win. Even though his team’s door-knocking has shifted into Zoom calls for town halls, he remains confident that his work will pay off.
“There’s a breach here,” says Krajewski. “I think that the movement has a real opportunity to step into that space that this breach has created for the long haul. And the way that we do that, is that we build power, but then that power has to be in relationship with each other.” As he strategizes through an insurgent campaign and a pandemic, he wants to make clear: “This isn’t a one off… This is part of a bigger strategy of, how do we build power for our side, and maintain it and expand it, and then use that power to get more power? That’s what this is. And it’s exciting.”