Can an independent actually win a Philly City Council seat?

     (From left) Independent candidates vying for City Council-at-large: Andrew Stober; the Green Party's Kristin Combs; John Staggs of the Socialist Workers Party; and (not pictured) Sheila Armstrong, a community activist from North Philadelphia (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    (From left) Independent candidates vying for City Council-at-large: Andrew Stober; the Green Party's Kristin Combs; John Staggs of the Socialist Workers Party; and (not pictured) Sheila Armstrong, a community activist from North Philadelphia (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Could Philadelphia City Council be in for some real change next year?

    The 17 seats on Council have long been held by politicians who’ve come up through the Democratic or Republican party organizations.

    But the spring primary brought a couple of new faces to the Democratic delegation, and the balloting for at-large seats could yield another independent voice.

    Four independent candidates are vying for City Council-at-large. One, Andrew Stober, says he’s serious about winning, and some analysts think he has a shot.

    Stober is a former official in Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, endorsed by the mayor and by former Gov. Ed Rendell. And he’s raised $122,000 – a hefty sum for a Council campaign.

    If you’re new to how Philadelphia elects these at-large members, those elected citywide, here’s a quick primer: There are seven at-large seats, but each party can nominate only five candidates. All five Democrats nominated in the spring primary usually win in November, along with the top two Republicans. No independent has made the top seven in at least 50 years.

    For Stober to make history and get onto Council as an independent, he needs to beat the second-highest vote getting Republican. In the last election, that was about 39.000 votes, which is a lot.Stober knows that to win, he’ll have to convince a lot of Democrats to give him just one of their five votes.

    A winning strategy?

    “I have no illusions about some wave of millennials who’ve never voted before coming out to support me,” Stober told me in an interview. “This is really about communicating with folks who have demonstrated that they vote in Philadelphia elections.”

    So Stober’s hired a firm that can target the computers of people who’ve voted in previous municipal elections, and those voters will see his 30-second commercial popping up whenever they play a video.

    Stober’s pitch is that he’s independent and accomplished. He worked on energy policy for the Nutter administration, and he oversaw implementation of the Indego bike-sharing program, which seems to be a hit without ongoing public subsidies.

    Can he pull it off?

    It won’t be easy. There’s a base of as many as 20,000 core Republican voters that GOP candidates can draw on just because of their party affiliation.

    Stober has to start from scratch and get about twice that many. On the other hand, there are a lot of Democrats in town, and he has some money and endorsements to work with.

    Green Party hopeful

    Kristin Combs is the Green Party’s nominee for Council-at-large.

    She’s a 28-year public school teacher who was teaching at Vaux High School in North Philadelphia when it was closed by the school district.

    “I saw how the School Reform Commission and City Council failed our students,” she said in an interview. “And that really motivated me to get politically involved and fight for our kids.”

    Combs, who now teaches at Penn Treaty, told a group at a Norris Square church recently she’s in the race to give working people a voice.

    “This is the neighborhood of my students, and so I see every day what it is for my students to live in poverty,” she said. “I know what it is to live on a working person’s paycheck, and I think that’s really the unique thing I bring to City Hall.”

    Combs said infighting within the GOP and what she sees as a weak Republican field make winning an at-large seat possible.

    She’s working full-time while campaigning.

    Two more insurgents

    John Staggs, a clerk at Walmart, is running under the banner of the Socialist Workers Party.

    “What working people need is our own political party, a labor party that we control, that’s not controlled by the big money interests,” he said. “And we can use that party to take control of the government structure.”

    Staggs said anger among voters makes the case for an independent workers’ party more appealing than ever.

    And there’s Sheila Armstrong, a community activist from North Philadelphia who’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging how Pennsylvania funds education.

    “I personally believe that the voice of my community is missing in City Council,” Armstrong said. “And what I mean by ‘my community’ is families … living in low income and working and out here struggling.”

    The challenge for these candidates is reaching voters who will show up on Election Day. Despite the mayor’s race and a historic election for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, only 27 percent of Philadelphia voters cast ballots in the May primary.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal