On a recent Wednesday night, about a dozen members of a group called Phoenixville Area Progressives met over beers and burgers on the rooftop patio of Irish pub Molly Maguire’s on Phoenixville’s main drag.
The group, formerly known as Phoenixville Area Citizens for Bernie, is made up of about 30 die-hard supporters of the Vermont senator.
Some of them attended the Democratic National Convention as delegates or volunteers — and later as protesters, when their candidate lost the nomination. Out of the crucible of that campaign, some got hooked on electoral politics.
Rather than go their separate ways, these Pennsylvania supporters turned their attention away from the presidential race and toward supporting progressive candidates in local races.
National momentum, local issues
Take group leader and Bernie delegate Sabrina Febrigo. Before 2016, she was an independent who only voted in presidential races.
“I realized if I want anything to change, it’s going to take some action on my end,” she said “I can’t just sit around and expect those candidates to do it without me pushing them.”
With a built-in network from the campaign, she and other Bernie believers had a way of heeding his call to support — and eventually run — progressive candidates at the local level.
“Now we’re a group to keep people involved in the political process and to push our issues,” she said. “This year, we’re focusing on the local candidates who came and actually reached out to us.”
Since the summer, members of the group from across Southeastern Pennsylvania have been canvassing, phone banking and fundraising for half a dozen local candidates whose platforms mostly align with the group’s values.
In Pennsylvania, those local issues include more funding for public education, ending natural gas fracking and redrawing district lines to make elections more competitive.
But, as with any big tent political group, some conflict is unavoidable.
While the candidates they support tend to be Democrats running in largely Republican areas, the group brings in independents and Green Party supporters who are not afraid to criticize mainstream Democratic positions.
At Molly Maguire’s, this tension led to a spirited debate on whether Democrats should back a shale gas-drilling tax to increase education funding in the commonwealth.
“It’s an unsafe idea,” said group member Joe Ferraro who belongs to the Green Party. “If we really care about kids and we care about our state, we have to divorce education funding from fracking. It’s unsustainable and it’s absolutely bat***t crazy.”
Lisa Longo, a Democrat, said education funding isn’t the issue.
“Here’s the thing. Vermont has a moratorium, Bernie Sanders’ state. But they pipeline it in,” she said. “What we need to do is cut consumption.”
That debate didn’t end until Febrigo cut it short — to get to other things on the group’s agenda.
In order to keep the momentum of Sanders’ campaign alive, the Phoenixville Area Progressives and similar groups will have to overcome obstacles that have stymied progressive movements in the past.
“Repeatedly, we’ve put all of our eggs in a presidential candidate,” said Franklin & Marshall historian Van Gosse, an expert in American social movements and sometime leftist organizer. Recent left-wing pushes in the U.S., for example the Occupy Movement, have tended to work outside the electoral system, he said.
“There’s been a great deal of squeamishness,” he said. “People will lobby or protest, but to actually get into electoral politics” doesn’t happen.
Contrast that with conservative groups, such as the tea party, which have focused specifically on fielding candidates who support their values.
Gosse said Sanders’ supporters could be different, precisely because he showed how a successful politician can change national policy through electoral politics.
National groups started by former Sanders’ campaign staffers, such as Our Revolution and Brand New Congress, are trying to translate enthusiasm for the candidate into a cohesive national movement. So far, questions about the feasibility and scope of these movements have plagued their rollouts.
Meanwhile, the local candidates the Phoenixville Area Progressives support face long odds — they’re mostly challenging incumbents.
Even so, member and Chester County mom Brianna Johnston said they are committed to changing the political landscape in the long run.
“Change from the inside is right for me,” she said. “I’ve met people locally who wanted to see these progressive policies on the table … where maybe the national party doesn’t.”
While campaigning for Sanders this spring, Johnston joined her local Democratic Party committee. Now, she has a multi-year plan to run for a local elected office — something small, perhaps the school board.
She said she plans to work on other people’s campaigns in the meantime, so she can learn what it takes to win.