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Reclaiming Harrisburg

There’s a pandemic raging and Bernie Sanders is off the ballot, but other candidates inspired by his campaign are still running — like Rick Krajewski and Nikil Saval, two candidates for the Pennsylvania state legislature with roots in working-class fights, who are backed by Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Nikil Saval, candidate for Pennsylvania State Senate in the First District, at his campaign launch. (Photo courtesy Jason Lozada)

On April 8, days after Philadelphia’s official COVID-19 shutdown, Bernie Sanders delivered a video statement announcing the suspension of his presidential campaign. Nikil Saval, candidate for Pennsylvania State Senate in the First District, posted this brief statement: “Thank you, Bernie Sanders, for your vision and your tireless work. We will continue to fight for what the majority wants: housing as a human right, universal healthcare and family care, an end to mass incarceration, a sustainable, equitable future.”

Saval’s history with Bernie is long. In 2016, he campaigned for Sanders in South Philadelphia, where he lives, and ran a campaign hub out of his home in the days leading up to the election. After Sanders’s loss in 2016, Saval and his fellow volunteers didn’t want to let the community they’d built around the campaign disappear. They founded an organization called Reclaim Philadelphia, a grassroots organization that would work year-round canvassing neighborhoods to build support behind some of the key issues facing the Philadelphia and American working class today: universal health care and housing, well-funded public education, climate justice, workers’ rights, and progressive democratic and justice reforms.

A little over a month after he suspended his campaign for the second time, Bernie Sanders sent an email to his supporters asking them to donate to nine candidates running for state office. By this point, Saval had moved his campaign online and redirected much of his campaign’s energy to mutual aid efforts related to COVID-19, but he was still running in Philadelphia’s rescheduled June 2 election.

“Nikil Saval is a community activist and leader who is running for the Pennsylvania State Senate,” wrote Sanders. “He has taken on luxury hotel developers to fight for the rights of housekeepers, and he helped win back 1,000 jobs for cafeteria workers after budget cuts to the Philadelphia School District resulted in layoffs. He is someone we can count on to fight for working people.”

Saval is one of two Reclaim Philadelphia leaders running for positions in the Pennsylvania legislature. The second, Rick Krajewski, worked full time for Reclaim organizing around criminal justice in West Philly before launching a campaign for state representative in the State’s 188th House district. Krajewski organized a field program for Philadelphia district attorney (DA) Larry Krasner when Reclaim organized around his campaign in 2017.

Reclaim also trained its members to run for Democratic committeeperson in their neighborhoods, in a largely successful effort to occupy the city’s ward system, an organized network of all registered Democrats in the city, whose officials control which candidates are allowed to run for office with the party’s endorsement. Saval ran for ward leader in his local Ward 2 and won. Now Reclaim is working with Pennsylvania Stands Up to elect its movement allies to positions in Harrisburg, the state capital.

After Larry Krasner’s election, Reclaim partnered with allied organizations to form the Coalition for a Just DA, a group meeting regularly with the DA’s office to hold Krasner accountable to his campaign promises around decarceration. Recently, the group has joined the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia, a coalition pushing the city to implement a people-first public health response and long-term recovery plan in the wake of COVID-19. Reclaim also shares members and leaders with the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Reclaim begins organizing members by meeting with them one-on-one to discuss their political motivations and establish shared interests and goals. For the group, these meetings are essential to an almost paradoxical organizing philosophy, whereby an organization can only build a mass movement by building deep individual relationships.

“The sources of political feeling are personal, and if you get deep into yourself, you find those sources, but then it turns out what is personal to you is actually shared,” says Saval. “The bottom of yourself is not the self. It’s something social.”

A Secret History of the American Workplace

Nikil Saval organized for years before accepting and committing to these principles. He moved to New York in 2001 for college, and after graduating, he took an entry-level job at Penguin Books, a job he naively assumed would pay him enough to rent an apartment in Brooklyn. His first paycheck was a wake-up call. He borrowed money from his brother, who made even less as an academic than he did. His parents were living in India, where he knew he would not really feel at home and would have few financial prospects.

He left Penguin for a job at Basic Books — where, despite also being one of the largest publishing houses in the country, “it was more exploitative,” he says. “I worked longer hours for an equivalent amount of pay. It was the same shit.”

“We can’t live like this anymore,” he thought about himself and his coworkers. “We should form a union.” Unfortunately, this effort never took off. “I had no idea how to do that. I didn’t know what to do.”

At the same time, a massive development project launched just a few blocks from Saval’s apartment, a no-bid contract to build sixteen luxury high-rise apartments designed by Frank Gehry. The development would drastically raise the cost of living in the neighborhood, yet somehow, in a cruel irony, it was sold to the city by the mayor and supportive legislators as an opportunity to create construction jobs. Some of Saval’s earliest pieces of writing for n+1, the literary magazine where he went on to become editor in chief, were pieces reporting on the effort to protest this development.

The protests, however, like most such efforts against high-end developers, were unsuccessful. Out of options in New York, Saval moved to San Francisco to go to graduate school in 2009. He decided to get more involved in the labor movement, even if his inspiration was largely intellectual at first: he wrote the introduction to a special issue of n+1 about labor practices and organizing at magazines. He joined the labor union UNITE HERE as a volunteer boycott organizer, tasked with visiting the offices of San Francisco companies planning events at union hotels where staff were on strike, or nonunion hotels where management would not voluntarily recognize the union, and persuading them to move the events elsewhere. “That was a very uncomfortable thing to do as a person of color,” he says. “Trying to enter a world of privilege,” going toe-to-toe with representatives of those companies.

In his time in graduate school, Saval wrote the thesis that would eventually become his first book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (for which Jacobin interviewed him in 2014 about the history of white-collar labor and its future in a fragmented economy of part-time gigs and remote tech jobs), and joined n+1 as an editor. After graduating in 2013, he moved to Philadelphia.

In 2016, he was surprised to find that he believed as sincerely in Bernie Sanders’s platform and messaging as he did. He had cracked into a modest amount of literary success with his book and editing a moderately successful magazine, but his work with the Bernie campaign was galvanizing enough that he found himself looking beyond publishing and returning to organizing. When he and his fellow volunteers for the campaign founded Reclaim, in some of their earliest meetings and trainings, Saval came to realize that he had pursued a career in writing partly out of faith in a meritocratic ideal that he could no longer reconcile with his politics.

“You grow up with this belief that you’re going to be able to make it and win over everyone, that’s fundamentally what I was taught,” he says. “The system kind of worked for me, at the same time that it’s not working for most people. The tension there, you live with that forever.”

Saval helped draft Reclaim’s mission statement and bylaws and served as chair of its steering committee. He led Reclaim’s Decarceration Task Force alongside Krajewski until turning his attention to Reclaim’s attempted takeover of the city ward system. The excitement he’d felt organizing behind the Bernie campaign transitioned into working to elect his organization’s members to political office in every neighborhood in the city, including himself. As ward leader, he voted as an officer of the Democratic Party to endorse candidates whose values aligned with Reclaim’s political agenda. Now, as a Reclaim-endorsed candidate, he is running on a platform including universal family care, a Green New Deal for Pennsylvania, and policy that guarantees housing for all.

Ripping Off the Band-Aid

Rick Krajewski’s experiences growing up mixed-race in the South Bronx prompted failed efforts toward reform that ultimately led to his radicalization. In middle school, after completing a program called Prep for Prep, a New York City program originally supported by Columbia University’s Teachers’ College connecting students of color from modest backgrounds to elite academic institutions, Krajewski enrolled at the prestigious Horace Mann School and then eventually the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied engineering. In 2015, Krajewski was working as a computer programmer in Philadelphia’s Center City, but he started to ask himself some uncomfortable questions.

“Why, out of my family and the place that I grew up in, was I able to get this education and then get this job that led to me having some economic freedom,” he remembers thinking now, “when I know that a lot of people didn’t?”

He wanted the opportunities he knew he’d been lucky to have to be available to everyone. He decided to look for a school where he could teach a free programming class. He eventually found a program called Moelis Access Science, a Penn-based STEM program for K-12 students, and developed a curriculum for a class at Samuel B. Huey School. The class was eventually successful enough that five or six other teachers joined, and between them, they were able to teach several times per week. But once the program grew to this size, the school abruptly discontinued the class. Krajewski later discovered why: Huey School was preparing to become a charter school. The class he had worked hard to develop in a working-class neighborhood was all of a sudden on the chopping block, as the school fell victim to the neoliberal attack on public education that was spreading throughout the country.

Krajewski’s frustration accelerated after the election of Donald Trump. “I remember waking up and going to work and actually walking the streets and looking at white people like, ‘did you vote for him?’ I’ve never felt that scale of social alienation before. [I thought,] this is what my grandmother felt. This is what black people in the ’60s felt: I’m not supposed to be here.” A friend at Penn invited him to an emergency Reclaim meeting at a Teamsters’ Union Hall in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden. The room seemed to share Krajewski’s feelings of total political disillusionment.

Later, a Reclaim organizer named Nicolas Pastore reached out to meet one-on-one with Krajewski. Krajewski told Pastore about the work he had tried to do at Huey School. In an agitational manner, Pastore dismissed Krajewski’s program as “a band-aid.” “I was like, ‘fuck you!’” Krajewski says.

After these feelings subsided, however, he considered what Pastore had said more seriously and decided that he had been right that “me teaching at one school isn’t going to address the broader education inequality.” He started to participate seriously in Reclaim’s organizing.

As he dedicated more time to canvassing in West Philly’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood, and to his work with Reclaim’s Decarceration Task Force, Krajewski reflected on the path that had led him to a career as a software engineer. “I just remember sitting on my bed and having this moment of, ‘Well I think about organizing more than I think about my day job . . . so I could just organize.’” Without any prompting from the organization, he reached out to Pastore and told him he would take an organizing position with Reclaim if they offered him one. They did.

Krajewski eventually took over Reclaim’s Decarceration Task Force and reorganized it into the Mass Liberation Campaign, a program to train formerly incarcerated people in community organizing and hire them for part-time positions within Reclaim. He later organized the Judge Accountability Table, a public forum where voters hear directly from, and speak directly to, candidates for positions in the Philadelphia judiciary. While his campaign platform for state representative is as broad as Reclaim’s platform, criminal justice remains at its center.

“Our answer to systemic poverty is racialized criminalization and police violence,” Krajewski told Reclaim’s steering committee in his response to their candidate questionnaire.

Setting a New Standard

On May 27, with people all over Philadelphia already filling out mail-in ballots and rushing them to mailboxes, Krajewski announced a campaign endorsement from Bernie Sanders. “Rick Krajewski is a community organizer and educator. If elected, he will put people before profits while fighting to uphold workers’ rights, end the war on drugs, and win a Green New Deal for Pennsylvania,” Sanders wrote. “He grew up in a working class family and knows that our government must be held accountable to truly represent the people, not just the wealthy and well-connected.”

By this point, Krajewski’s and Saval’s campaigns had already been covered by multiple national media outlets and received endorsements from politicians and organizations in Philadelphia and beyond, including the Philadelphia DSA and the Sunrise Movement, and had raised enough money from scratch to rival their incumbent opponents’ campaign funding.

Saval’s opponent, Larry Farnese, has been endorsed by Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf, and by the Philadelphia Inquirer, who have been covering Saval’s campaign from the start. Although it identifies Farnese’s political experience as a necessary prerequisite for election to public office in a time of crisis, the Inquirer’s endorsement acknowledges Saval’s “big ideas for structural change.” In closing, the editorial states, “If elected, Saval would be a political newcomer in an entrenched and divisive General Assembly — which means the city could lose valuable ground during a time of crisis. Saval should keep pursuing office, especially in the city, where he could have impact.”

Critics of Krajewski offer a similar argument, that incumbent Jim Roebuck boasts thirty-five years of experience in office and currently serves as Democratic chair of the PA House Education Committee. If Krajewski is elected, those critics say, many of Roebuck’s efforts to reform charter schools, decrease student loan interest, and increase school funding would be rolled back.

But the organizing skills required to run impressive campaigns and roll out a grassroots response to a public health crisis do actually serve political candidates in public office on the state level, particularly candidates from the Left. Organizers trained to move others to adopt their vision of a society that works for all will be more than prepared to succeed as politicians in a system where hand-shaking and compromise are the norm. Bernie Sanders is one of few politicians to make this case on the national level. Whether or not either Krajewski or Saval gets the chance to prove it after Tuesday, this election cycle, Reclaim Philadelphia has now set a new standard for future progressive political candidates in Pennsylvania.