Before Donald Trump won the presidency, Carolyn Williams, 38, was probably a lot like you. She worked long hours; in her case, as a lawyer at Deasey, Mahoney & Valentini. She did pro bono work and volunteered on the side. She cared about politics, at least enough to consistently vote. But her civic involvement didn’t extend much further.
Then November 2016 happened, and she heard about a few friends and acquaintances gathering at a house in Washington Square West to commiserate. They started calling themselves Moving Philly Forward. They started studying local politics. Now, a year after knowing little about Philly’s ward system except for its existence, she’s a committee person in the 30th Ward preparing to run for reelection in the spring.
“It felt really confirming of the idea that more people need to just get involved,” Williams says, “and if you’re willing to put in the time and a lot of effort you can make kind of a big difference.”
All it took for Williams to earn a formal position in Philadelphia’s political structure was a phone call, a few conversations over coffee and some luck.
Williams’ dismay last year was widespread in Philly, a city where about 15 percent of voters chose Trump. The anger resonated in protests and new activist groups and meetings where people just wanted to learn more about the political process. Philadelphia was as engaged as ever —for a while. As the shock of Trump’s election has receded, the frequency and passion of public protest has lessened. But that doesn’t mean that Philadelphians haven’t been coming up with ways to turn resistance into tangible action.
Citizens like Williams are already doing their part. All it took for her to earn a formal position in Philadelphia’s political structure was a phone call, a few conversations over coffee and some luck.
After learning about ward structure at a Moving Philly Forward meeting around this time last year, she called Marcia Wilkof. Wilkof is the longtime 30th Ward leader in Williams’ Graduate Hospital neighborhood. Williams asked for more information about Philly’s political system and soon, after discussions over coffee and an invite to a ward meeting, Wilkof mentioned a committee person was moving out of the neighborhood. The seat would be vacant. She offered to appoint Williams for the rest of the term.
Since her appointment, Williams has become active in the ward. She recently became treasurer and last year served on the judicial vetting committee for the May primary. Her involvement is exactly what Moving Philly Forward had in mind. Oncologist Nathan Singh and attorney Rahul Munshi formed the group shortly after Trump got elected.
“I was depressed for a few days,” Singh says. “My wife finally at dinner was like, ‘Either you need to do something about it or shut up and be a regular person because I can’t live with you like this.’”
They hosted the first meeting last January at Singh’s house at 10th and Lombard. About 15 to 20 people showed up, including Williams, and they drank beer and aired their grievances. It was more therapy than protest.
Plenty of protest offerings were available at the time. Last January and February, thousands of protesters regularly rallied on Philly’s streets. There was the Women’s March the day after the inauguration and a few days later a major rally during Trump’s visit to Philly for the GOP Retreat. Tuesdays With Toomey, which started with a few people seeking a Philadelphia town hall with Sen. Pat Toomey, grew to feature thousands.
Those protests have died down, even though controversy lingers around the White House—from the “shithole countries” remark Trump made last week to the heavily-opposed tax plan passed last month. At a protest earlier this month on a sunny Tuesday, about three dozen people showed up for the weekly Tuesdays With Toomey—down from its peak of a few hundred last February. The lower attendance has been standard over the last few months, the move of Toomey’s office from Logan Square to Old City also playing a role in the diminished size.
Moving Philly Forward has swelled from about 15 to 20 original members to a mailing list of 450, mostly people in their late 20s and 30s. One of them, 33-year-old Tanner Rouse, a former assistant district attorney whose civic legend father, Willard, developed One and Two Liberty Place, is running for the state senate.
“It’s not that momentum for what we’re doing has died down,” says Alyssa Posoff, a longtime Tuesdays With Toomey leader. “They’re sort of finding other means and ways to organize, and maybe ways that you’re not able to necessarily point to. People are starting to look at running for local offices and finding local and statewide groups.”
The evolution from protest to action is evident at the national level, even featured on the cover of last week’s Time magazine, which included portraits of all the female first-time elective office seekers inspired by the Women’s March, including three locals: Chrissy Houlahan, candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District; Sara Campbell-Szymanski, who is running for the state House seat held by Montgomery County Republican Mike Vereb, and Rachel Fingles, who, in November, led a Democratic wave on the Republican-heavy school board in Bensalem.
Meantime, the Organizers of the various iterations of the Women’s March have splintered with the goal of winning elections, while the mothership in Washington D.C. maintained a schedule of protests. And Moving Philly Forward, now a registered Democratic PAC, always had the idea of going for the slow burn. The group spent most of 2017 meeting monthly at Singh’s house, researching the ward system and the state legislature.
Tanner Rouse, a 33 year-old former assistant district attorney and another original member of Moving Philly Forward, is running for the state senate. The group was charting the electoral math for every seat in the area, and he realized there was an opportunity against Republican incumbent Tom McGarrigle in Delaware County’s 26th District, where he planned on moving with his family.
“There are a lot of hurdles,” says Rouse, whose civic legend father, Willard, developed One and Two Liberty Place. “But at the end of the day the only barrier to your entry should be your quality of ideas.”
Moving Philly Forward has swelled from about 15 to 20 at the beginning to a mailing list of 450, mostly people in their late 20s and 30s. Some 200 people came to the launch party at Johnny Brenda’s last fall.
Singh sees a future where more inexperienced young professionals learn about the political process and then dive in, just as Rouse and Williams are doing now. After all, the more dysfunctional national politics becomes, the more likely it is that change makers will seek to act closer to home.
“You can see change pretty quickly at the local level,” Singh says, “which is pretty cool.”Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy