By Holly Otterbein – January 21st, 2017
Brendan Boyle had only been on the campaign trail for a couple of months when his high-priced D.C. consultant told him he should quit.
It was the summer of 2013, and the baby-faced state representative from Northeast Philadelphia had decided to run for Congress. His reason, he says, was simple: The American dream was slipping away, and he wanted to help wrestle it back. So he hired a “fancy” adviser from the Beltway, as he now sneeringly describes him, and paid for a poll. “He told me there was good news and bad news.”
The good news was that Boyle, a Democrat, was in second place in a four-way primary. The bad news? He was 32 points behind the first-place candidate, Marjorie Margolies, a former Congresswoman who, as part of one of the most powerful political dynasties in America, seemed unbeatable — or so pundits, campaign managers and countless other know-it-alls thought. If her name doesn’t ring a bell, her daughter-in-law’s might: Chelsea Clinton. “He said it was unwinnable and tried to convince me to drop out,” says Brendan. His younger brother Kevin is just as blunt about the D.C. pooh-bah: “He expressed the stone-cold belief that Brendan in no way would be able to raise enough money to keep up.”
Brendan is stubborn, though. Always has been. In 2004, he ran against a Republican state representative as a no-name 20-something with little support from party kingmakers. He remembers calling up a Democratic ward leader for help: “After I gave a long explanation about why I wanted to run, he paused and said, ‘So, whose candidate are you?’” Brendan was clobbered in that election, and got his butt handed to him a second time in 2006. Eventually, his hardheadedness paid off: He won the race for the seat in 2008. Kevin is just as relentless. In 2010, at the ripe age of 30, he took on the most powerful state representative in Pennsylvania, Republican House Speaker John Perzel, only to find that other Philadelphia Democrats didn’t want him to: “Quite a few people came to me and really heavily lobbied me to not run, including with [offers of] employment.” He didn’t listen, and brought down the grand elephant on his very first try, thanks at least in some part to Perzel’s entanglement in the Bonusgate case.
So when that fancy D.C. consultant dissed Brendan in 2013, it was nothing new. Brendan ignored the expert advice, knocking on doors and campaigning at 200-some events, he says. At the same time, he aired a TV ad that cast his foes as out-of-touch elites: “We’re not millionaires, like every one of my opponents,” he said of his family. “Right now, half the Congress are millionaires, but they pay lower taxes than firefighters and teachers. I think their priorities are screwed up. Congress refuses to raise the minimum wage and then cuts programs for the middle class.”
That spring, Brendan came in first in the primary, with 41 percent of the vote to Margolies’s 27. He won the general election in a landslide. In retrospect, the fact that an anti-establishment Democrat from a blue-collar family walloped a Clinton in-law should have been a flashing red siren for the Democratic National Committee, not to mention the media. It wasn’t, of course. Meanwhile, the Boyles’ brand of grassroots Democratic politics continues to deliver. In November, Kevin outperformed Hillary Clinton in his Northeast Philly district by 1,000 votes. That might not seem like a lot, until you consider the fact that Clinton lost all of Pennsylvania by only 44,000 votes.
For years, the Boyle brothers have won over white working-class swing voters — many of whom cast ballots for President Donald Trump — with a Franklin D. Roosevelt brand of fiscal liberalism. At the same time, they’ve staked out positions on a few social issues that would likely get them booed at college campuses in 2017. As Democrats across the country try to come back from the dead, some analysts think party leaders could learn something from these scrappy Irish Catholic boys from Olney. “They’re hard workers. They connect with regular people, and they don’t come across like they’re above it all,” says Larry Ceisler, the Philadelphia-based political consultant. “And they’re willing to question authority. You don’t see much of that in Democratic politics.”
Maybe that’s part of the problem. The Democratic Party is facing nothing less than an existential crisis. Over the past eight years, Democrats let more than 1,000 Senate, House, state legislature and governors’ seats slip through their fingers. They hold fewer elected offices today than at any point since the 1920s. In fact, it’s fair to ask whether Democrats are even a national party anymore. More than one third of the Democratic members of the House of Representatives are from just three states: California, New York and Massachusetts.
There are plenty of reasons the party has been obliterated, from gerrymandering to corruption to the decimation of unions to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. But one cause in particular has gotten lots of attention: Democrats have lost the support of the white working class, their once-loyal base. The 2016 election marked the first time in history that low-income whites backed the Republican nominee more decisively than wealthy whites. Trump even won 38 percent of the white working class that wanted policies more liberal than President Barack Obama’s.
The Boyles have a much different track record: In districts that are bastions of predominantly white firefighters, police officers and other blue-collar workers, the young Democrats have won state House seats that Republicans held for decades. In the 2014 Congressional primary, Brendan performed best in working- and middle-class neighborhoods. The areas where he did the worst were wealthy enclaves in Montgomery County. This November, says Brendan, “A lot of people told me, ‘I know you guys are good, and I’m definitely voting for you, but I’m one of those deplorables.’”
IT’S LATE DECEMBER at an office in Mayfair whose facade bears the Boyle name in Ireland’s kelly green. Kevin is dressed in a gray pullover and khakis. Brendan is wearing a crisp black suit and a Congressional pin. He looks five years younger than Kevin, but it’s obvious he’s older: He talks more often and more assertively, careful to bolster every argument with facts and figures. Kevin is the laid-back, unflappable one. They interrupt each other constantly.
Not five minutes into our conversation, the Boyles tell me a familiar story. It’s a tale they tell almost everybody, one that’s in their stump speeches and websites and TV ads: Their dad, an immigrant from Ireland, struggled when he first came to the United States, taking odd jobs at cemeteries and cutting lawns. Eventually he got a steady union job at an Acme warehouse. He worked there for decades, while his wife was a school crossing guard. Their American dream was punctured in the 1990s when Dad’s position was shipped out of Philadelphia. Eventually, he found another union job as a SEPTA janitor. The pay wasn’t as good, but the benefits were great: “The success that Brendan and I have had is absolutely not possible without workers’ unions,” Kevin says.
That’s it. There’s nothing special about the story. It’s the story of tens of millions of Americans across the country, and that’s precisely why it’s effective. The best-known Democrats in the nation are millionaires — they dine with Saudi kings, auction off secret speeches to Wall Street, and, in the minds of many voters, can’t possibly understand how ordinary Americans are suffering in the wake of the Great Recession. The brothers are saying they’re different: They have working-class roots (even if Brendan now owns a handful of rental properties). They know the devastation of a warehouse leaving town. And they’re pissed off at the nation’s oligarchy: “Are we really a representative democracy if millionaires make up .2 percent of the U.S. population but represent more than 50 percent of the elected officials in Congress?” asks Brendan.
The Boyles say the reason the Democrats lost working-class whites isn’t all that complicated: “People want someone who is in touch with their economic interest. Trump could speak to the visceral concerns of Rust Belt Democrats,” explains Kevin. “Hillary got away from what is our biggest strength as a party, a message about providing hope and economic livelihood for regular Americans.” Brendan goes even further. He says party leaders lost their way decades ago: “[Economic justice] needs to take center stage instead of staying offstage, where it’s been for the last 10, 20 years in our party.”
One of the reasons Democrats have found themselves in this deep hole, according to Brendan, is that they’ve recruited so many filthy-rich people to run for office. It’s a topic he hammers at à la Bernie Sanders. “Now that I’ve been inside the room of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, one of the first questions that’s asked when we’re looking to recruit a Democratic candidate for Congress is: Can that person self-fund? If that’s one of the main criteria, it’s not too surprising that people from [rural Pennsylvania] or Northeast Philly say, ‘You know, I’m not sure that so-and-so is looking out for me or even understands me.”
IT’S STUNNING that throughout our two-hour conversation, the Boyles never blame their party’s sorry state on Russia or James Comey. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, have so consistently claimed that Vladimir Putin somehow stole the election that half their voters now think the Kremlin tampered with the country’s vote tallies. This has conveniently allowed the Democratic Party to avoid taking a good, hard look at itself: Many elites maintain that they only need to tinker around the edges to win elections again. Others are in even deeper denial, saying they aren’t to blame for the party’s flop in 2016. “We cannot be taking the full responsibility for what happened in the election,” Nancy Pelosi insisted in November. The next month, these words actually came out of Harry Reid’s mouth: “I don’t think the Democratic Party is in that big of trouble.”
The Boyles, on the other hand, are unafraid — even eager — to criticize the Democratic establishment. At a time when elites from both parties have bargain-basement approval ratings, this is likely part of their appeal.
So are their old-school class politics, it seems. On the stump, they talk constantly about income inequality, raising the minimum wage, and increasing taxes on the one percent. Brendan brags about introducing bills as a state lawmaker to publicly fund elections and make college free for students with at least a 3.0 GPA (years before the Sanders insurgency!), while Kevin boasts about helping to write Philadelphia’s paid sick-leave bill when he worked for City Councilman Bill Greenlee. They also rail against free trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, though their leaders have promoted them. “I’m a huge fan of Obama’s,” Kevin says frankly, “but I don’t know what he was thinking [with TPP].”
In Congress, Brendan says he whipped votes against the TPP and opposed a bill that bars lawmakers from filibustering trade deals. Along with Marc Veasey, an African-American legislator from Texas, he just created a blue-collar caucus in the House — a move the Washington Post said sent “exactly” the right message. “Republicans will never be able to represent workers in the Rust Belt, Texas or anywhere better than Democrats can,” says Veasey, “and I think Brendan is better situated than most to be able to deliver that message, because he’s lived that.” In July 2015, Brendan cooked up a publicity stunt to draw attention to a Nabisco factory in his district that was closing and slashing 300 jobs. On the House floor, he revealed that he was no longer eating Oreos: “This is a company … that is in no way in financial disarray.” Their revenues topped tens of billions of dollars, he said. “This plant that was closed was profitable! But not profitable enough. But there is good news. I do congratulate the CEO, Ms. Irene Rosenfeld, who got a 50 percent pay increase in the last few months.”
Brendan says establishment Democrats paid no attention to his ploy: “I was surprised that no one on our side really picked it up.” Anthony Weiner even made fun of it on Twitter, joking, “Jeez, I leave town, and it’s open season on Oreos?!”
But one politician apparently didn’t think it was so silly. Months later, an Oreo factory in Chicago announced it was moving jobs across the border. Afterward, Donald Trump made an announcement: “I’m never eating Oreos again. Ever. Ever,” he told rally-goers. He used the talking point across the country for months.
THERE ARE A LOT of reasons that Berniecrats can find hope in the Boyles. Their economic populism appeals to some of the same people who voted for Trump. They’ve also made labor the centerpiece of their brand: Instead of shying away from the fact that unions, as well as a super PAC tied to John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty’s IBEW Local 98, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get them elected, they say rejoining forces with labor is essential to the survival of the Democratic Party. The country, too. “At times when you’ve had higher unionization rates of workers in the United States, you also saw average wages increase. And right when the unionization rates of workers began declining, you saw median household income decline as well,” says Brendan. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
In other ways, progressives find their formula more than a little disappointing.
The Boyles critique Philadelphia’s sanctuary-city policy. Early in their careers, they supported a bill that imposed restrictions on abortion clinics. (Pro-choice activists at the time said the legislation was unnecessary and an obvious gambit to restrict abortion services.) And last year, Kevin backed a proposal that would temporarily keep secret the names of police officers who shoot civilians. “I think we should give the benefit of the doubt, in the immediate aftermath of a highly traumatic event, to the police officer. It’s a very, very dangerous job,” he says. But Black Lives Matter said the bill would worsen relations between cops and civilians; the ACLU called it “a threat to transparency.”
The Boyles are quick to point out that they both now have been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and are strongly opposed to the GOP’s plan to defund both that group and sanctuary cities. They argue that they’ve got the same position on immigration as Barack Obama, and that admitting Syrian refugees is a moral imperative. But the Boyles also believe the party’s survival depends on it being big-tent enough to hold differing views on historically polarizing topics such as abortion and gun control: “If someone is a Democrat and votes with you 95 percent of the time,” says Brendan, “we probably shouldn’t obsess over the remaining five percent.” They’re positing, essentially, that Democrats should be less strident about some of the social issues that have defined the party’s platform in order to build a winning coalition around economic policies. Political strategist Mustafa Rashed agrees: “If Democrats want to get to the point where they’re anything but a super-minority, they have to widen the tent.”
But to some progressives, the positions the Boyles take on immigration and police shootings sell out people of color.
That’s not the only problem facing the Boyles — and the party writ large. Though Congressman Bob Brady, the city’s Democratic Party boss, says the brothers are “young and aggressive” and “they got a future, without question,” the truth is that many other party elites loathe them. They irritated ward leaders when they first ran without “permission,” and continue to irk them by encouraging insurgents to run against establishment party members. In April, Kevin unsuccessfully tried to unseat Democratic state senator John Sabatina Jr., son of the ward leader of the same name. Sabatina doesn’t mince words: He says the brothers are “not the outsiders they claim to be” and “want to conquer the Northeast.” Many other local Democratic elites talk about them the same way behind closed doors, their frustration seemingly driven by petty squabbles and territory beefs rather than policy differences. And in Washington, D.C., rumors have swirled that Brendan voted for Rust Belt Congressman Tim Ryan over Nancy Pelosi for House minority leader — even though he says he didn’t. Will the Boyles be able to convince the party to change course if they don’t have good relationships with many of its leaders? And consider what the drama means for the party: Why are leading Democrats eating their young if their differences have nothing to do with, you know, policy?
Another big issue: It’s unclear whether the Boyles’s message will appeal to a large swath of people of color. Their districts are mostly white. Without African-Americans, a number of whom sat out this presidential race, the Democratic Party is nothing. But Brendan points out that he performed best in 2014 in the city’s predominantly black 61st Ward, winning more than 80 percent of the vote. He’s adamant that Democrats can take back the white working class without losing or betraying the Obama coalition: “If you appeal to people in a genuine way on their economic self-interests, that appeals to the white working class, but it also appeals to the black working class, Hispanic working class, Asian working class. I passionately believe that. And I also think it’s a better strategy for governing. Anytime we’ve truly made progress as a society, it’s been with the working class and poor folks of all different races and ethnicities in the same boat, rowing the same way.”
The Boyles may or may not have the big answers for liberals. But they’re definitely right about one thing: Somehow, someway, Democrats have to convince people they’re the party for workers again.