Nikil Saval is a socialist candidate running for State Senate in Pennsylvania’s 1st district, which encompasses a huge swath of Philadelphia. He used to edit the literary and political magazine N+1, which is to say that he is more bookish than your standard elected-office-seeker. This occasionally gets in his way.
During a recent forum about education, Mr. Saval, 37, was asked what word he would choose as a title for a memoir about his run. He covered his face with his sweater.
“Tired,” he said, upon reappearing. “Exhausted.” The event’s moderator laughed, and her Zoom square turned momentarily yellow.
“But it would have to be a verb,” Mr. Saval continued. “A past participle. I don’t know.”
The moderator reassured him: “You’re putting more expectations on yourself than we’re going to put on you,” she said.
Mr. Saval’s attention to verb forms is indicative of the professorial sensibility he has brought to the campaign.
Yet Mr. Saval’s work in his adopted city has been effective. His platform aligns him with other members of the Democratic Socialists of America; housing and health care for all, steep taxes on the wealthy and a Green New Deal. In recent years, he worked to help elect a civil rights lawyer to District Attorney and a D.S.A. member to the House of Representatives. He was elected a ward leader himself in 2018.
If he wins his primary and the State Senate seat, the victory would be part of a pattern of leftist talkers and thinkers successfully turning ideas into action.
He thinks we shouldn’t be surprised. “It’s not like a quixotic, Norman Mailer situation,” Mr. Saval said. “We have a very serious campaign.”
“It’s a so-called safe seat and for that reason we should be advancing the most visionary policies possible,” he said. (Although Pennsylvania is a battleground state, the city of Philadelphia almost always votes Democratic. The state has a Democratic governor but its senate and house are controlled by Republicans and President Trump won there in 2016.)
Mr. Saval was born and raised in Los Angeles, to immigrants from India who ran a pizza restaurant. His political awakening arrived after he had graduated from Columbia University and got a job in publishing. His salary barely covered his rent.
“I was borrowing money from people, including my brother,” he said. “So I remember when they paid Alan Greenspan $8 million for his memoir in 2005 or 2006. And at the Penguin company meeting we were like, ‘We all make $28,000 a year as our starting salary. How can you rationalize giving Alan Greenspan $8 million? And the president of the company, Susan Petersen Kennedy, said ‘Alan Greenspan’s memoir is going to be a Penguin classic.’”
“I don’t know if we gasped,” he said, adding: “You mean like with the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ and ‘War and Peace’?”
His political enthusiasm found a vehicle in his work at N+1. The magazine was started in late 2004 and billed as a spiritual successor of the Partisan Review, the midcentury journal that cast the mold of the modern American intellectual. N+1’s founders, young Ivy League graduates of almost parodically serious bearing, published critical and philosophical essays about domestic and international politics and culture.
Mr. Saval’s first piece in the print magazine, in 2008, was “Birth of the Office.” It’s a researched history of the cubicle that became a book about the way that capitalism is built into the walls of the modern American workplace. (“Transposing the factory model to the office turned white-collar work into numbing, repetitive labor,” Mr. Saval writes in the introduction.)
As with other literary magazines, N+1 articles often use an essayistic, first-person approach in which the writer’s experience provides an entry point to a broader issue. (For example, Anna Wiener’s experiences in the tech industry as documented in an N+1 article — and then a best-selling memoir — offered a broader critique of Silicon Valley.) Mr. Saval preferred impersonal histories of labor movements, architecture and design and occasionally basketball.
In 2011, his girlfriend, Shannon Garrison, got into graduate school in Philadelphia, so the couple moved there. (They were married in 2014 and have a young son.) In 2012, Mr. Saval became a head editor at N+1. Under his supervision and that of Dayna Tortorici, his co-editor starting in 2014, the magazine became more politically coherent: explicitly feminist, internationalist and socialist. This was also the year that Mr. Saval became a member of the D.S.A.
In 2016, Mr. Saval threw himself into Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. (He continued to edit the magazine until the summer of 2019, and also wrote on a freelance basis for many publications, including The New York Times.)
“We turned his house into a staging location and he was just always there,” said Amanda McIllmurray, who met Mr. Saval during that campaign. She is now his campaign manager.
Mr. Saval wrote that, while canvassing for Mr. Sanders, he was happier than he’d ever been. For his own candidacy, though, he hasn’t been able to door-knock for months.
As cases of the coronavirus in Philadelphia climbed from double to triple digits, campaigning felt inappropriate. Mr. Saval imagined that potential constituents would react poorly to being cold-called: “Who cares that there’s a primary election and you’re running on a Green New Deal or whatever?”
But the campaign found its footing by calling people to ask what they needed, and connecting them to mutual-aid efforts led by volunteers.
“It was impossible to call anyone for anything and not ask them ‘How are you doing?’” Mr. Saval said. If people said that they were hungry, or that they didn’t have access to their prescriptions, “then you kind of had to act on it.”
Race Against the Machine
Just 12 years ago, Anne Dicker, an earnest young organizer who had lived in the city for about a decade, ran for this same seat and got steamrolled.
Philadelphia Magazine said she was “so ideologically far left that she hates George W. Bush in a way that seems oddly personal.” It noted her “Hillary Clintonesque” pantsuit and warned that if she was to connect with voters, she would “need to find some way to exude charm.” It also spent close to 500 words on her bisexuality, starting with: “Anne Dicker had a secret.” (This was 2008.)
She was up against an incumbent named Vincent J. Fumo, who had held the office since 1978. The year before the primary, he was charged with more than 130 counts related to conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice and filing false tax returns. There was another candidate in the race: Johnny Dougherty, the head of the powerful electricians union, who is currently under indictment.
The incumbent, Mr. Fumo, withdrew from the race early, saying “the stress of being under indictment has taken a very real emotional toll.” (He was later convicted and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.)
Into his place jumped Larry Farnese, a lawyer who attracted the support of Mr. Fumo’s constituents and who eventually won the primary. At his victory celebration, Mr. Fumo held Mr. Farnese’s arm high in the air like a boxing coach with his champion.
And Ms. Dicker finished a distant third.
Twelve years later, Mr. Farnese still occupies the seat that Mr. Saval wants, though, in 2016, he was indicted on charges of using a bribe to sway a ward election. The next year he was acquitted by a federal jury.
Mr. Farnese said in a recent interview that he had put all this behind him. He had told people he would be exonerated; that was what happened.
“Since that occurred I have been re-elected to a leadership spot in our senate democratic caucus,” he said. “I have been elected as the judiciary chairman of the senate democrats. Those are positions that you don’t just get for being a nice guy. You get them because you have the respect and belief not only of your colleagues but also of your leadership team.”
Mr. Farnese has framed the race as incumbents often do: as a question of experience versus naïveté. “While Nikil has been talking about big progressive ideas, I’ve actually been delivering them,” he said.
He touted his bona fides, including that he wrote the first single-payer health care bill in Pennsylvania (he helped write that measure in 2009), and voted to expand Medicaid in the state and restore key education funding to Pennsylvania schools. In response to the coronavirus, he has asked the state to expand paid sick leave for workers. Throughout the race he has said that he was a progressive before it was cool.
Some commentators agree. Anthony Campisi, a Philadelphia public affairs consultant, said in an interview that the race would be difficult for Mr. Saval given that “you have an incumbent who I think most folks would say is pretty progressive.”
Furthermore, Mr. Farnese is familiar with the tactics favored at the State Capitol in Harrisburg.
“When you’re working up there, you’re working against radical far-right Republicans,” he said. “It’s not an academic exercise.”
Mr. Fumo, his convicted predecessor, has recently popped up on Facebook to support Mr. Farnese. He responded to an advertisement posted by Mr. Saval about Mr. Farnese’s legal history: “As far as that indictment goes, he was found NOT GUILTY!!! That means, you moron, that he NEVER misused any campaign money. Why don’t you go back to your Socialist Party and to NY where you came from?”
Despite the echoes of her race, Ms. Dicker isn’t pessimistic about Mr. Saval’s chances. She thinks the progressive movement in Philadelphia has turned a corner.
“Winning begets winning and the progressives have turned into a progressive machine that’s completely different from the old Philly machine,” she said. As if to illustrate her point, the powerful union led by Ms. Dicker’s other 2008 opponent, Mr. Dougherty, recently endorsed Mr. Saval’s campaign and contributed $25,000 to his campaign.
“We were kind of holding our fire,” said Frank Keel, a spokesman for the union, who confirmed the endorsement. “In the last ten days or two weeks it really started to coalesce around Nikil.”
Asked about the union’s endorsement, Mr. Farnese’s campaign manager, Rajah Sandor, said: “Nikil Saval likes to hold himself up as some bastion of integrity, but when it comes down to it, he’s just a typical politician who will toss his moral code out the window for a chance at $25,000 from a political boss.”
Mr. Saval, in response, said that he was a labor candidate and the contribution represented union members’ dues. (Mr. Farnese has also been endorsed by a number of labor unions, including the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.)
Some endorsements have arrived after the campaign dynamics may already have been scrambled by remote voting. Ben Waxman, a former spokesman for Mr. Krasner who is friendly with both candidates, said that in normal circumstances, many voters would know little about down-ballot races. But those voting from home might have taken a moment to Google them.
If they did, they might find that earlier this month, Mr. Saval also received an endorsement from Bernie Sanders, giving his campaign new momentum. It’s an indication that Mr. Saval is seen by his allies as working on behalf of a national democratic socialist movement — one formed from a series of groundswells, including Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter — that will push to tax the rich, focus on workers and address climate change, among other priorities.
“The point is not to have a great candidate that you believe in,” Mr. Saval said. “The individual candidate in some ways just has to be a credible vehicle — or cipher even — for the coalition.”