The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A pub-crawl in the ‘Gayborhood’: How Democrats get out the vote in Philadelphia

Katie McGinty, Democratic candidate for Senate, addresses patrons at Woody’s in Philadelphia on Saturday night. (James Hohmann/The Washington Post)
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PHILADELPHIA — The clock was about to strike midnight, and Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty was visiting her fourth gay bar of the night.

At Woody’s, a nightclub in the heart of this City of Brotherly Love, the DJ paused the Rihanna song and gave the politician a microphone.

“Listen, LGBT community, I’ve got your back,” McGinty yelled Saturday night toward the end of a nearly three-hour pub-crawl to get out the vote in this Tuesday’s heated Democratic Senate primary. “Will you have my back?”

The sloshed clubgoers roared. “All right, let’s go kick some booty,” McGinty yelled.

With polls showing McGinty and former congressman Joe Sestak essentially tied ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the establishment favorite to take on Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey shook hundreds of hands, danced to top-40 music and made lots of new friends.

Among those in McGinty’s entourage were Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List.

McGinty is no pioneer at outreach. Campaigning in several gay bars the weekend before the election is actually a four-decade-old tradition in Philadelphia, begun by former Democratic governor Ed Rendell when he was a 33-year-old looking to topple an incumbent district attorney.

After Rendell sought its support in his first race, the gay community became a loyal base, including when he ran for Philadelphia mayor. He has gone back before every primary and election since then.

Rendell said other politicians began to follow his lead when they saw him winning his races by large margins.

Chelsea Clinton went on a pub-crawl to the gay bars around Philadelphia to stump for her mom, Hillary, the weekend before the 2008 Democratic primary. The current governor and mayor did so before their victories.

“I did it with a little bit of apprehension because I didn’t know what to expect,” Rendell recalled in an interview. He wound up visiting seven clubs and talking with a lot of voters unaccustomed to being courted by elected officials. “They were real happy to see me. So happy that I got pinched a number of times.”

The tradition was mostly kept on the down-low for decades. Not only has it become more popular in recent years with the legalization of same-sex marriage and widespread cultural acceptance of gay rights. But it has also become a rite of passage. McGinty invited a Washington Post reporter to tag along with her.

McGinty was also accompanied by her openly gay brother, John, and his partner. John handed out stickers and made the case that his sister has always been a solid supporter of gay rights.

“They didn’t know I existed, and that made them happier,” said the 65-year-old financial adviser.

“I love traveling through the Gayborhood,” Katie McGinty, 52, told Philadelphia state Rep. Brian Sims (D), her tour guide.

The “Gayborhood” is a real place. In 2007, the city informally recognized the downtown area, which borders the Independence Mall. The street signs now have rainbow symbols.

Sims, 37, is an LGBT rights activist who lives above Knock, the gar bar the group met up in. He’s participated in nine of these tours for politicians over the years and led six of them.

“There are high-information, high-turnout voters,” a sweaty Sims said over blaring music. “It used to be kind of subversive. Now it’s as much a part of the Philly experience as cheesesteaks and Benjamin Franklin.”

The Bernie Sanders campaign organized its own pub-crawl stop at Woody’s on Friday night, and some of Sanders’s brochures were still scattered around. Underneath a picture of two women kissing, one of the leaflets said: “As far back as 1972, he was an outspoken ally of the LGBTQ community in Vermont.” Actor Justin Long was there for Sanders as a surrogate, handing out rainbow stickers.

McGinty, who is married and has three teenage daughters, admitted the next morning she was exhausted after a long day of campaigning, but the late-night stops energized her.

“I was like a party pooper going in,” she said. “But I didn’t want to leave.”

Wearing a white denim jacket and black cowboy boots, McGinty made small talk with the ­clubgoers.

“Remember on Tuesday to vote. Unless you’re not voting for Katie. Then don’t vote,” she quipped to a guy wearing a “Make America Gay Again” hat.

When McGinty left the first bar, a Republican tracker holding a camcorder was standing at the entrance. Volunteers surrounded him to block his view as the Democrat walked down the street. When the group arrived at U Bar, the bouncer said it was near capacity, but McGinty got in.

Inside were bartenders wearing camouflage tank tops, and McGinty leaned in closely to chitchat over the din of Christina Aguilera’s “Lady Marmalade.”

“This place will party till 4 [a.m.],” Sims said. “But I can get you home by 11.”

“No,” McGinty replied. “We’re just getting started.”

As she applied another layer of lipstick, the Senate candidate joked about staying out all night. “Would it be a good idea for me to do that and go straight to a communion breakfast with my ­daughters?”

“Hey, sisters,” she said, starting to play out what the conversation at her Catholic church would be like.

From there, the group went down an alley to Tavern on Camac. A guy at a piano was playing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” and everyone sang along. McGinty bee-lined for a bachelorette party. After posing for pictures, the women were chanting her name.

A volunteer noted they had ditched the GOP tracker. Two staffers exchanged high-fives.

McGinty walked upstairs and onto a dance floor, complete with black light and disco balls. She walked past a man in drag.

Then her entourage headed to Woody’s. As Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” video played on 14 big-screen TVs, a man who had a hearing aide and wore short-shorts, approached McGinty.

“I’m a very liberal Republican, and I hope you make it,” he told her.

Sims, the state representative who guided McGinty around the Gayborhood, said most politicians he takes around have never been to a gay bar. And they almost always want to come back.

“The new mayor has done it with me three times,” Sims said. “He actually out-gays me everywhere we go. He grabs the mic and sings. It drives me crazy.”