Heading into last month’s Democratic mayoral primary in Philadelphia, Helen Gym, a rising star in the progressive cosmos who received 11th-hour endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seemed poised to eke out victory. The election instead delivered a surprising but strong win for Cherelle Parker, a behind-the-scenes city council member serving the city’s northwestern communities.
The ridiculously crowded field of Democratic mayoral contenders, numbering 12 at one point, had included, among others, a Shop Rite executive, Jeff Brown, and a real-estate mogul, Allan Domb, elected to city council in 2016. Domb, who created a buzz by pledging to donate his mayor’s salary to the schools, ran as a sensible law-and-order centrist and started the race on a winning track—not surprisingly, given his skill at promoting himself. His boundless energy had a “Where’s Waldo” quality to it. From used-car lots to cake sales to serious rallies, he popped up everywhere.
Rebecca Rhynhart was another surprisingly strong contender. A savvy former city controller, she had started the race behind in the polls but picked up speed near primary day, putting her almost neck-and-neck with Parker and Gym, as Domb and Brown sank further in the polls.
Indeed, the primary seemed like a woman’s race early on. One got a sense of this during one of the last citywide mayoral forums before the election. The organizers had narrowed the wide field of candidates to seven. Unlike previous forums, where political attacks were kept to a minimum, the male candidates (except Domb) seemed to pick up the fighting spirit of 1776, at least when it came to identity politics. Pennsylvania state representative Amen Brown accused Shoprite’s Brown of supplying less-than-quality foods to supermarkets in black neighborhoods and attacked Domb for not employing enough “people of color” in his real-estate empire.
The female candidates wisely avoided this hornet’s nest. The newfound enthusiasm for female mayoral candidates may have something to do with Mayor Jim Kenney’s recent public confession that he was looking forward to the time when he wouldn’t be mayor. The public perceived those words as throwing in the towel, as well as a sign that the city needed a shake-up.
Lately, Mayor Kenney hasn’t done much more than tweet in response to problems, like the out-of-control teens periodically causing chaos in downtown areas. On May 30, for instance, hundreds of teens unleashed mayhem at Penn’s Landing and dispersed only when someone in the crowd fired shots into the air. The city’s official response was that police can do little to stop hundreds of young people from gathering in public spaces. One day before, 500 dirt bikes, motorcycles, and ATVs had paraded the streets of North Philadelphia and continued into Montgomery County, weaving in and out of traffic and running red lights. While nearly all the mayoral candidates had tough words about this common Philadelphia problem (which includes fatal drag racing incidents on I-95), Parker’s commitment to ending it seemed the most heartfelt.
The seeds of Parker’s eventual victory were planted at the first mayoral forum, held in March 2023 at WHYY studios near Sixth and Chestnut Streets. Seated in the press section with a number of photographers, I expected the forum to be a chest-pounding left-wing display. But Parker stood out among the candidates by telling the audience that she had been the first on the city council to criticize the defund-the-police movement, even during the height of the George Floyd riots. Those riots held the city captive for more than a week, as violent protestors destroyed businesses and ATM machines and the mayor imposed a nightly curfew. Parker’s answers at the WHYY forum surprised me. While Gym rattled off progressive talking points, Parker stated clearly that she favored bringing back stop-and-frisk policing.
However, shortly after Parker’s primary victory, Republican candidate David Oh accused her of voting to defund the police in 2020. True, the city council did come close to doing just that, opting instead for a freeze on funding increases—and Parker supported the freeze. The Parker campaign tried to explain that her vote was somehow intended to supply the department with additional funding.
Parker does appear to harbor a less-than-enthusiastic view of the police. As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, she was one of 14 city council members who signed a letter opposing Mayor Kenney’s plan to increase the police budget by $19 million. Still, she ran as a moderate in the primary and won by ten points over Gym, who finished third, behind Rhynhart. And whenever she can, she decries Philadelphia’s “lawlessness” in a way that ordinary voters have come to associate with Republicans, not Democrats. Perhaps her victory shows that some hope is left for Philadelphia after all.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Helen Gym finished second in the primary.
Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images