Charles F. McElwee is the founding editor of RealClearPennsylvania and was previously an editor at City Journal, where he remains a regular contributor. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the results of the Philadelphia mayoral primary.
In the run-up to the election, polls showed the top four Democratic primary candidates running neck and neck, with former councilmember and activist Helen Gym, backed by the city’s rising progressive machine, holding a slight edge. But in the end, Cherelle Parker, an establishment Democratic candidate, pulled off a convincing win of nearly ten percentage points. How did she do it?
It’s a local political lesson: progressive orthodoxy, with all its unbending convictions and vague solutions, can still have a low conversion rate among those city voters most concerned with crime and neighborhood vitality. Parker ran a disciplined and relatable campaign focused on experience, public safety, and improving the quality of life for working-class Philadelphians. In contrast, Helen Gym—the progressive former councilmember who was considered the frontrunner—ran a feverish grassroots campaign that ultimately worked best among younger voters engaged on social media.
Parker’s victory shows that the city’s long-time Democratic machine—though diminished thanks to progressive gains, especially in South Philadelphia—is alive and well. Parker’s Democratic establishment backing included the powerful local Building Trades, but also the SEIU, a union that has proved crucial to other city electoral outcomes, particularly around Pittsburgh.
What does Gym’s loss mean for Philadelphia’s organized progressives?
It was a setback, though it doesn’t extinguish progressives’ influence in local politics. In recent years, for example, South Philadelphia’s First Ward—once part of the old-school, labor-backed Democratic machine—has become an incubator of progressive activism. Political demography is destiny in such wards. In the coming years, the city’s graduate students and young professionals—living in rental rowhomes in neighborhoods like East Passyunk, Manayunk, or University City—will continue to rally around progressive candidates.
Even in this primary, as Mark Nicastre observed, progressives enjoyed some success. As he noted: “Further down the ballot, Isaiah Thomas was the top vote-getter for at-large city council races. Thomas’s signature legislation was the Driving Equality Bill, which instructed police officers to avoid making traffic stops for certain vehicle violations.”
How should Philadelphians expect Parker to govern when it comes to voters’ top concern—public safety?
Parker has a mandate to respond to Philadelphia’s public-safety crisis. As a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis found, her winning coalition was made up of black, Latino, and poor voters. In neighborhoods like North Philadelphia, this voting bloc confronts the daily reality of crime. Parker’s campaign manager told the Inquirer how it was “infuriating that people who live nowhere near these neighborhoods feel that they can speak for a lot of the folks who do live here.” One finding reflects her sentiment: “Precincts that had seen more than 175 shooting victims within 2,000 feet of their boundaries since 2015 gave Parker half of their votes. By contrast, neighborhoods with the fewest shooting victims gave a disproportionately high share of their votes to other candidates.”
Shortly after her primary victory, Parker addressed the issue of the short-staffed Philadelphia Police Department, stating that she will focus on “restoring our . . . department to its full complement.” She has also emphasized community policing and expressed openness to police officers’ use of “stop and frisk,” though she recently clarified her position. Perhaps Parker can learn from former mayor Michael Nutter, who forthrightly addressed public safety concerns during his two terms (2008–2016).
Do you think Parker’s public-safety approach can make any headway against the crime problem, given the presence of Larry Krasner, a so-called progressive prosecutor, in the district attorney’s office?
Like Philadelphia’s mayor, the city’s district attorney wields executive policy powers. A symbiotic relationship between both offices is essential to addressing Philadelphia’s public safety and law enforcement issues. While serving on the city council, Parker endorsed Krasner’s initial 2017 run, and she stuck by him in his subsequent contested primary in 2021. Perhaps this political history offers clues.
Regardless, blind ideology dictates Krasner’s stewardship of the DA’s office. Moreover, at this point, a bipartisan consensus holds that Krasner’s leadership has been disastrous. Last year, the then-GOP controlled state House voted to impeach Krasner, and before the primary, Democratic city councilmembers expressed their frustration with the DA at a hearing. One councilmember, noting the profound consequences of Krasner’s 2018 move to downgrade retail thefts, told the DA: “I don’t think you’re getting the severity of what’s going on in my neighborhood . . . We have no stores. There’s no place for us to shop because of this stuff going on.” In short, Parker, who has emphasized unity, must confront Krasner’s intransigence.
What are the best things Philadelphia has going for it right now? Where are its bright spots?
Like so many cities and towns, Philadelphia is a place to love “in spite of, not because”—as William Faulkner put it about his own hometown. The city faces overwhelming challenges, but on its best days, it’s a metropolis that offers first-rate amenities, Old World charm, architectural grandeur, and unrivaled access to beautiful trails and stunning natural scenery. In University City, new glistening towers signal a life-sciences boom, and throughout Philadelphia, world-class restaurants continue to open. In 2026, Philadelphia will be a World Cup host city—a testament to encouraging days ahead. It remains a great American city.