“Welcome to the messy race to lead Philly,” a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer read recently, referring to the nine Democratic candidates (and one Republican) who have their minds set on becoming the city’s 100th mayor. The unusually crowded field of contenders includes six former city council members, a former city controller, a Pennsylvania state representative, a former judge, and a grocer.
The stampede to wear the mayor’s hat seemed to accelerate after Mayor Jim Kenney’s July 2022 announcement that he’s so sick of gun violence that he will be “happy” not to be mayor. The lone Republican in the race, former councilmember David Oh, an ideological moderate, is well liked by voters of both parties. Oh, who is of Asian descent, might end up running against Helen Gym, also of Asian descent, if she can secure her party’s nomination. Gym’s left-wing, progressive supporters know what they have in this woke straight-shooter: an activist not afraid to engage in the occasional planned civil disobedience protest, such as the June 2021 protest in the state capitol in Harrisburg, where she was arrested along with 15 others after staging a ruckus related to Pennsylvania’s education-funding priorities. Videos of the incident show Gym being led away by police, screaming into the camera—a perfect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-like moment. Despite Gym’s practically nonexistent television ad campaign, she has garnered the support of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the city’s most left-wing union.
Gym’s leading competitor, Allan Domb, an ex-real estate mogul, is a Bill Clinton-esque “appeal to the masses” type with boundless energy. Domb’s impressive record of turning up at multiple events throughout the city—from outdoor BBQs to serious community meetings—has made him the most visible candidate for mayor.
Looking closely at this large group of contenders, you might come away, as I did, with the feeling that there hasn’t been anything that feels this theatrical in Philadelphia political life for a long time. This was especially noticeable when most of the mayoral hopefuls gathered in the WHYY studios for a forum on gun violence. The candidates delivered their lines like well-prepared actors. The gathering didn’t include Shop Rite executive Jeff Brown and Pastor Warren Bloom Sr., who declined to appear. Also missing was David Oh, who was not invited; it was a forum for Democratic candidates only. In a city where Democrats enjoy a seven-to-one voter-registration advantage, it’s easy to dismiss the lone GOP candidate. Philadelphia hasn’t had a Republican mayor since Bernard Samuel, who served from 1941 to 1952.
Even so, the WHYY forum highlighted a burgeoning “outside the box” mentality when it comes to solving the city’s gun-homicide scourge—a record-setting 561 homicides were logged in 2021, as well as 1,000 car-jacking incidents since September 2022. Conspicuous for its absence was any positive mention of District Attorney Larry Krasner or his office’s philosophy of selective criminal prosecution. Most of the candidates, in fact, seemed to view the DA with a skeptical eye, and some proposed ingenious ways to circumvent him.
Out of all the candidates, Gym seemed to have the best seat in the house, meaning square in front of the TV cameras, though she looked exhausted under the harsh overhead lights, no doubt the result of participating in the various mayoral forums popping up around the city. Like the other mayoral wannabes, Gym periodically attempted to highlight strong points in her resume—recalling, in her case, the work she did to rehabilitate a troubled inner-city high school. Surprisingly, she also called for police officers to resume patrols on foot and stressed the importance of “reaching young people to establish safe routes for students to and from school.”
In a rebuke of radical Democratic tendencies in big cities, former councilmember Charelle Parker reminded forum attendees that she was the first on the city council to criticize the defund-the-police movement in 2020. Parker agreed with most of her colleagues that police officers should resume walking a beat and get to know the community in which they’re serving. She also reiterated her opposition to the push to create safe-injection sites in South Philadelphia and Kensington, a program approved by Mayor Kenney, as well as Gym.
At various points in the forum, all the candidates sounded alike. Had Oh been included, he might have stirred the pot with a statement like the one he gave CBS News after a violent Labor Day weekend in Philadelphia last year, when flash mobs of young people went from store to store in a destructive rampage: “We are talking about kids between 11 and 15, from what I understand, shooting at each other, and then after that, you have, like ATVs and quads and dirt bikes racing down the streets. It’s a real bad look and it’s real bad for safety. And I guarantee you there are people making decisions right now not to come to Philadelphia.”
Whether the city’s overwhelmingly Democratic voters respond to that message and give Philadelphia its first GOP mayor in more than 70 years is anyone’s guess.
Photo: Brian Hartnett Photography/iStock