During springtime, Philadelphia’s Fitler Square becomes an arboreal urban stage. Magnolia and pear trees provide a canopy over quiet streets lined by beautiful row homes decked out in Americana and window boxes. Strolling along Pine Street’s elegant blocks, visitors might find it hard to believe that this same city is beset by widespread crime, population loss, punishing taxes, and failing schools.
But it’s all true. Philadelphia’s sense of lawlessness and despair has reached an acuity unrivaled in memory. Just last week, for example, two prisoners (one accused of killing four people) escaped from an understaffed and mismanaged prison (one prisoner has since been captured). Such reports underscore residents’ dismal mood headed into tomorrow’s most consequential Democratic mayoral primary in decades. In this city, where Democrats hold a seven-to-one voter registration advantage, the victor of this contest, likely the next mayor, will have to navigate neighborhoods where crime is a topic of daily conversation. Meantime, the Philadelphia police department confronts an ongoing staffing crisis.
According to a recent Pew survey, an overwhelming majority of Philadelphians are pessimistic about their city’s future, with 89 percent rating crime as the top priority for the mayor and elected officials. As the report found, “64 percent of Philadelphians reported hearing a gunshot in their neighborhood over the previous year.” “We have businesses that have been victims of all sorts of crimes, from retail theft to property damage to . . . assaults,” a West Philadelphia civic leader told WHYY last week. “The crime in the city has gotten so bad that, you know, things we’re doing . . . we find way outside of our scope of things that we normally be doing.”
Voters in Fitler Square and similar progressive enclaves, such as parts of South Philadelphia and the wealthy Chestnut Hill, will play a pivotal role in the outcome of tomorrow’s closed primary (a Republican, former city councilmember David Oh, is running unopposed). In recent cycles, such districts helped elect progressive candidates, most notably District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose ideological law-enforcement positions have turned the city into a partisan laboratory for criminal-justice reforms. Recent polling has indicated a neck-and-neck final stretch among the leading Democratic contenders in the most expensive mayoral race in city history. In terms of grassroots enthusiasm, however, former progressive councilmember and activist Helen Gym leads the pack. In fact, an Emerson poll released on Friday shows Gym slightly leading at 20.5 percent. A Gym victory would mark an encore of Chicago’s recent city election and, in the case of Philadelphia, portend the most dramatic political shift at City Hall since 1951, when Democratic mayoral candidate Joseph Clark vanquished a decades-long GOP machine.
Elected to city council in 2015, the same year as outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney’s first-term victory, Gym is part of Philadelphia’s rising progressive machine. In recent elections, this robust operation has elected progressive candidates to city council, state legislative seats, and neighborhood wards—typically, a critical starting point for local politics. These districts, such as South Philadelphia’s First Ward, now count scores of Gen Z and millennial young professionals—working remotely in rental rowhomes—who rally around progressive candidates like Gym. “Right now, probably the best organized people in town are the progressives,” one former Democratic mayoral candidate told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Late last month, local outlet Billy Penn reported on the Gym campaign’s self-described “unprecedented” get-out-the-vote operation, noting that it “expects over 1,000 volunteers will approach more than 300,000 addresses throughout the city. Volunteers are active in 46 of Philly’s 66 wards.” Her campaign is managed by Brendan McPhillips, who shepherded John Fetterman to his U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania last November. The campaign itself has earned support from the Working Families Party, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and progressive groups like Our Revolution.
But Gym’s fervent base isn’t confined to the city limits. As the Philadelphia Tribune reported, Gym has long cultivated a following among “white-collar workers from outside the city, who are quick to defend her on social media.” At the national level, Gym leads in out-of-region fundraising and is endorsed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders, who co-hosted a city rally yesterday. Meantime, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Inquirer, “You want Helen to be in the trenches with you when you’re in a fight.” AFT has financially supported Gym’s campaign.
Gym has positioned herself as an ideological candidate, one of confrontation and inflexible certitude, at a time when Philadelphia is facing crises that transcend partisanship. At a public forum earlier this year, for instance, Gym proclaimed that, “When I walk into the room, systems of oppression fall and new systems of opportunity come up, and everybody in this room knows it.” This activist zeal is backed by legions of canvassers, described by one local progressive political operative as “a cult-like following.”
Gym’s ideological self-righteousness is overshadowed by her contradictions and questionable positions. In 2019, for example, she voted against a council bill that would have placed restrictions on pharmaceutical sales representatives in a city grappling with an opioid crisis. At the time, however, Gym didn’t disclose that her husband was then a top attorney for a drug distribution company, later scrutinized for its opioid sales. (A now-retired company executive, who contributed to her city council campaign during that period, has been a top donor.) Likewise, though today Gym is a leading opponent of charter schools, in 2005 she co-founded a city charter school. “I’m only questioning the seeming potential contradiction in that you started a charter, but then in many instances in black and brown communities you have been opposed to those charter schools,” former Mayor Michael Nutter asked Gym at a February forum.
Gym’s campaign platform is ambitious in scope but persistently unclear. Proposals include “guaranteed jobs for people under 30 and spending $10 billion to modernize public school buildings,” an Inquirer editorial recently noted. “But . . . her grandiose ideas are long on rhetoric but short on details.” Guaranteed employment is the foundation for Gym’s public-safety plan. But when asked for details about this plan after a speech, she responded: “I assume it’s going to be a significant effort and I think there are significant dollars that are currently available, but we don’t have a commitment or a plan right now.” Though Gym’s campaign notes that “safety is a whole city mission,” the candidate, in 2020, tweeted in support of Minneapolis City Council’s efforts to abolish its police department.
Meantime, in one of America’s heaviest taxed cities, Gym voted against business and wage tax cuts last year. When asked by the Inquirer if Gym would raise taxes as mayor, her spokesperson responded: “To the extent you are asking whether Helen will make sure we can pay for the things we need to actually make this city livable for every child and family, the answer is yes.” And as Philadelphia’s office market continues to struggle—Center City’s office vacancy rate is 19.2 percent—Gym called one top local employer, Comcast, “trash” at a 2020 protest. As Philadelphia Citizen editor Larry Platt asked, “Is Comcast, with its 8,000 city and 17,000 regional jobs, the problem? Or is the problem that we don’t have enough Comcasts?”
Gym’s leading opponents are more conventional Democratic candidates—the kind found before the mid-2010s, when big cities made their leftward turn. Former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart is waging a campaign focused on governance and appealing to voters across the political spectrum. She enjoys the backing of three former mayors, including Nutter and Ed Rendell, who both understand the importance of law enforcement as a basis for Philadelphia’s vitality and economic development.
Another top contender, former city councilmember Cherelle Parker—backed by top local establishment Democrats, outgoing mayor Kenney, and the powerful building trades unions—is running a campaign based on experience and her mission to help Philadelphia’s “middle neighborhoods.” On public safety, Parker has expressed support for stop-and-frisk policing. Meantime, former city councilmember and real-estate mogul Allan Domb, who has invested millions into his race, has focused on Philadelphia’s “lawlessness,” the need to clean vacant lots, and his business and government experience. Jeff Brown, a ShopRite magnate, is running as an outsider candidate—he doesn’t have government experience—who witnessed firsthand the looting of two grocery stores amid the George Floyd protests in 2020. He was endorsed by Philadelphia’s police union last month.
In the run-up to primary day, a horrific crime last week seemingly captured Philadelphia’s political theater of the absurd. Last Monday, a political canvasser fatally shot another canvasser in the city’s East Germantown neighborhood. Both men were canvassing for OnePA, a progressive organization that has endorsed Gym’s mayoral campaign. As the Inquirer reported, just three days before the shooting, OnePA had paid $555 to the slain 46-year-old man to canvass for Gym and a city council candidate. The man, who according to police was the first to pull out a gun, was “prohibited from legally carrying a firearm because of an earlier conviction,” the Inquirer noted.
For now, in a city without ranked-choice voting, tomorrow’s mayoral primary “could be decided by a couple hundred votes,” as Rendell told NBC 10. Moreover, this is the first mayoral race with Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail-in voting, adding a layer of uncertainty to the outcome. Regardless, though, evidence suggests that Philadelphia’s private sector is already looking to leadership elsewhere. Center City languishes compared with University City, home to Penn and Drexel, which increasingly feels like a semi-autonomous state, where glistening towers rise amid a health sciences and tech boom. At the same time, in Main Line suburbs, Ardmore is experiencing dramatic growth, and Radnor Township has become a destination for Philadelphia retailers and restauranteurs to open second locations. But the entire metro region, from King of Prussia to South Jersey, will feel the effects of tomorrow’s mayoral primary. And in the city, all voters, whether in Fitler Square or East Germantown, will face the consequences of their collective choice for mayor.
Photo by Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News Via Getty