In early April, advocates of public education were dismayed to see Rahm Emanuel, backed by a $30 million-plus war chest and free-flowing super PAC funds, beat back insurgent progressive Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in the Chicago mayor’s race. Now, six weeks later, it looks like education activists might have reason to celebrate—albeit in a different mayor’s race, several hundred miles away.
Today Philadelphia voters are heading to the polls to vote in the primaries for mayor and City Council. Since the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, the winners of the party’s primary will likely be the winners of the general election. For weeks, the mayoral race looked like a dead heat between public-schools advocate and former City Councilman Jim Kenney and charter-schools booster and State Senator Anthony Williams. Before that, Williams had been seen as an almost unbeatable front-runner. But a poll released on May 13 changed the calculus: Kenney, who is backed by the teachers’ union, had the support of 42 percent of Democratic voters while Williams, who is backed by a trio of wealthy suburban financiers, was trailing with 15 percent alongside former District Attorney Lynne Abraham.
News of Jim Kenney’s swift climb in the polls was greeted with shock by observers, given Williams’s huge cash advantage and presumed support from black voters. Williams, an African-American, is a longtime West Philadelphia politician and the son of one of the city’s pioneering black political activists. Kenney is a white South Philadelphian who has, during his years on City Council, remade himself from a conservative Democrat into an outspoken and surprisingly vocal progressive, successfully pushing to decriminalize marijuana in the city and to end local police cooperation with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. But he is a relative newcomer to the center stage of the city’s grinding schools debate. As the race began, public-school advocates were desperately seeking a candidate to take on Williams, who seemed headed for a likely victory. Kenney got into the race after others took a pass, including powerful City Council President Darrell Clarke.
Kenney opposes the expansion of charter schools until the state restores assistance to manage the resulting costs, and calls for tougher oversight of the privately managed public schools. Williams, by contrast, is a high-profile supporter not only of charter schools but also of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private-school tuition. Both speak in favor of boosting state funding of city schools, a controversial issue among Republicans in the state legislature, but a basic litmus test for any Philadelphia politician.
Kenney’s late entry did not at first seem to bode well for his chances against Williams. The election is Philadelphia’s first major post–Citizens United showdown, and, as in Chicago, outside money flowed into the city in record amounts, most copiously from the three suburban financiers backing Williams: Joel Greenberg, Jeff Yass, and Arthur Dantchik. The three founders of the Susquehanna International Group (SIG) are committed “school choice” enthusiasts and ideologues—Yass is on the board of the libertarian Cato Institute and Dantchik serves on the board of the libertarian Institute for Justice law firm—and together they donated more than $6.6 million to the pro-Williams American Cities super PAC as of May 8, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Five years earlier, in 2010, they spent more than $5 million on Williams’s quixotic and failed campaign for governor.