Pick ’Em: Making Sense of the Free-for-All Primary for Mayor of Philadelphia

Pick ’Em: Making Sense of the Free-for-All Primary for Mayor of Philadelphia

Pick ’Em: Making Sense of the Free-for-All Primary for Mayor of Philadelphia

For a job the current incumbent seems eager to leave, the contest has drawn a remarkably diverse field of candidates—and no obvious front-runner.

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Philadelphia, Pa.—“The City of Brotherly Love” has at various times in its history taken on another, less salutary identity: “The City That Doesn’t Work.” As far as most of its 1.6 million residents are concerned, this is one of those times. Infrastructure (such as it is) is a mess. The city is a welter of dubious projects—including cookie-cutter apartment complexes in my West Philadelphia neighborhood that I somehow doubt will help meet the city’s urgent need for affordable housing. The streets are obstacle courses of potholes, orange traffic cones, and errant piles of uncollected trash. Even the sidewalks, never pristine, betray Philadelphia’s longtime reputation as a ”walkable” city.

But crime, especially gun violence—as in most other American cities—looms over just about every other social ill in Philadelphia. Ten years ago, there were 247 murders by firearm in Philadelphia. In the last two years, that number has more than doubled, with more than 500 gun deaths in 2021 and 2022. (For the record, in 2023 thus far, there have been 100 gun-related homicides, an 11 percent drop from a year ago.) Last July 4, an outdoor concert and fireworks display attended by hundreds of men. women, and children was punctuated by an outburst of gunfire that wounded two police officers. This in turn prompted an exasperated outburst from the city’s incumbent mayor, James Kenney—term-limited from running in this year’s election—who confessed before reporters and TV cameras that at such moments he hated his job: “I’m waiting for bad stuff to happen all the time…. I’ll be happy when I’m not here, when I’m not mayor and I can enjoy some stuff.”

However vulnerable and unusually honest this cri de cœur was, Philadelphians generally agreed that it wasn’t what they wanted to hear from their mayor. But if Kenney didn’t want the job anymore, who did? The field of candidates for the May 16 Democratic mayoral primary went as high as 11—not counting Republican David Oh, the first Asian American elected to the city council, running unopposed in the GOP primary and thus that party’s presumptive nominee for the fall campaign. But given that more than 80 percent of Philadelphians voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election, with just 17 percent voting Republican, the May 16 primary is tantamount to mayoral victory, with the fall election being a relative formality.

With less than a month to go, the Democratic field has been winnowed to six—half of them women seeking to be the first ever elected Philadelphia mayor. The sheer weight and diversity of the competition—along with the dire challenges facing the city—have conspired to make what many here believe will be the most important Philadelphia mayoral race in a generation.

So who’s favored to win this most important race? Hard to tell. Because there’s been no independent polling carried out this season, no clear favorite has emerged from among the remaining Democratic contenders: grocery store magnate Jeff Brown, Pennsylvania State Representative Amen Brown (no relation), former city council members Allen Domb, Helen Gym, and Cherelle Parker, and former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart. Even the private polls that have circulated throughout the campaign show no candidate with more than 20 percent of the vote—and many voters still undecided. What makes the race even harder to handicap is that no one seems to enjoy a decisive edge in endorsements, especially among the city’s unions—usually a major factor in this traditionally labor-intensive city.

Among those left standing, Jeff Brown, founder and former chairman, president and CEO of Brown Super Stores (ShopRite, Fresh Grocers), has most of the major unions in his corner, notably the American Federation of Federal, State and Municipal Workers, District Council 33; the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union and United Food and Service Workers 108; Teamsters Joint Council 53—and the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5. But that last one is a problematic “get” for someone with his unabashedly liberal credentials.

On the surface, Brown seemed like just another entrepreneur and political novice who believed his success in business made him more qualified to govern than those already in government. But Brown—who at various times has been anointed the front-runner in this race—complicates that familiar paradigm with his top-down efforts to bring quality supermarkets to “food deserts,” working-class neighborhoods predominantly populated by Black and brown residents. He’s also helped find jobs for those formerly incarcerated and won national acclaim for his nonprofit that supports and trains them.

Still, being a political outsider from the corporate world somehow doesn’t carry the allure it might have had before Donald Trump became president—especially among Brown’s liberal constituency. Brown’s bigger problem along the home stretch is with the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, which in mid-April accused him of illegally coordinating with a super PAC to raise millions for his campaign. Among the group’s anonymous donors, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, was a “professional sports team” that gave $250,000 to help raise Brown’s profile. The team wasn’t named in the April 11 front-page story, but popular suspicion has focused on the 76ers, who are controversially trying to build a new arena in the part of Center City now dominated by its Chinatown section. At a candidates’ TV debate the night after the front-page story appeared, Brown claimed that an April 24 court hearing on the ethics board’s charges would vindicate him. On that date, Common Pleas Court judge Joshua Roberts approved an agreement between the ethics board and the PAC (For a Better Philadelphia) that would freeze any further spending through the primary vote.

You might have thought that if the FOP were going to support anyone in this field, it would have the other “Brown”: Amen Brown, a tough-on-crime moderate who is the only African American man remaining in the race and, according to Philadelphia magazine, “the closest thing Philly has to an Eric Adams.” But at this point, Amen Brown isn’t considered a serious possibility in the primary, having ruffled party feathers as one of two Democrats on a House Select Committee investigating progressive DA Larry Krasner on trumped-up charges of negligence. There have also been issues over his financial disclosures, leading to legal challenges of his ballot status.

Allan Domb has also been leading with his success in business as a guarantee that he’ll get things done as mayor “from Day One.” Unlike Jeff Brown, Domb has held political office, having been a two-term at-large city councilman. His is the perspective of the aggrieved, regular “Philly guy,” with TV ads showing him driving over pothole after pothole to demonstrate that even if he is known as the city’s “Condo King”—whose properties have an estimated market value at $400 million (Domb doesn’t need PAC money to pay for such advertising)—he still knows how life at gritty ground-level feels for all Philadelphians. Domb tempers his tough-on-crime rhetoric—including a promise to put more police on the streets—with more compassionate rancor toward addiction, poverty, and crime in at-risk neighborhoods such as Kensington. He’s aiming to reshape his persona from rich landlord to tough but tender cop. Is this remake likely to succeed? Not with supporters of other candidates, notably Helen Gym.

If you’re young and/or progressive, Gym—pronounced with a hard “g”—is your candidate. A Korean-American who if elected would be the city’s first Asian American mayor, the 55-year-old former school teacher, community organizer, and activist has the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, District Council 47 of AFSCME (government workers and workers in nonprofits and cultural institutions), and UNITE HERE (hospitality workers) in her corner, along with the Working Families Party. She’s mounted an aggressive, left-leaning campaign. Her own approach to crime stands out among the other candidates in the way she downplays policing in favor of treatment (mental-health professionals responding to 911 calls), a promise to declare a state of emergency over gun violence on “Day One” (there’s a lot of “Day One” talk from the candidates this season, reflecting a common sense of urgency), and an overall sense that solving the problems of guns, crime, education, drugs, and quality of life should all be linked together, rather than treated as separate items on an agenda. Some political experts think the relentlessness of Gym’s stretch-run ad campaign along with the fervor of her dedicated supporters will be enough to propel her to the top—though the other two women remaining in the race may still have something to say about that.

Rebecca Ryhnhart, for instance, who melds a technocrat’s affinity with how government and finance work with her own progressive fervor. The highlight of her term as controller was a devastating analysis released last fall of the police department’s operations, including slow response time in communities of color, budgetary waste, outdated methods and technology, and misuse of personnel. Improve the way money is spent, she says in essence, and you improve the overall quality of life and maximize public safety. This goes over well among good-government types—and it’s telling, perhaps, that Rynhart’s most notable public support has come from two former mayors, John F. Street and Michael A. Nutter, who have both appeared together in her TV ads, even though they were not exactly on the best of terms while each was in office. Jaded pundits tend to dismiss her candidacy with the caveat that all former controllers believe they can run the city better just by knowing the budget better. Knowing how local politics works, this thinking goes, is just as important, if not more so.

Which brings us to Cherelle Parker, considered the ultimate Democratic insider among the candidates, having served a decade in the state House of Representatives and four years on the city council. She also has a more forceful physical presence than the others. (“Black Girl Magic,” as another Democratic insider drolly observed, not without admiration.) She’s more of a moderate than either Gym or Rynehart and, like Domb, believes more policing is the solution to rising crime. She’s made herself something of an ”anti-Gym” by opposing safe-injection sites as a means of battling addiction and has said she’s “open” to reinstating stop-and-frisk procedures to battle gun violence.

Parker’s affiliation with the powerful outgoing city council president, Darrell Clarke, is considered both an asset—by those who are assured by the political status quo—and a liability among those who believe the status quo is what’s wrong with the way the city operates. Parker, however, believes that the only thing holding Philadelphia back “is the need for bold leadership that understands the importance of coalition-building and consensus-building.” Her supporters have said her old-guard credibility gives her an edge in being able to deliver services and support wherever it’s needed. And you can add to her advantages her support from the powerful Building and Construction Trades Council—the first time the union has supported a woman candidate.

The more you know about all these candidates, the less certain you are about which one is more likely to make history by getting elected. Yet making history is the only assurance common to most of them. Less than a month to go—and counting—before we all know.

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