Philadelphia, Pa.—For all its historic import, Tuesday’s nomination of Cherelle Parker as the Democratic nominee to be this city’s 100th mayor was a validation of the political status quo. While it seems a virtual certainty—given the overwhelmingly Democratic character of the electorate here—that Parker will be elected this November as the first woman and fourth African American to hold this office, it’s just as certain that there won’t be much else that’ll be different.
When this whole winnowing process of nominating a new mayor began more than a year ago, the one thing that almost everybody seemed to agree on was that whatever passed for business-as-usual in Philadelphia government couldn’t deal with such ongoing tribulations as drugs, lack of affordable housing, declining schools, and, above all, gun violence—the latter being so omnipresent in the life of the city that with almost a week to go in the primary campaign, two canvassers for the same progressive coalition pulled guns on each other and one of them was fatally shot in the exchange. That politics had little, if anything, to do with the dispute only buttressed the city’s resignation and helplessness. The incumbent, outgoing Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney famously threw up his hands over this cul de sac of random violence after gunfire disrupted an outdoor concert last July 4, wounding two police officers. “I’ll be happy when I’m not here, when I’m not mayor,” he blurted at a televised press conference, winning him points for candor, if not for how to read the room.
Cherelle Parker was among the first of what was to become a cavalcade of mayoral aspirants scolding Kenney for his outburst. It’s a lot easier to campaign against somebody who’s neither allowed (by city charter) nor inclined to seek a third term, and roughly 11 candidates stepped forward to say that if Kenney didn’t want the job, they’d be happy to relieve him in January 2024.
Of all those candidates, however, Parker was the one whose background most resembled the man she wanted to replace—who, like her, was a political insider’s political insider. A former schoolteacher whose résumé includes a decade in Harrisburg as a state legislator and four years on the city council—where she rose to majority leader status—the 50-year-old Parker carried an old-guard credibility among such supporters as the all-powerful Building and Trades Council, outgoing city council president and ultimate backchannel operator Darrell Clarke, and even Kenney, who earlier this month announced his “non-endorsement vote” for Parker.
Parker’s canny familiarity with the city’s patchwork of neighborhoods, particularly in predominantly Black North and West Philadelphia, came in handy in getting out the vote on May 16. It remains an inscrutable mystery how what one party regular characterizes as Parker’s “Black Girl Magic” will translate to governing the city, especially since she’s given few solid clues as to what she’ll do about those aforementioned local ills, beyond a tough-on-crime stance where she implies she might “reexamine” stop-and-frisk policing, and an inclination toward what one of her aides, replying to a citizen’s text about the housing crisis, characterized as “moderate-income housing.”
It’s not as though the 2023 campaign left voters lacking for alternatives to Parker’s centrist-insider positions. Indeed, supermarket magnate Jeff Brown, positioning himself as the ultimate outsider among the candidates by virtue of his having never held political office, was initially viewed as something of a front-runner with his own array of influential supporters and his top-down programs for helping convicted felons find employment. But his campaign never recovered from a dust-up with the city’s ethics board over super PAC disclosures, and Brown finished a distant fifth in the primary, with a mere 9 percent of the total vote. Billionaire “condo king” Allan Domb finished just ahead of Brown with 11.7 percent—behind both former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart, in second place with 22.6 percent, and former city council member Helen Gym, just behind Rhynhart, with 21.3 percent. One way or another, it would seem, Philadelphia was going to get a woman mayor out of this election. (Parker’s winning total, by the way, was described as a “whopping” 33 percent.)
Of those other candidates, Gym was the most unrelentingly progressive and, arguably, the most aggressive—especially in the primary’s final weeks. Her presence on social media was such that her commercials on platforms like Facebook and Instagram were likely the first things you saw when you logged on in the morning and the last you saw before logging off. She leaned hard into her positions on crime prevention (downplaying policing over symptomatic approaches) and addressing public education and housing more directly than her competitors. Her stature among national progressives was enhanced by a May 14 rally where she was joined by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and US Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Yet the lead-up to that event also dramatized Gym’s occasional stumbles in the race. The rally’s venue—the Franklin Music Hall—isn’t unionized, drawing rancor from city trade unions, especially those supporting other candidates. (The rally was held anyway, after unions agreed not to stage protests at the music hall.)
Rhynhart, meanwhile, was viewed by her supporters as a pragmatic alternative to Gym. As recently as a week ago, she held a tissue-thin lead among the leading five candidates despite being under siege by PAC attack ads playing up her Wall Street background. (She tied Parker in mail-in ballots at 27 percent.) Still, Rhynhart kept her emphasis on her technocratic creds, pledging greater scrutiny and tough-minded fairness in evaluating policing and other municipal operations.
Against even the broadest of her competitors’ policy statements and proposals, Parker seemed instead to offer… herself as the best alternative. Her commanding speaking style and sheer physical presence were her most steadfastly promoted assets as a candidate. Some noted Parker’s resemblance in tone and manner to Barbara Howard, the churchgoing, no-nonsense kindergarten teacher on the beloved Philadelphia-based sitcom Abbott Elementary, portrayed by Emmy-winning actress Sheryl Lee Ralph—who, by the way, is married to Pennsylvania state Senator Vincent Hughes, whose seventh district takes up parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. It’s possible to imagine some of Parker’s supporters believing her capable of staring down armed-and-unruly teenagers and commanding them to surrender their weapons and behave. It’s also plausible to ask, in this scenario, whether she’d be capable of offering these kids something else to do with their time that’s more productive—and safer—than retributive gunplay.
Such considerations will likely have to wait until at least the fall election, when she’ll face Republican candidate David Oh, who was unopposed in his primary campaign. At the moment—and likely the next several million moments to follow—no one believes Oh will be any more successful achieving victory as mayor than any GOP nominee since 1952. Still, even with a seven-to-one advantage in registration, Democrats say they aren’t being complacent. So far, anyway.