PHILADELPHIA – On Sunday morning, Helen Gym was knocking doors in Nicetown, not far from an elementary school she’d fought to keep public. Domonic Carter, 34, stopped to tell her about the needless death he’d seen; about the gun he’d started carrying; about how it felt like the only option for people worried about crime was to “up and leave” Philadelphia for the suburbs.
“I feel like we’re slaves in our own city,” said Carter.
“Philly is a city that leaves its young people behind,” responded Gym, a former city council member who, like much of the field, quit to run for mayor. “I’m here to wrestle our young people back into the fold.” Carter liked her answer.
One day later, a canvasser for a progressive group supporting Gym fatally shot another canvasser over what police suggest may have been an old “beef.”
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It was a tragically on-the-nose development in the latest big city mayor’s race pitting a left-wing favorite against moderates on hard questions about crime and public order. The winner of next week’s Democratic primary is likely to lead a city where gun violence broke records for three straight years, with 516 homicides in 2022 — and where a mayor and a district attorney elected as progressive reformers absorbed the blame.
Criss-crossing the city, the candidates bemoan its “Filthadelphia” nickname and promise to clean up trash. They cite its reputation as the country’s “poorest big city” and debate what it would take to fix. And they promise a clean break with Mayor Jim Kenney, elected twice as a progressive reformer, now seen as exhausted and outmatched by the job.
“The future of our city is at stake,” said Allan Domb, a real estate developer and former city council member who put $5 million of his own money into his campaign. “It’s the most important thing, getting public safety under control.”
There are currently five Democrats running competitively in the race — Domb, Gym, former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart, former city council member Cherelle Parker, and supermarket owner Jeff Brown, who’d worked with the city to open stores in “food deserts.” (City officials must resign from their current jobs to run for another local office.) Polls suggest that the contest is basically a tossup, and with no runoff, a candidate could easily win with less than 30 percent of the vote.
The victor in the primary — now the most expensive in Philadelphia’s history, with almost $31.4 million spent as of Friday — will almost certainly go on to City Hall. No Republican has won Philadelphia’s mayorship since Harry Truman was alive, and the impossibility of doing so this year became clear after District Attorney Larry Krasner’s two victories over Republicans who had the Fraternal Order of Police on their side and a skeptical media attacking the reform D.A. over rising crime.
Krasner won by 50 points in 2017, then by 44 points in 2021. Ex-city council member David Oh, unopposed for the GOP’s mayoral nomination, is seen right now as the sacrificial lamb-in-waiting.
While widespread frustration over crime failed to put much of a dent in Krasner, none of the mayoral contenders have chosen to downplay the issue. Like in Chicago, where progressive-favorite Brandon Johnson staged a come-from-behind victory last month, the debate is about how to tackle persistent gun violence and lawlessness. Should Philadelphia return to more aggressive criminal justice policies some believe worked in the past, or try something new?
“There've got to be some changes, while at the same time moving forward in a way that has justice,” Rhynhart told Semafor. “To me, this is not about moving backwards to old, racist, unconstitutional practices. But the answer isn't just to let everything be chaotic.”
Rhynhart, who’s backed by Kenney’s three immediate predecessors, wasn’t talking about reduced police funding. Nobody was. Most Philadelphia council members (including Domb, Gym, and Parker) voted to redirect some police funding in the summer of 2020, then reversed course to respond to violent crime.
“We need to have a paradigm shift in how we spend that $800 million,” Rhynhart said of the current funding level; before she left the controller’s office, it released a report citing inefficiencies and low case closures at the PPD, laying out what a new mayor might fix.
Parker’s gone further, calling for 300 new police officers and suggesting that they might “stop and frisk” people to fight crime, less than three years after Philadelphia voted to ban the “unconstitutional” tactic in a ballot measure that she supported.
“I’ll hold bad cops accountable,” Parker says in one ad, “but I refuse to let crime and violence take over our city.” Calling herself “a black woman who has had to live life at the intersection of gender and race, she’s piled up endorsements from Black and Democratic leaders, and a vote from Kenney.
“Honestly, I think it’s time for a woman of color,” Kenney told reporters on Monday.
That description would also apply to Gym, whose campaign grew out of the city’s progressive movement. She’s racked up endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is planning a weekend rally for her, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while being targeted with a barrage of attack ads from a super PAC funded by a prominent Republican donor. Gym argues Philadelphia can be saved with an “investment agenda” that would reduce crime through social justice. Asked who the most effective mayor of her lifetime had been, Gym said that Kenney’s first term — not his second — had reversed some of the austerity budgeting she’d battled as an organizer.
“We've won big ideas in this city, like reversing the narrative of school privatization and closures, and putting it back towards school investments,” she told Semafor. “We've taken on destructive housing policies that used to evict tens of thousands of people a year, and created the most successful eviction prevention program in the country, that’s considered a national model by the Biden White House.”
After Johnson’s win in Chicago and Karen Bass’s success in Los Angeles, a victory for Gym would give progressives a hat trick in recent mayor’s races fought over issues around crime or homelessness, and where many pundits assumed that voter anger over public disorder would sink the left. It would also serve as validation for progressive activists who’ve strategically chosen to focus on state and local races after finding themselves stymied on the national level.
“We have the biggest, boldest vision in the city that was the original home of rebels and revolutionaries,” said Gym. “We are here to write a blueprint for not only ourselves, but the nation.”
Room for Disagreement
The progressive Working Families Party has poured resources into Gym’s campaign and the campaign to lead Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County – both on Tuesday. But it might be a mistake to draw too many conclusions in a race this tight, with no runoff, and with political machines and racial dynamics unique to Philadelphia.
“Brandon Johnson’s win in Chicago proved that people power can still beat big money power,” said Joe Dinkin, the WFP’s campaigns director. “Every election has a million factors, but progressives are closing strong.”