Philadelphia is one of the last big cities in America to have never chosen a woman lead it. That could soon change. On Tuesday, the city holds a crowded Democratic primary election for mayor in which three of the top five candidates are women.
Almost all the candidates are championing tough-on-crime policies in the midst of extreme gun violence.
Here’s what to know.
The Democratic primary is the de facto general election: Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia by a margin of seven-to-one. Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney (D) is term-limited, and nearly a dozen Democratic candidates have rushed to try to win the seat. (Republicans have fielded just one candidate, David Oh.)
The next mayor could be one of its most liberal: There are five Democratic candidates viewed as having a real chance to win. They span the range from moderate to liberal, and it is possible that one of the more liberal candidates wins. That would be a significant victory for the left. While Philadelphia is a deeply Democratic city, its leaders have been traditionally establishment Democratic. The top candidates are:
Helen Gym is a former teacher and city councilor and fiery activist whose supporters have dubbed her “Philly’s AOC” after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who endorsed her candidacy. (Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were scheduled to campaign for Gym.) She’s probably the most liberal in the race. Her supporters see Chicago’s mayoral race, where liberal activist Brandon Johnson won last month, as a blueprint for how to turn Philadelphia more to the left.Rebecca Rhynhart is a former city treasurer who has framed herself as a no-nonsense technocrat and has the support of three former mayors.Cherelle Parker is a former state legislator and city councilor who has the support of much of the city’s Black political establishment and has framed herself as particularly tough on crime.Allan Domb is a former city councilor and a Philadelphia landlord who owns hundreds of properties in the city and has been dubbed the “condo king.”Jeff Brown is a wealthy owner of ShopRite grocery stores around Philadelphia, best known for opening grocery stores in food deserts in the city, and the only candidate with no political experience.
Crime is the top issue, by far: Philadelphia has been crippled by gun violence. There have been more than 500 homicides a year in recent years, more than double the amount a decade ago. A recent survey found that two out of three city residents have heard gunshots in their neighborhood over the past year. A canvasser in the mayoral race fatally shot another canvasser recently. “My whole outlook is you could basically say Philadelphia is hell on earth,” 27-year-old Zuleyka Torres said in that survey.
Some of the top candidates are taking a tough-on-crime approach: Philadelphia is one of many liberal cities that have mostly dropped discussions to reallocate money from police departments to community services. (In 2020 after George Floyd’s death, Philadelphia residents took to the streets to protest police brutality, and leaders diverted millions from the police department.)
Now almost all the top candidates want to put more police on the street. “Defund the police is a toxic concept this cycle,” said Philadelphia-based freelance journalist Maura Ewing, who wrote about the race for Bolts Magazine.
Several top candidates, like Parker, say they want to reinstitute the city’s defunct stop-and-frisk policy. That’s a controversial police practice allowing police to stop and search pedestrians that critics say increases racial profiling — and for which the city has been under court monitoring for the past decade, after a judge said police overwhelmingly used the policy on Black and brown people.
That idea was criticized by Rhynhart, who countered that she doesn’t think the city should be “moving backward to ‘law-and-order’ policies that were racist.”
Domb has decried the city’s “culture of lawlessness” and said he would declare a crime emergency on Day One. There’s a big debate about whether to essentially ban teenagers from a downtown mall after school lets out, and where the money would come from to refresh and reopen community centers and libraries.
The Democratic Party in Philadelphia is divided: Previous mayors have lined up in support of Rhynhart, while various unions have spread out among the other candidates. Gym seems to have the clear lane as the progressive candidate.