The great risk of Cherelle Parker’s mayoralty is that it defaults to being Jim Kenney’s third term. After all, like Kenney, Parker has never actually run anything, other than a small legislative staff. Behind the scenes, the power and donor class — while celebrating Parker’s tough-on-crime and economic growth policies — worries that she won’t be up to hiring a truly best and brightest City Hall. Kenney, after all, eschewed Mario Cuomo’s long-ago advice — “you campaign in poetry, but govern in prose” — and gave many of the top spots in his administration to his campaign staff.
But Parker’s election night performance should end any comparisons to her predecessor. Did you watch her speech? How refreshing was it to hear from a city leader with a wide, expressive smile and such bouncing energy?
Cities tend to take on the personalities of their mayors, which accounts for the funk we’ve all been in these last few years. Think of it: Under Mayor Rendell, a can-do bro culture remade the Philly psyche; under Mayor Nutter, reformist policy nerds were suddenly sexy. Forget policy: Parker’s upbeat spirit may be the most important change on our horizon.
It was a remarkable election night speech, seemingly extemporaneous and clearly from the heart. “My life should be a textbook case study on how you turn pain into power,” Parker said of her past on public assistance and the challenges of being a single mother. “Have you seen the math today?” she decried with her son, Langston, by her side, asking, “What about the parents who can’t afford to hire a tutor or get homework help?” She even brought her ex-husband on stage and testified to their co-parenting of Langston — their “prince.”
At a time when society’s values are fraying, Parker struck at universal themes. She spoke of putting “people on the path to self-sufficiency” and announced that gone are the days when you can “go into a store and steal $499 worth of merchandise and just think that it’s okay.” Her emotional intelligence shined through, as when she connected her tough-on-crime policies to the messages she heard on the campaign trail: “When you hear about people altering their lives and moving where their favorite chair is in their living room because they’re afraid: That tells us we have a challenge.”
Not just what, but how she said it
As critical as what she was saying was how she said it. Say goodbye to Kenney’s glum monotone and get ready for church. With lines aimed at her detractors like “Don’t throw shade on my Philly shine,” Parker, while voicing resentment of her critics, was also signifying that what we really need is a coach in City Hall, someone who hectors us to our best selves.
It was telling that Mayor Kenney was on the periphery of her victory night stage, and then ducked out early. Granted, the contrast is the lowest of bars: We now have someone who actually wants the job of leading us.
Which is not to say there weren’t red flags during Tuesday night’s good vibes. Behind Parker stood a scrum of local pols: Council President Darrell Clarke, State Senator Vincent Hughes, and the likely next Council president, Kenyatta Johnson, among them. “If you did a forensic investigation of the crime scene, their fingerprints would be all over it,” one mover and shaker observed, blaming some of those very names for Philly’s decades-long stagnation. At the very least, we’re not in for an era of political reform under a Mayor Parker.
“A Democratic primary is a family squabble. So she’s bringing in the people who didn’t support her, because she realizes this is a big-ass city and you need their help. But she won’t forget those that said they’d support her and then didn’t. They’re out.” — Bob Brady
But what might be on our horizon is a resurgence of the lost art of political skill. Parker is, by nature, a bridge builder. On stage, she called Johnson to stand by her side. He shuffled to the front of the gaggle, seemingly hesitant. After all, much has been made of the fact that Johnson did not endorse Parker in the primary and Parker has not endorsed him in his quest to become Council president. But there she was, embracing him, showing him respect, heaping praise on him, pledging to work with him. That requires a certain amount of humility — a page taken from the playbook of Ed Rendell, who famously observed in Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for The City that most of one’s time as mayor is spent kissing ass.
As the overture to Johnson illustrates, Parker is capable of political instinct, as shown during the campaign, when she appeared at the annual dinner of party boss Bob Brady’s City Committee. She was the only candidate to show (What were the others thinking?) — a sign of respect that led Brady to offer her a de facto endorsement by inviting her to give a stump speech before his thousands of foot soldiers.
I’ve spoken to some high profile supporters of her opponents who have yet to hear from Parker, but Brady says she’s in the process of reaching out. “She’s a genuine political person who is not afraid to let people know that’s what she is,” he said when I caught up with him this week. “A Democratic primary is a family squabble. So she’s bringing in the people who didn’t support her, because she realizes this is a big-ass city and you need their help. But she won’t forget those that said they’d support her and then didn’t. They’re out. That’s what a good politician does, and she was brought up by politicians like Marian Tasco. How about her bringing her ex-husband up on stage and saying all those nice things about how they co-parent together? If someone can work with their ex, they can work with anybody.”
Every Wednesday, Brady hosts “Pizza with the Chairman” at City Committee, and pols stop by to kiss the ring. A month ago, there was Parker, chewing the fat with 60-some odd party apparatchiks. Last Wednesday, progressives like Rep. Liz Fiedler and State Senator Nikil Saval stopped by. “Shocking, huh?” Brady said, with a laugh. “This is what politics is. We find common ground and make deals.”
It’s true that, in Parker, we’re getting an old-school pol. Those of us who yearn for systemic political change will not get reform. Councilmanic prerogative, and all its attendant transactionalism, is here to stay, y’all. But, at a time when public officials, so tethered to their ideological corners, seldom exhibit the skillset for practical dealmaking, Parker at least represents some hope for a new kind of political throwback: The return of compromise and, as Brady trumpets, the art of the deal.
The winner who wasn’t on the ballot
Speaking of political skill, arguably Tuesday night’s biggest winner was an elected official who wasn’t even on the ballot: Governor Josh Shapiro. Contrast his night to Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, who, before Tuesday, was eyeing a presidential bid. That dream crashed and burned when voters roundly rejected his 15-week abortion ban, with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. Virginia Democrats not only maintained control of their State Senate: They also regained the House majority.
Youngkin — also not on the ballot himself — had been seen in Republican circles as a last, best hope for making inroads into recent Democratic gains in the suburbs. For two years, he had skillfully weaved a fine line as an old-fashioned C-suite Republican who is, at best, Trump-adjacent. Among his impressive donor list? None other than Pennsylvania’s own Jeff Yass. Alas, on Tuesday, voters said no to Youngkin’s attempt to find some palatable ground on abortion that appeased both MAGA world and suburban moderates.
Shapiro, in contrast, flexed his muscles throughout his state, with equal aplomb among moderates and progressives. In Allegheny County, progressive Sara Innamorato became County Executive, squeaking by thanks to a barrage of TV ads featuring the governor in the waning days of the campaign. Many believe he saved her campaign.
Here, Shapiro endorsed progressive Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who had endorsed him early in his gubernatorial campaign, and she coasted to historic victory along with fellow Working Families Party candidate Nicolas O’Rourke. He stumped for Democrat Dan McCaffery for State Supreme Court and Commissioner candidates Bob Harvie and Diane Marseglia in suburban bellwether Bucks County — all victorious.
On Wednesday morning, Shapiro sent out an email to supporters, noting that, “It’s clear: voters rejected extremism and defended real freedom across the Commonwealth last night.”
A recent poll finds Shapiro’s job approval at 61 percent, with nearly that many supporting his (for now) abandoned attempt to pass a schools voucher bill. He may not have been the nation’s winningest governor on Tuesday — that would be Kentucky’s Democratic governor Andy Beshear, who was reelected despite Mitch McConnell’s opposition — but, for someone not on the ballot, he did exceedingly well, and bolstered his power in the state. If you’re a PA Democrat in a competitive district, you’re gonna need Shapiro.
Speaking of the impressively emotive Beshear, he emerged Tuesday as a potential 2028 presidential candidate from a deeply red state. His re-elect leaned in on abortion and trans rights. Shapiro has also ridden a pro-choice agenda, but he’s taken that a step further and weaved it into a philosophical argument for change that Democrats ought to take note of.
Shapiro has been making this case since he trotted out its central thesis in May of last year at the Erie County Democrats dinner. He’d become fed up with Doug Mastriano’s “Walk as Free People” rhetoric, phraseology used to justify a slate of Christian Nationalism policies that actually threaten freedom, as New Yorker reporter Eliza Griswold made so clear during last year’s gubernatorial election. “Let’s try it out,” Shapiro had told his staff that night in Erie, and so began his redefinition of the notion of freedom, a concept owned and traded upon by Republicans for ages. Ever since he unveiled it on the campaign trail, Shapiro has developed a pro-freedom rationale for progressivism.
To wit: On Wednesday morning, Shapiro sent out an email to supporters, noting that, “It’s clear: voters rejected extremism and defended real freedom across the Commonwealth last night.” This is the heart of Shapiroism: He’s reclaiming freedom from Republicans in a way that appeals to what former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan calls the “exhausted majority.” Sick of lawlessness playing out on our city streets? How about owning the freedom not to get shot. Tired of zealots banning books? How about the freedom to read what you want. Had enough of academic speech codes? How about the freedom to say what you think. Fed up with legislative bodies full of men dictating women’s health care? How about the freedom to own your own medical choices. And now, given that Ohio of all places — which Trump won by 8 points in 2020 — has passed recreational marijuana, you can add the freedom to get your buzz on to that list.
Somewhere in Shapiro’s “real freedom” rhetoric is a prescription for a remade Democratic Party. After all, the party of what Harry Truman called “the common man” has become the party of hypocritical coastal elites who dine at The French Laundry while enacting Covid lockdowns. (Looking at you, Gavin Newsom.)
Like Beshear, Shapiro leads with his faith — another differentiating factor from typical Dems. And, like Parker, he eschews the teleprompter, matching her in authenticity. Yes, in addition to the I-95 miracle, he still needs a big, transformational win — maybe it will be vouchers, which are supported by 70 percent of African American voters in multiple polls, though that would require Black Democrats in the House confronting a third rail and taking a courageous vote that defies the teachers union. If this were 15 years ago, I’d say that there’s a deal there waiting to be made: Vouchers in exchange for a graduated $15 minimum wage. Today? Not so sure those kind of grand bargains are in the offing anymore.
Either way, Tuesday’s results, combined with his popularity, show that Shapiro is like those 20th century record company A&R guys: He’s got a sixth sense for what makes a pop hit. Can he persuade Democrats to retire talk of intersectionality and other jargon-laden Ivy League buzzwords, and instead get back into the customer service business by honing in on what unites a Black family in North Philly with a White family in Luzerne County? After all, Shapiro won Luzerne last year by 1.4 percent after Trump carried it in 2020 by 14 percent. Surely there’s a message in there for 2024 and beyond. Are you listening, Democrats?
MORE ON POLITICS FROM THE CITIZENPhiladelphia Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker at her victory party, hugs mentor Marian Tasco.