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The Stakes of the Election: That’s Madam Mayor, Thank You

A former mayoral candidate-turned-award-winning documentarian amends his take on this year’s race for the city’s top post.

The Stakes of the Election: That’s Madam Mayor, Thank You

A former mayoral candidate-turned-award-winning documentarian amends his take on this year’s race for the city’s top post.

Political prognostication requires eating crow, humble pie or whatever else that should make you choke. Last week, using a snapshot, I saw the Philadelphia mayoral race as heading Helen Gym’s way.

A week later, I’m slightly amending that take. That’s how quickly these things can change. And there is still a month before it’s over.

The past week has been a corner-turner for this intense mayoral campaign.

It doesn’t take any brilliance (and certainly I’ve demonstrated none) to see that in 2024 we’ll probably address our next City leader as Madam Mayor.

Here’s why:

Jeff Brown.

A year ago, a good friend and civic activist told me that the grocer/philanthropist “didn’t know how to talk to Black people like me,” a notion that really seemed off to me. However, this observation was turned prescient.

“Lynching” public officials and throwing Chester, currently in bankruptcy, onto a trash heap were among multiple self-inflicted wounds Brown has sustained. The Brown finance strategy involving a Super PAC and a not-for-profit 501c4 looked brilliant on paper. Its ethical underpinnings seemed challenged. As always, the devil’s in the details.

Brown’s PAC paid the same folks in 2022 as were paid by the campaign once he announced for Mayor. The April 24 court hearing over the charge of “coordination” by the Board of Ethics promises to keep one of his Achilles heels in the news and will challenge his campaign’s attorneys to defend this arrangement.

While the FOP and Guardian Civic League endorsed Brown after these disclosures, the support of the police unions doesn’t feel like it will be well received by Brown’s mostly African American voters. Yet his loyal grocery store employees and customers remain a nice base. Enough to labor on. Not enough to win.

Allan Domb.

Former City Councilmember Domb has shown tremendous growth in his grasp of the issues and his articulation of solutions. He is cautious and centrist, sensible and empathetic. He would be a good mayor. His TV ads have been excellent and prolific. Though criticized for the personal wealth that has enabled “self funding,” and in a race funded by super PACs and dark money, Domb is unbought.

But did he ever have a means of building beyond the business, “run government right” growth-oriented crowd that favors his candidacy and would be thrilled if he won? Count me dubious. Being one of the city’s largest real estate investors and operators in an urban Democratic primary represents some significant baggage to haul.

A more accessible, emphatic and passionate Allan Domb might have broken through that ceiling given the level of spend. It is hard to see how from here, Domb gets there.

The road to Madam Mayor.

The three candidates now best positioned to win each have a treacherous yet credible path to victory.

Rebecca Rhynhart.

Former City Controller Rhynhart presents as the candidate with the knowledge and the practical approaches to make the city work. Her government experience both as an appointed and elected finance and administrative officer are important qualifications.

Yet her performance at forums and debates rarely reinforces either a discernible leadership style or the passion to go beyond the technical. Rhynhart’s political and editorial endorsements make her the choice of traditional liberal Democrats in wards where turnout will be robust. In those wards (the 1st, 5th, 8th, 9th, 27th and others), she has cut into what should have been fertile territory for Helen Gym.

The endorsements of two former African American mayors and the ads they have appeared in have helped make her a leading candidate. She may even be the leading candidate. No one has yet put a glove on her in this campaign. She has become a threat to the Gym campaign, so being left untouched is unlikely to continue.

What that line of criticism might be, from whom and how she handles it, plus how much of the same liberal good government voting base stays with Domb, will determine whether Rhynhart’s path to victory remains open.

Cherelle Parker.

Although it took a while and was accompanied by some reluctance, the African American political community has lined up with Parker. A thorny impediment — former City Councilmember Derek Green — is now off the stage.

Former City Councilmember Parker has come on strong. She is on TV, and while her buys and those of the Super PAC that supports her can’t compete with Domb’s, they are targeted to the voter demographics she needs. More Black voters are now aware of the presence of a Black woman running.

It is well known that one of the most common influences in voting is “for people like me.” Parker won’t get all the Black voters, of even necessarily a majority. But her path to victory is taking a strong plurality of those voters in a race in which Brown and Gym will also compete.

Her performance at the Fox 29 debate might have been her best moment. She’s not always clear in conveying her thoughts but her willingness to emphasize “enforcement” as an asset in the anti-violence toolbox will provide good messaging opportunities in a race where gun violence and safety dominate.

And if Parker’s labor coalition provides effective turnout infrastructure, Parker’s prospects are very good. But this is the great nemesis Democrats face here and in cities across the country. Black turnout has atrophied. Political machines have faded and African American voters, once the most loyal Democrats, have concluded that they have no stakes in the outcome. Is there still a Northwest Coalition capable of racking up big numbers?

If Jeff Brown’s faithful stay with him, Parker’s path will be more complex even with a strong Black turnout. Parker needs only to grow within that same pool of voters. Ryan Boyer and the Building Trades have pulled her into the top tier making Parker’s path to victory decisively clearer.

Helen Gym.

Last week my view was that former City Councilmember Gym had the shortest path to victory. Through her advocacy and political career, Gym has positioned herself as the person who wanted transformational change, and now. She launched her TV ad as the one with the best plan to stop gun violence. She is looking into the camera and speaking directly to voters. She has tacked to a more moderate brand than her record suggests she has earned. She can do so because her base is solid. As widely recognized, the rising quadrant of the Philly Democrats are progressives.

But describing a voter as “progressive,” like other identifiable labels, requires taking wide liberties. Some progressives believe the same things that Gym has represented and would definitely vote for her for City Council or Congress, while others are being picked off by Rhynhart, who, for them, feels more attuned to the executive role. Plus, Gym’s efforts to make some of the establishment “comfortable” with the idea of her mayoralty has not yet borne much fruit and is unlikely to.

Still, there might be an undercount of progressives by pollsters. This would be reminiscent of the way polling used to miss folks who were going to vote for Frank Rizzo back in the day but didn’t want anyone to know. Rizzo always outperformed polls. Will Gym?

Independent polling.

There has been some noise, including in the Citizen, urging “independent polling,” the kind the Inquirer used to do in every election, and that The Citizen is partnering with Committee of Seventy and other partners to conduct. Would such polling change the outcome because people like to vote for the winner, or would it simply lead to a polling war incentivizing candidates to share their own polling results as a counterpoint? I’m not a fan of this urge for polling.

Good polling is very expensive and captures the mood over the three to four days the poll is in the field. Think about how drastically different the race looks and feels today than it did last week. What will next week bring? Those arguing for independent polling believe it will lead either to a consolidation within the field or move public opinion. As for consolidation, these candidates have been at this for months. Dropping out with 25 days to go seems fantastical. The case for moving voters who like voting for winners seems equally unlikely due to the continued bunching effect that has characterized most polls for weeks.


The problem with polling in this election revolves around the sample selection. How will a pollster “predict” the racial mix of the voters who mail in their ballots or show up to cast their vote in person? The registration rolls indicate Black voters represent 52 percent of voters, while Whites are closer to 40 percent. If you assume that is how the actual turnout occurs, Parker has a clear advantage. But if that ratio is inverted, Rhynhart’s prospects improve. The same sample issues arise in allocating ideological labels. How many moderates, liberals and progressives should be included to capture the makeup of the electorate? If progressives turnout in greater numbers than the sampling, Gym’s chances grow.

And so …

Here I go again with a bold prediction.

The next mayor will make history as the first woman to serve in this office.

Which one is up to us.

Sam Katz is a documentary filmmaker whose work has focused on the history of Philadelphia.  He spent his business career in municipal and project finance and venture capital.  He served as Chair of the PICA Board.  Sam was a mayoral candidate in 1991, 1999 and 2003.  His latest film, Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit, was the 2021 Winner of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film.


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