Let’s see: A checked-out, depressed mayor. A spiraling murder rate. Worst in the nation poverty. Open-air drug markets that erode a city’s soul. Anemic job growth. If ever there were a series of metrics that seemed to point to a prototypical “change election,” Philly in 2023 would seem to have qualified.
Yet, do this week’s primary results feel like just such a reset? I’ve often drawn a distinction between our progressives and reformers, and the truth is that neither came out of Tuesday with any real wind at their respective backs. Instead, the Philadelphia political establishment seems to have flexed muscles some thought to be atrophying and re-established its insider bona fides while averting an existential threat in the form of a progressive wave.
On the eve of the primary, New York magazine, anticipating a Helen Gym mayoral win in the wake of a closing rally featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, headlined a story: The Progressive Takeover of Big Cities is Nearly Complete, arguing that a Gym victory, combined with Brandon Johnson’s recent win in Chicago and Michelle Wu’s recent ascension in Boston would put pro-smart policing and pro-business New York Mayor Eric Adams “on notice.”
“The establishment won, in the sense that most of the people the political class supported got elected,” says Neil Oxman.
We know now it didn’t come to pass. And it wasn’t just that Gym lost — coming in third, with 22 percent of the vote. A slate of much-hyped Council progressives also failed to make the grade. But policy-minded reformers — the Pragmatic or Outcomes Progressives — like Rebecca Rhynhart and Council candidate Eryn Santamoor, also came up short.
“Obviously, the establishment won, in the sense that most of the people the political class supported got elected,” legendary political consultant Neil Oxman says. “Cherelle [Parker] was on more ballots than anybody else. Same with City Committee-endorsed Council candidates Rue Landau and Jimmy Harrity.”
Turns out, where I and others had been anticipating a change election, Oxman says what we had was a base mayoral election. “No one really performed outside of their base,” Oxman says. “Cherelle got in excess of 60 percent of Black votes. Jeff Brown got the second highest number of Black votes. Rhynhart did well in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, among what I call the old liberal ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) crowd. Gym did well in Lower Kensington among younger, more progressive voters. [Allan] Domb did well in the Northeast. This was a base election like we’ve never seen.”
Part of that might have had something to do with our embarrassingly paltry turnout. On Tuesday, less than 27 percent of eligible voters showed up to the polls, barely more than 2019, when there wasn’t an open mayor’s seat and the city wasn’t facing an existential crisis. In a low turnout election, the candidate that can energize his or her base can see a path to victory. When there’s an inspirational figure (Obama, Rendell) or a villain (Trump, Frank Rizzo) on the ballot, turnout tends to rise. That’s when candidates can expand their respective bases.
So perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Machine has reasserted itself, and the candidate most closely aligned with Jim Kenney won the mayoral primary. So let’s run through a list of winners and losers.
The roar of the dinosaur
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard progressives and journalists alike write off Bob Brady as a mere relic of Philly’s machine-driven past. Yet, time and again, the quintessential backroom pol rises to exert uncanny influence.
The Brady playbook is a careful mix of rewarding loyalty and punishing those who cross him — without them even knowing it. It’s vastly insular and mostly devoid of policy perspective; if Brady has an ideology, it’s to look out for his own. His ways may not serve the widespread participation many of us feel democracy demands, but you underestimate the dude’s political chops at your peril.
In this election, as usual, Brady essentially owned the judiciary — certainly, at the very least, 8 out of 10 judges; all the row offices; and he signed off on a new City Council that is likely to be more practical, and less ideological, than the last. Brady especially pulled out all the stops for party apparatchik incumbent Jimmy Harrity and at-large candidates Nina Ahmad and Rue Landau.
“The 3,400 Democratic Committee members have always been and will continue to be the strongest political field operation in this city,” says Bob Brady.
Not to mention Brady’s de facto endorsement of eventual mayoral winner Cherelle Parker when she was the only mayoral candidate to show up for his City Committee annual spring dinner. (What were the others thinking?) “One person showed up. And you know what that is? That’s about respect,” Brady announced before asking Parker to deliver her stump speech. “She came here to respect us, to take time out of her busy schedule to come to this cocktail party. We need to show the respect back to her.”
Think Brady’s 3,400 committee people didn’t show up for her on Election Day after she showed up for them?
No wonder Brady crowed a bit in a statement the day after Election Day. “First, the Philadelphia Democratic Party takes a back seat to no candidate or organization as the defender of working families and supporter of progressive leaders,” he said. “Tuesday night we helped deliver the first African American woman into the mayor’s office, and the first Southeast Asian and the first LGBT members of City Council.”
“The 3,400 Democratic Committee Members have always been and will continue to be the strongest political field operation in this city. To those who have written off this party as a relic of the past — a dinosaur no longer relevant to electoral politics in Philadelphia — let me say this: Last night the dinosaur roared.”
The real mayor
I’m told that, at Parker’s election night celebration, when Ryan Boyer broke the news that the candidate wouldn’t be showing due to a mysterious dental issue, one attendee quipped: “That’s okay, the real mayor is talking right now,” nodding towards Boyer.
A couple of months ago, Parker’s campaign was reeling. Jeff Brown was making significant inroads into her African-American base, and she hadn’t proven herself to be a prodigious fundraiser. Even Parker’s close friend, Congressman Dwight Evans, seemed on the fence about supporting her. Many in the coalition that helped elect Kenney in 2015 had been trying to goad State Senator Vince Hughes into running — there was a feeling, dubious I think, that his presence could clear the field — and Boyer’s endorsement of Parker sent an all-important signal that she was viable. It breathed new life into her campaign. The Kenney coalition, sans Kenney, came together.
For those who thought the power of the building trades in Philly might wane in the aftermath of John Dougherty’s, uh, pending federal vacation, [Ryan] Boyer’s reach and might ought to quell such a notion.
And it wasn’t only Parker riding the Building Trades imprimatur to victory. Boyer also supported Ahmad for Council, for example. Ahmad’s husband Ahsan Nasratullah is a developer with whom Boyer has had a relationship.
For those who thought the power of the building trades in Philly might wane in the aftermath of John Dougherty’s, uh, pending federal vacation, Boyer’s reach and might ought to quell such a notion. Often, it almost seemed like Kenney answered to Dougherty. (Remember when Kenney, seeking to pass his soda tax, showed up to a meeting with soda honcho Harold Honickman not with a government official but with Dougherty? It was like, Nice little soda company you got there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.)
How Boyer exercises his power will be worth watching. As we’ve chronicled, he’s already done more than Dougherty to build relationships across traditionally divided stakeholder lines. But make no mistake: The pressure will now be on Boyer and Parker to not only deliver on using the trades to build a more robust and equitable pathway to the middle class, but also to — finally! — diversify the unions themselves.
The basketball team that couldn’t shoot straight
So you choke in a game seven — to the Celtics, no less! — and make a sacrificial lamb of your coach, but there actually was some good news for the Sixers this week. Parker’s win increases the likelihood of a Market East arena. Whether you’re for or against, the fact is that support from the Building Trades, the Black Clergy and the African-American Chamber of Commerce will be a political force to be reckoned with, because the project is an economic force to be reckoned with … if done right.
I’d never heard of developer Mo Rushdy until, as treasurer of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, he proposed a progressive supply-side solution for affordable housing a couple of years ago: Building on public land.
It was a smart take and a little before its time, given that “Abundance Progressivism” is on the rise.
Well, Rushdy and a bunch of other business and civic stakeholders were behind the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth, the PAC that took on Gym. Their goal was to make the city more business-friendly because they believe that Gym and her ideological acolytes want jobs, but not necessarily employers. Philly for Growth, a separate PAC involving the same funders, supported the District Councilmembers who appear to have overcome progressive socialist challengers: Quetcy Lozada, Anthony Phillips and Cindy Bass.
It’s refreshing to see [Mo] Rushdy … step up and get involved in a town where business and civic leaders have traditionally outsourced leadership to a sclerotic political class.
As with Philly 3.0, the Philly for Growth at-large slate didn’t all come through. It’s a travesty that Santamoor, as qualified a Council candidate as we’ve seen, once again came oh-so-close. But they helped avert the expected Socialist wave, keeping Gym’s at-large running mates — Amanda McIllmurray, Erika Almirón, and Sherrie Cohen — from winning, even though all three were on stage with AOC and Bernie Sanders in the campaign’s final rally.
You probably saw the Rushdy group’s anti-Gym TV ads, which were mostly paid for by billionaire libertarian Jeff Yass. I poo-poo’d the Gym attack ads, arguing that her ideas were the problem, not the fact that she showed her face at the Union League one night. From a purely strategic point of view, I was wrong. Rushdy used pollster Jef Pollock, one of the nation’s best, and found that questions about Gym’s political character could move some liberals from her to Rhynhart, which is exactly what happened.
However you feel about the anti-Gym ads, it’s refreshing to see Rushdy — and West Philadelphia Business Corridor Collaborative President Jabari Jones, who almost challenged Jaimie Gauthier — step up and get involved in a town where business and civic leaders have traditionally outsourced leadership to a sclerotic political class. “While the Chamber and others sat on the sidelines with their popcorn, we were getting bloody in the arena and we got results that made our city better,” Rushdy wrote to members of his group the morning after election day.
Progressivism: wounded, but don’t count it out
“I don’t buy this idea that progressivism is dead,” Oxman says. “That’s crap. There’s still [State Rep.] Liz Fiedler, [District Attorney] Larry Krasner, and [State Sen.] Nikil Saval.”
And let’s be clear: Landau and Ahmad and even Parker are all progressive … though the more ideological strain on the left might disagree with that, particularly in Parker’s case. But Oxman is right: This wasn’t a referendum on a particular ideology so much as a primal scream from an electorate that just wants some practicality mixed in with their daily dose of chaos.
Black voters — reluctantly, perhaps — turned to the mayoral candidate who used words like “lawlessness” to describe the state of our streets and who talked about hiring cops. (Though, as Michael Nutter pointed out in our Ultimate Job Interview, Parker’s plan to hire 300 cops is really a status quo move, given that we’re already losing that many from attrition now.)
This week’s election results ought to be a progressive wake-up call. Throughout the nation, voters have been saying no to left wing culture war finger-pointing.
In? Public safety, jobs and health care. (Remember health care, Dems? It’s what won you back the House in 2018.) Out? Pronouns, defunding police, and open borders. Ruy Texiera has written that the electoral payoff to progressivism remains elusive.
“As Democrats have steadily moved to the left on cultural and green issues, relative turnout performance among base groups has actually been quite poor,” he writes. “Take 2022. Turnout fell across the board relative to 2018, according to recently-released Census data, but it fell more among Democratic base groups. While overall turnout declined a little over 3 points, it fell 10 points among Black voters, almost 7 points among young (18-29 year old) voters and 5 points among Hispanic voters.”
The progressives who win tend to be those who don’t just shout into a bullhorn and call that change. They’re the ones who demonstrate the political skill to pile incremental win upon incremental win. Do you think Gym was helped by calling for a $10 billion Green New Deal for the schools and a guaranteed job for every young person, without any plan to pay for such highfalutin’ ideas?
“Gym ran the most intellectually dishonest campaign I’ve seen,” Oxman says. “You’re going to spend $10 billion in a city that can’t hire 600 police officers and pick the trash up? And you’re not going to say how you’re going to do that?”
This week’s election results ought to be a progressive wake-up call.
If that’s progressivism, rather than a plan that addresses kitchen table issues, expect the losses to keep accumulating. Progressives need to develop, in the words of Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation, a “liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.” Instead, we keep getting this elitist strain of democratic socialism, a movement that chips away at working class support.
Two years ago, a socialist in Buffalo who had never held office before beat an incumbent mayor in a low-turnout primary. Lo and behold, that incumbent mayor waged a write-in campaign and scored a landslide victory in the general election. In Minneapolis, voters rejected a vague plan to remake the police department in what had been seen as a “defund the police” referendum. Turns out, Black and Brown folk in cities actually want police … They just don’t want them busting their heads.
And remember Ohio, where Democrat Shontel Brown won a special election for a congressional seat after defeating Democratic Socialist and Bernie Sanders acolyte Nina Turner in a primary, after Turner had described voting for Joe Biden as like “eating a bowl of shit?”
How many anecdotes add up to proof positive? Time and again, extreme progressives, complete with the type of incivility that is the hallmark of the true believer, have gotten kicked to the curb by voters who seem intent on reasonableness even in chaotic, unreasonable times.
So, here in Moscow on the Delaware, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1, former Councilmember David Oh was unlikely to ever be our next mayor, but the best shot he had was to face Helen Gym in the fall. His is not exactly a scintillating personality, but the “Anyone But Helen” forces might have turned him into a suitable alternative.
That’s gone now. Oh will acquit himself well in a general election loss, and he’ll always be able to say he was a credible candidate for mayor who got shellacked in a city that talks a lot about diversity but, unlike New York, has hardly any tolerance for anyone with an R by his or her name.
Was it me, or did we have more forums and less actual original thought than in most elections? It got so you could recite each candidates’ talking points in harmony with them. But, unlike in other elections in other cities, there were hardly any actual ideas floated — perhaps contributing to the low turnout. The stakes were incredibly high and yet the discourse was Seinfeldian — about nothing.
Not one candidate argued for Universal Basic Income, for example, or a local Baby Bonds program, both of which are sweeping the country. Or backing up with city investment the GRIT Fund, a consortium of 30 banks unlocking capital in distressed neighborhoods. At least Gym floated a couple of big, albeit wholly impractical, ideas. Parker’s biggest idea? Extending the school day, I guess. Not sure how that addresses the 72 percent of third graders not reading at grade level. (Did anyone utter the word “phonics” in one of the 4,432 forums?)
Used to be, candidates had full-time policy geeks on staff, sending out white papers to the press on the regular. This time around, it felt like our Overton window was smaller than ever. Which is too bad, because it would be nice to try and think our way out of some intractable problems for a change.
I’m not going to lie. Twenty-seven percent turnout got me really, really down. WTF, Philly?
This is bigger than voting. We’re a traumatized city, and at some point we’ve been numbed into paralysis. What’s our littering epidemic about, other than people not giving a shit about where they live? We like to boast we’re a tough town, seeing characters like Jason Kelce as a type of kindred spirit. Well, let me tell you something, to channel Lloyd Bentsen:
I know Jason Kelce. Jason Kelce is a friend of mine. Philly, so long as we don’t vote, so long as we don’t clean our blocks, so long as we don’t volunteer at our kids’ schools or hold the door for one another at Wawa, Philly … You’re no Jason Kelce.
Don’t get me wrong. The lack of participation — the lack of trust in local government — is understandable. “How often have we been told this is the most important election in history, and nothing changes?” says Oxman. “You and I are part of a class that believes leaders make a difference and the world can get better. We’re idealists. But something like 40 percent of Americans are $600 away from not being able to pay their rent. They’ve heard, Vote for me, I’ll make the city clean, fight crime, make the schools great, and they know it’s crap. Why should they participate?”
Cherelle Parker is in for a boatload of challenges, but maybe that’s the most daunting one. She will have to make the city believe again. It’s happened before — Rendell in the early 90s, Nutter’s ethics reforms 15 years ago. But you don’t do that by being Kenney 2.0.
You do it by making sure Philadelphians see their government at work for them, and by asking for help from stakeholders. You can start that now. Anyone will take your call. Call up experts like Bruce Katz — the former HUD Chief of Staff under Clinton and Obama, right here in Philly — and ask how to build a Marshall Plan for a shell-shocked city.
Take a best practices tour of other regions. Start now in asking something of those you’ll be leading — you won’t be stepping on Jimmy’s toes, ‘cause he’s already gone. (On election night, our current mayor continued sending late night, mean-spirited texts to multiple losing candidates.)
The road back? It starts by all of us proclaiming that voting is literally the least we can do, and pledging to continue hectoring for change. Here’s one that could make a difference: Rebecca Rhynhart for CEO of Committee of Seventy — city government’s watchdog. Another idea worth considering: Former Governor Rendell’s “Team of Rivals” proposition, borrowing from Lincoln.
Use the expertise of your campaign rivals to help you move the city forward.
Cherelle Parker will be our mayor, and our job is to help her get the rest of us to give a shit again. Are you in?
Correction: A previous version of this had the wrong name of the PAC that aimed to prevent Helen Gym from becoming winning the Democratic mayoral primary. The correct name of that PAC is the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth. Philly for Growth is the name of the PAC that aimed to prevent progressive candidates for City Council from winning.
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