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Helen Gym's Ultimate Job Interview

The Citizen’s public job interviews with each candidate were revealing deep dives into the people vying to be the city’s 100th mayor.

See Helen Gym’s interview here:


To this story in CitizenCast

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Is Helen Gym a Hypocrite?

Or is she just wrong?

As we count down to Election Day (May 16, by the way), pollmania has overtaken the political class. There’s been hardly any independent surveying on the state of the mayor’s race, so we keep hearing about polls from inside the mayoral campaigns themselves and those commissioned by various interest groups.

All of them tend to reflect the same snapshot reality: This is anyone’s race. A handful of candidates — former City Councilpeople Helen Gym, Allan Domb and Cherelle Parker and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart — are within striking distance of one another. And grocer Jeff Brown, mired in controversy over an Ethics Board investigation and now lawsuit, is starting to lose ground.

If you’ve been paying attention to politics these last seven or eight years or so, you know not to trust polling. But it does seem safe to say that it looks like, in a city of 1.6 million residents, as little as some 60,000 votes might be enough to elect our next mayor. Can you say Banana Republic? (That’s why, post-election, those of us who care about good governance ought to jump on the ranked choice voting bandwagon, and fast.)

Last week, Sam Katz walked us through his spreadsheet and predicted that, if the winner does indeed top out at, say, 20 percent, that augers well for Helen Gym, who garnered an astonishing 107,000 votes in her last citywide run for City Council and whose base is the most enthused and loyal of any candidate running.

Gym is a uniquely talented public figure, someone who has cut her teeth not on governing or even campaigning, but on the frontlines of movement politics. It’s a testament to her instincts and feisty style that, even before going on-air with TV commercials that would have you believe this progressive poster child is actually a crimefighter, she was seen by many as this race’s most formidable force — even in a field with a couple of White dudes willing and able to spend fortunes on their own acquisition of power.

Now, as we count down to Election Day and the Gym movement remains potent, a backlash is brewing. There are nervous calls being made among the city’s civic leaders and even talk of an “Anyone But Helen” concerted effort. That’s, in part, because Gym’s makeover — from socialist firebrand in the mold of Bernie Sanders to more of an opaque, non-threatening candidate — has gone largely unchallenged by her competitors.

The backlash is based on the premise — dubious, I think — that Gym is a hypocrite. Or, at the very least, that she possesses questionable judgment when it comes to the appearance of conflicts of interest. She both panders to her progressive base and will say anything to get elected, the thinking goes.

Yet, actually, the opposite is true: The argument to be waged against Gym is not that she doesn’t believe what she says; it’s that she’s a true believer, a policymaker driven by ideology over data and reason. You’re about to start hearing that Helen Gym is a hypocrite, in other words, when I think the chances are greater that she’s just wrong.

The case for Gym’s hypocrisy

At our Ultimate Job Interview series, former Mayor Michael Nutter previewed the Gym-as-hypocrite brief. It centers on four case studies:

1. Gym burst onto the scene crusading against charter schools — often in Black and Brown communities — and yet she founded one, FACTS, herself. Charter schools for me, but not for thee. Her answer? “The charter world has changed dramatically over 30 years and I have been part of that conversation for 30 years … The school that I started was in 2005, the city that I’m fighting for right now in 2023 and for 2033 and beyond is for everybody to have the kind of quality system every child deserves …”

2. Gym voted against what came to be known as the Pharma bill. It would have required all pharmaceutical representatives to register with the City and would have banned them from giving away gifts and free meals to prescribing physicians. Needless to say, it was vociferously lobbied against by the pharmaceutical industry.

Gym voted against the bill. But that she voted at all was puzzling, given that, right up until this election cycle, her husband had been employed by AmeriSource Bergen, which agreed to pay $6.1 billion to settle opioid lawsuits against it last year and is now being sued civilly by the Justice Department for its alleged role in fueling the epidemic.

Nutter asked Gym if, given her husband’s job in the industry, she should have abstained from voting on the bill at all. “Only five people of 17 voted for that bill — that bill was deeply flawed,” she responded. When Nutter reminded her that his question was about her judgment regarding either an actual or perceived conflict of interest, she said, “I understand. My answer is: I stand by that vote.”

3. She vociferously tweeted her opposition to the Union League’s presentation of its highest honor to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — “Philly will always stand against the racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the bigotry that @TheUnionLeague decided to honor today. Hate has no home here. #ByeDeSantis”— and then attended a fundraiser at the very same Union League, hours after receiving the Working Families Party endorsement. In short order, Twitter blew up, and she tweeted: “Earlier this evening, I made a stop at the annual meeting of an event that I have attended in the past. It was a mistake. I apologize for attending.”

4. After George Floyd’s murder, Gym cheered on the efforts by the Minneapolis City Council to abolish its police department. “We don’t have to keep the same systems over and over,” she tweeted. “Minneapolis Council showing how transformative change can happen.” (Minneapolis voters ultimately sensibly vetoed at the ballot box any plan to disband the police force.)

Similarly, rather than call on the cops to crack down on looters during the post-Floyd protests that engulfed the city, her natural reaction was to reach for “whataboutism”: “If you want to denounce looting, let’s denounce LOOTING. Of our public schools, of Philly’s Black wealth through redlining and evictions and foreclosures, of the lives of essential workers for Amazon and Walmart getting minimum wage and no benefits while CEOs profit.”

That’s a distinctly different tone than the Gym we’re getting in her TV advertising, where she pledges to declare a crime state of emergency and that “safety is a whole city mission;” the evolution makes her seem to be reacting to changes in the zeitgeist rather than a candidate willing to stake out an unpopular stance.

As far as I can tell, that’s the sum total of exhibits in the argument for Gym’s hypocrisy and judgment issues, and I daresay you could find four bullet points in any politician’s public record to make him or her seem like they’re putting their fingers to the wind. To make the case that Gym is hypocritical is to avoid entering into a debate with her on her vision for the city — which feels particularly atavistic.

Rather right than successful

Wouldn’t those who oppose Gym be better served holding her beliefs and political skill set up to inspection? Does she have the chops to manage an entity as sprawling and complex as the Philadelphia government? Can she transmogrify a sclerotic government into something that makes you feel like it’s working for you? Can she activate the amino acids of politics in service of some common good? Will she suffer fools, make deals, put points on the board, and embrace the incremental when the alternative is the stasis we have now?

For most of her time on our public stage, such practical problem-solving has not been Gym’s raison d’être. I first became aware of her a little over a decade ago, when she was a rabble rousing public school parent and citizen activist. As someone whose patron saint has long been Jane Jacobs, I was excited: Here was a potential change agent in a town that doesn’t do change. But her passion soon morphed into incivility. Jacobs turned hearts and minds by outsmarting civic power broker Robert Moses and by building a diverse coalition. She didn’t resort to name-calling.

Anyone who disagreed with activist Gym, though, was in for some serious vitriol. This from a revealing 2013 Patrick Kerkstra Philly Mag piece:

And bully she does. Her foes are “hilarious and dishonest.” Education reformers are “corporate raiders” and “party shills.” Columnists she disagrees with are operating a “Corbett PR flack machine.” And that’s just a sample of a 10-day run on Gym’s Twitter feed. She’s equally relentless when face-to-face with her targets.

It became a pattern, this questioning the motive of anyone who dared disagree. The late Jeremy Nowak, The Citizen founding Board chair, used to talk about how, when he ran the William Penn Foundation, Gym would ask him for money for her charter school and then brandish him — a liberal who cut his teeth as a community organizer — a “corporate raider” in the Inquirer because he was funding school reform. When he made that charge public, Gym responded like the pugilist she is, calling him a “liar” in Kerkstra’s piece.

In Gym, we find the defining characteristic of the activist: There tends to be more premium put on being right than successful. The activist has the privilege of living in a black and white world; governing tends to be far more gray.

In 2020, Gym led protests calling Comcast “trash” through a bullhorn, and her rhetoric got no less demagogic even after the company launched a $100 million social justice fund and ponied up $17 million at the dawn of the pandemic that raised students’ internet connectivity rate from 70 to 84 percent. (Full disclosure: Comcast is the presenting sponsor of The Citizen’s Ideas We Should Steal Festival.) Is Comcast, with its 8,000 city and 17,000 regional jobs, the problem? Or is the problem that we don’t have enough Comcasts?

Helen Gym has many talents. She’s likable, and can mobilize and inspire. But while she talks a lot about transformative change, have we seen it from her?

Gym has proven adept at finding easy scapegoats, like Joel Freedman, the owner of Hahnemann Hospital, whom she demonized upon its tragic closing. But here’s the thing: Politicians like Gym knew long in advance that, due primarily to paltry Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, Hahnemann was dying — and they did nothing. But when the inevitable happened, Gym chose the easy route by beating up the plutocrat du jour.

Her focus as a legislator has followed the same path: Her much-lauded eviction diversion and Fair Work Week legislation, like her proposed wealth tax, all play to class resentment while falling short of providing a single family with a pathway to middle-class opportunity.

Can we get some problem-solving?

That’s the central question of a potential Gym mayoralty: Will we be in store for more performative politics, or can she be a practitioner of practical problem-solving? So far, a couple of case studies elsewhere point to the former.

In Pittsburgh, while the city is losing jobs and population, performative progressive Ed Gainey has doubled down on an anti-growth agenda, increasing the zoning review cost for developers, for example, by 600 percent. He’s been criticized for being a pawn of the SEIU, the union that helped elect him, perhaps previewing the teacher’s union influence over Gym. He’s been pilloried for his lack of chief executive experience, especially in this devastating Post-Gazette editorial:

The activists that staff and run much of his administration, while well-meaning and idealistic, have not proven adept at the day-to-day running of the city, or in cultivating the community partnerships needed to get things done.

Mr. Gainey swept into office on a wave of progressive enthusiasm. The challenge now is how to govern … Signature initiatives, such as the real estate audit of local nonprofits, are panned by everyone outside a small clique of loyalists. City government looks and feels shabby.

Pittsburghers deserve better. The Mayor’s office needs an infusion of energy and competence; current staff arrangements are simply not working. Achieving progressive reform for Pittsburgh isn’t only a matter of having people with the right ideals in positions of authority. They have to be able to get things done. That starts with small details, such as filling committees and showing up to meetings.

Is that a preview of Philly in the Gym era? Another fellow progressive, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, has run into a similar buzzsaw. Now in her second year, she has alienated many in the business community at a time when the Boston economy is teetering. A new “millionaire’s tax” is reported to be driving wealthy people out of state, and Wu’s plan to dissolve the Boston Planning and Development Agency and create a new agency dedicated to “resiliency, affordability and equity” engendered opposition from an iconic Boston planner and civil rights icon, who said, “We have the cart before the horse in asking us to engage in planning towards reform without having the evidence and data that indicates specifically what the reforms are.”

The point here is that you can’t have jobs without employers, and mayors who play on populist resentment and scapegoat business do so at their long term peril. Instead of blaming dudes — and they’re usually dudes — in suits for the sad state of things, how about inviting them to help fix what’s broken, even if they had a hand in breaking it?

“We have to ask ourselves as a city — we have been ruled by an old, antiquated form of politics that have left us far too comfortable for far too long,” Gym said. “And I am trying to turn that around. I am trying to stop terrible things from happening to people.”

It’s telling that progressives like Gainey, Wu and Gym talk more about the safety net than they do of providing opportunity. And make no mistake: We most definitely are in an opportunity crisis, folks. According to Opportunity Index, Philly scores a 40.2 out of 100 — a failing grade — in terms of providing opportunity to its residents, a composite measure across 20 key economic, educational and civic factors. Have you heard plans from Gym around growing a middle class?

Here’s what she said when asked about economic growth in 2019:

I see my role as not being a megaphone for those who already have.

Growth on its own is not equal. Growth left to its own devices will favor the powerful over the weak, the connected over the disenfranchised, the bank over the individual. Our goal on City Council is to make sure that those things don’t go on that natural course. We are the balance to that.

She’s right, growth needs to be smartly managed. For example, a corporate tax cut that mandates or incentivizes reinvesting in workers over stock buybacks is an intelligent way for government to drive the market toward more equality and opportunity. But you don’t hear ideas like that from Gym.

Instead, you get an elected official so righteously pissed at those who have that she loses sight of how government can help spur more equitable wealth. When FDR passed the GI Bill of Rights (over the objections of socialist opposition from the likes of Father Coughlin), creating arguably the most vibrant economy in human history, he was shaping capitalism toward progressive ends — not just inhibiting it.

More recently, during this campaign, Gym boasted: “When I walk into the room, systems of oppression fall and new systems of opportunity are built.”

Nutter had a lot of fun with the egoism of such a statement, observing that he’d never heard Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi make such a claim. But the quote actually points to a deeper ideological issue begging for attention.

Pick the issue, and, in the most zero-sum of ways, Gym seems to suggest it boils down to oppressor and oppressed; while she’s right to point out the grave inequities that still systemically hold us back, the rigidity of the rhetoric leaves nary a crack in our Overton window for progress. It makes for a pretty grim worldview. It also robs those who have been working on the frontlines to narrow gaps in society of their own agency.

Is expanding the safety net all there is?

You know who didn’t share Gym’s stark view? Frederick Douglass, who took a backseat to no one in fighting injustice. But he also broke with White abolitionists who wanted to write and adopt a new Constitution. There’s nothing wrong with the Constitution, he said, presaging King; it’s man’s inability to fully live up to its creed that is the real problem, something the Founders implicitly acknowledged in the simple, stirring phrase “more perfect union.” That one word — more — recognized our original sin and set us on an uneven quest to finish the work of creation here on earth.

When Senator Robert Kennedy went to South Africa at the height of Apartheid and said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance,” he laid out a game plan that culminated in Nelson Mandela and the toppling of an oppressive regime.

In Gym, we find the defining characteristic of the activist: There tends to be more premium put on being right than successful. The activist has the privilege of living in a black and white world; governing tends to be far more gray.

King was right, in other words: Especially in an embryonic experiment such as America, the arc of the universe really does bend toward justice. But does Gym believe that?

Helen Gym has many talents. She’s likable, and can mobilize and inspire. But while she talks a lot about transformative change, have we seen it from her? She boasts about leading the charge for local control of our schools, but what did that change in governance get us, other than a superintendent who, after being hired, paid a consultant to write him a plan (begging the question: Just what did you talk about at your job interview?) and a School Board that is, Keystone Cop-like, suing the administration that appointed it.

Gym has proposed a $10 billion Green New Deal for our schools — a laudable policy goal — but it comes at a time when 72 percent of third-graders still can’t read at grade level. Seriously? $3 billion is not enough to get third graders to grade level? Where’s your plan for that?

There are countless systemic fixes crying out to be made, but is Helen Gym in that business? Or is she a charismatic figure well practiced in the art of saying no: No to charters, no to economic growth, no to an arena, no to even the most modest of tax cuts designed to make the city more competitive with its peer cities and surrounding counties, against whom we compete for talent and capital.

In the absence of knowing what she’s for, one has to ask: Is Helen Gym just running to expand the safety net, and calling that equity?

When Nutter grilled her — and she impressively gave as good as she got — she said at one point: “We have to ask ourselves as a city — we have been ruled by an old, antiquated form of politics that have left us far too comfortable for far too long. And I am trying to turn that around. Yeah, is that my attitude when I come into a room? Abso-fucking-lutely. I mean, I am trying to stop terrible things from happening to people.”

Love the in-your-face attitude, right? If only Mayor Kenney had that swagger. But is stopping terrible things from happening to people the best a mayor can do? How about making great things happen for them?


Helen Gym. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce.

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