Philadelphia’s spirited 2023 primary election has finally come to a close, with overall net positive results for the future of our city.
The big winners of the election were Black voters, moderate voters, and the Philadelphia Democratic Party establishment, along with the Philadelphia Building Trades unions under the leadership of Ryan Boyer. Cherelle Parker, the official choice of the trades, and the unofficial preferred pick of Democratic City Committee (DCC) leadership, won the Democratic nomination for mayor — which will almost certain translate to a win in the general election — with 33 percent of the vote.
Democratic City Committee’s slate of their four top preferred City Council At-Large candidates — Katherine Gilmore-Richardson, Isaiah Thomas, Rue Landau, and Jim Harrity — all won At-Large City Council seats, as did Nina Ahmad, who appeared on City Committee’s extended list of recommended candidates which also included Eryn Santamoor and Erika Almirón.
City Committee went 7 for 7 in the competitive City Council races overall, with incumbents Quetcy Lozada, Cindy Bass, and Anthony Phillips prevailing over challengers, though Cindy Bass’ margin of victory was just 406 votes in the end. The Party also went 2 for 2 in the competitive row office races, with John Sabatina Sr. ousting Tracey Gordon as Register of Wills, and Christie Brady prevailing over multiple challengers in the Controller race.
DCC-endorsed judicial candidates won 8 out of the 10 Court of Common pleas seats, and they went 2 for 2 on Municipal Court.
While Philly 3.0 is disappointed the election did not go exactly our way, specifically from the standpoint of wanting to elect more experienced, technocratic problem-solvers to City Council, the outcome is still overall positive, with encouraging signs the new governing coalition wants a safer, cleaner city that is open for business. The incoming Council will almost certainly work in better coordination with the Mayor’s office, and we can expect a shared focus on public safety, investments in cleaning and sanitation, and economic development.
The mayoral candidate who spoke to voters’ top issue
Throughout this election season, polling consistently showed voters were motivated to address public safety most of all, followed by improvements to basic city services and quality-of-life issues. Philly 3.o’s campaign for City Council invested in promoting these themes as the chief issues voters should be looking for in candidates, and we succeeded in shaping the terms of the debate over some competing themes pushed by some of the candidates for Mayor.
The Mayoral candidate who proved to be the most credible messenger of the safety-and-services message was Cherelle Parker, who won with 33 percent of the vote. Parker bested second-place finisher former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart by 10 points, with former City Councilwoman Helen Gym finishing third by a close margin.
According to The Inquirer’s analysis, Parker achieved her victory by uniting three voting blocs that weren’t necessarily guaranteed to vote together. Using the Inquirer’s terminology, these included “a Black voting bloc that is traditionally establishment-aligned; a Black voting cluster that is generally more independent; and a group of poor voters and Latino voters.” Reporters Julia Terruso and Aseem Shukla point out that this coalition turned out to be large enough that “Philadelphia’s two large Black voting clusters alone delivered Parker nearly as many votes as runner-up Rebecca Rhynhart received across the entire city.”
This turned out to be a difficult race to poll, and none of the polling we saw along the way predicted this final result. The available polls somewhat captured Parker’s late surge, but no poll had found any candidate receiving over 30 percent of the vote, which Parker ultimately did.
In the end, the city avoided the much-dreaded scenario where a candidate might have won the election with 25 percent of the vote or less. Citywide turnout ended up being higher than the 2015 election when there was last an open seat for Mayor. It is a little hard though not to be wistful about the winning candidate being elected with just 80,000 votes in a city with 1.6 million people, and we hope to see more voting reform efforts from Harrisburg aimed at addressing the situation in future elections.
Primary winners for City Council At-Large
The City Council At-Large primary race was more of a mixed bag from Philadelphia 3.0’s standpoint. We are thrilled that voters returned the two incumbent At-large members — Kathy Gilmore-Richardson and Isaiah Thomas — to City Council to continue their good work.
Out of Philadelphia 3.0’s endorsed slate of candidates, Eryn Santamoor came in a very close 6th place, finishing 4,892 votes short of 5th-place finisher Jim Harrity. Santamoor improved her showing over the 2019 election, winning 34 percent more votes than last cycle, but couldn’t ultimately overcome Democratic City Committee’s all-out push for Harrity.
Job Itzkowitz and Donavan West were not able to overcome a difficult lot in the drawing for ballot positions, or their lack of establishment support outside of the independent expenditure support both received. As best we can tell, it was nearly impossible for Council challengers to break out from the collective focus on the high-stakes Mayor’s race.
Left organizations who endorsed Helen Gym for Mayor were better able to establish “party unity” for the same five-person At-Large City Council slate across the many organizations supporting Gym, but were ultimately unsuccessful at electing any left movement politicians to office who weren’t also supported by Democratic City Committee.
The Gym campaign had some observable coattails for Amanda McIllmurray and Erika Almirón, but not enough to put either candidate close to the fifth spot. McIllmurray finished 6,014 votes behind Harrity, and 1,112 votes behind Santamoor, while Almirón finished 9,339 votes behind Harrity.
Rue Landau’s victory is one exception to the overall unfavorable night for the left movement, but Landau is also in a somewhat different class from the rest. Landau’s coalition of endorsers included all of the prominent left-wing organizations, but her campaign was also a priority for the Democratic City Committee establishment and she also received the largest overall number of endorsements of any challenger, diluting the importance of any one group.
There’s no doubt Landau has very progressive politics, though from our conversations and observations this campaign season, there are some good reasons to believe Landau doesn’t have the same kind of knee-jerk political temperament or allergy to win-win solutions as some other left politicians.
Nina Ahmad, the other successful At-Large challenger, has some of the same political leanings as Landau, with a more mixed base of support. While Ahmad won certain left-leaning wards like the 9th ward in Mt. Airy, she also received heavy support from the Philadelphia Building Trades. Ahmad and her husband Ahsan Nasratullah are developers and enjoyed a certain modicum of trust from the building industry and unions, in part for this reason.
While the At-Large race was likely impossible to poll with much accuracy, one phenomenon observable in the polling we saw prior to the election was that Ahmad had higher name recognition than other candidates, likely as a result of her appearance on the Philadelphia ballot in several past elections for Lieutenant Governor, Auditor General, and Congress.
Primary winners in City Council Districts
Incumbent Councilmembers prevailed in the few competitive City Council District races this year, with voters choosing the more moderate, establishment-backed candidates in each race.
In the 7th Council District, former Maria Quiñones Sánchez chief of staff Quetcy Lozada easily prevailed (60-40) over challenger Andrés Celin — a former Helen Gym staffer who was supported by left-wing organizations like Democratic Socialists of America and PA Working Families. Lozada was elected to the seat in a special election this past November to replace MQS, who had resigned to run for Mayor. During the campaign, Lozada distinguished herself as the candidate most fed-up with the opioid-related disorder on the streets of Kensington, and was able to unite the Democratic wards within the district — a big change from prior cycles.
In the 8th District, incumbent Councilmember Cindy Bass barely hung on against challenger Seth Anderson-Oberman, who was supported by the same left groups as Celin. Bass has long had some electoral vulnerabilities, but to date, had gotten lucky by drawing multiple challengers, or none at all. The 2023 primary was the first time Bass had just one challenger, but voters still narrowly sided with the incumbent. Councilmember Bass was substantially aided by independent expenditure spending from the builder-funded group Philly for Growth.
Finally, in the 9th District, Councilmember Anthony Phillips won decisively over two challengers, Yvette Young and James Williams, with 63 percent of the vote. Phillips was Cherelle Parker’s pick to replace her on Council, and won the seat in the special election in November. Based on some of his early moves on City Council, Councilmember Phillips has some exciting potential as a political leader in Philadelphia. His reelection is one of the more encouraging pieces of news to come out of Election Day.
There’s much more to say about how the election might affect different areas of city politics and policy, so stay tuned in the coming weeks, when we’ll be exploring some of the policy shifts and opportunities that may be in store in the next administration.
Jon Geeting is the director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, a political action committee that supports efforts to reform and modernize City Hall. This is part of a series of articles running on both The Citizen and 3.0’s blog.
MORE ON THE 2023 PRIMARY ELECTION