Given the stakes, the timidity and niceness of this mayor’s race has felt out of place. I’m all about civility and reasoned discourse, but the talking points at the nearly nightly candidate forums have been so indistinguishable one from another, and the comity between what should be rivals has been so warm — they consistently refer to one another as “colleague” rather than “competitor” — it’s easy to be lulled into forgetting that the city is at a crisis point.
Do we slide into becoming Detroit circa 2010, when street lights blinked on and off and you couldn’t get a 911 call answered, or do we rise to compete with Boston in terms of growth and safety and goodwill on our streets?
It makes sense politically, of course. In a crowded field, with polls presumably showing almost everyone within striking distance of each other, the goal is to stick around and try to carve out space in the top tier. Consultants, as they will do, advise caution. But sooner or later, someone has to do something that captures attention beyond the political class in a way that differentiates them from the pack.
Well, the homestretch ad wars have started, and it looks like that’s finally happening. My phone blew up a couple of times in the last week or so. Most recently, it was when former Controller Rebecca Rhynhart made Philadelphia history by airing a surprising ad featuring one-time nemeses, former Mayors John Street and Michael Nutter, chilling at Bar Hygge in Fairmount, bantering back and forth, and both endorsing Rhynhart as the candidate most prepared to govern on day one.
It’s the first time a candidate has been endorsed by two former mayors, and Rhynhart might not be done yet. Ed Rendell, who mentored Rhynhart in her run for Controller in 2017, once told me, “She’s like a daughter to me.” Don’t be surprised if she gains the support of yet a third former mayor.
As I’ve said ad nauseam, Joe Biden won Philly in 2020 with 600,000 votes; Jim Kenney won it in 2015 with 200,000. Those missing 400,000? The candidate who can activate a good portion of them gains a tremendous advantage. Those voters might not be too clued in to local politics, but it might just mean something to them that former holders of the office agree across all their differences that Rhynhart’s the one.
Before Rhynhart’s bombshell, there was candidate Allan Domb dropping the gloves against Jeff Brown; finally, one candidate had criticized another in this all-too-polite election.
Cherelle Parker is also up on the air with a more limited ad buy, and, while Helen Gym’s campaign has yet to buy ad time, a PAC supporting her has.
Let’s take a look at the burgeoning ad wars, and what it all means two months from Election Day.
Rhynhart and the mayors
“Wow,” one civic leader said upon viewing Street’s and Nutter’s endorsement. “Rebecca Rhynhart might be the only person in Philadelphia who could have brought those two guys together.” That’s really what the ad is about; Rhynhart as good-natured healer and convener, someone who will bring together competing visions (and egos) in pursuit of a common agenda.
Nutter and Street hadn’t spoken in at least a decade. The short version: Back in the day, Street, the most productive Council president in city history, ran the body with an iron fist, and Nutter, a onetime protege, broke from him on key issues. Later, when Nutter ran for mayor, he actually ran against Street’s mayoral record, even though Street wasn’t on the ballot. For a long time, it felt like a mayoral blood feud.
But a couple of things have happened since. One is that the records of both men look quite good in retrospect, and in comparison to the nine car pile-up that is the Kenney administration. Street’s budget mastery, his bold removal of 40,000 abandoned cars in 40 days, his fiscal prudence — he didn’t raise taxes or float bonds to pay for the removal of those cars, he paid as he went — have all gone out of style during the Kenney years.
Nutter presided over a 60-year low in homicides and the first increase in population in decades, including helping Philadelphia become the number one destination for millennials in the nation.
“We’re the people who know what it’s like to run a city,” said Street. “We’re in a better position to judge who is capable of rising to the occasion.”
Both men are Philly patriots, who see their own legacies wrapped up in the actions — or inactions — of their successors. Street presciently offered a brilliant and stinging critique of Kenney in 2019, long before Kenney publicly gave up on leading the city.
I caught up with Street yesterday to kick around this latest odd coupling in Philly politics, and he emphasized again and again Rhynhart’s experience, first as Nutter’s Treasurer and Budget Director, and then as the elected Controller. “Here’s the thing about me and my colleague Mayor Nutter,” he says, pausing with the hint of a chuckle for dramatic effect. “Whether you agree or disagree with either one of us, whether you like us or not, together we have spent 5,849 days in City Hall — ”
“Wait,” I interject. “How do you know that?”
“I did the math,” he says. “It’s just math, Larry. But listen, we’re the people who know what it’s like to run a city. We’re in a better position to judge who is capable of rising to the occasion. And there’s only one candidate who has been in cabinet meetings, who has been on the pension board, who has analyzed hundreds of billions of dollars of city budgets. I know what it’s like to be a Councilmember, and all these candidates are smart. But no one has the breadth of experience of this woman.”
He pauses, again for dramatic effect.
“It’s not like my colleague Mayor Nutter and I went out to lunch to talk about this,” Street says. “We both came to this conclusion independently. And that’s because we’ve done the job and we think we’re in a better position to judge who is qualified on day one than, say, a union, for example.”
Earlier in this campaign, Street first tutored Jeff Brown on the intricacies of governing, but soon made the switch to Rhynhart’s campaign. “Jeff Brown is a good guy and responsible citizen,” he says. “His challenge is not unique to him. It’s the same anybody would have coming from private business into government. This is very different. You’ve got 24,000 employees, 15,000 unionized workers, civil service. It’s very complex. It would take so long for him to figure it out.”
I’ve always maintained Philadelphia doesn’t use the talents and experiences of its former mayors to continue to serve its citizens. Now that Rhynhart has used her interpersonal skills to get the two of them talking, it bodes well for their future involvement — in either official or unofficial capacities — in the city’s affairs. (A Street and Nutter co-chaired transition committee would make for great reality TV!)
Domb drops the gloves
Early on, after an inauspicious debut ad, Domb broke from political convention and fired his ad maker, hiring Adam Magnus instead. Magnus is a mentee of the legendary Saul Shorr, the adman behind the everyman Jeep spots that helped elect Tom Wolf governor in 2015.
Since Magnus’ hiring, Domb’s commercials have been aimed to make him stand out: One narrated by kids, showing Domb scrubbing floors and shining shoes, an homage to the millionaire’s humble roots; the one contrasting him to Kenney; one staking out turf as an Eric Adams-like hawk on public safety.
Now Domb has gone after what has potentially emerged as Brown’s Achilles heel — truthfulness. Like any great salesman, Brown runs the risk of exaggerating in pursuit of closing a deal. In his ad, Domb uses Michelle Obama’s criticism of Brown for using her in his advertising to hit his rival — and he could have included Wolf, too, who was none too pleased when Brown seemed to imply that Wolf was on his side.
Very early on in the campaign, Brown told me and many others that Ed Rendell was supporting him, not knowing that when Rendell — whose nature is to be encouraging — says something like, “I think it’s great that you’re running,” that’s not an endorsement. This is inside stuff, yes, but it goes to political character. Word is bond in politics, to a degree that it may not be in business.
Domb has created therealjeffbrown.com, a site that aggregates all of Brown’s alleged misleading statements. That’s risky on the part of Domb, who has been criticized for going “negative.” Even before Domb’s broadside against Brown, influential Reverend Alyn Waller called Domb a “liar” for “putting out a commercial that’s “bashing the present mayor” after Domb had pledged to Waller that he wouldn’t run a negative campaign.
Here’s that commercial:
The brouhaha begs the question: Just what is a negative ad? An election ought to be an argument, no? As a citizen, I want to see candidates compare and contrast themselves to each other — and have enough respect to let me decide what’s fair or unfair. You know who the best practitioners of negative political advertising were? Our much-vaunted Founders, that’s who.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson accused his once and future bestie John Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman;” Adams called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
Now, that’s some extreme, unenlightening rhetoric, and I’m not wishing our mayoral candidates get in the gutter and trade insults. But a little more argument without regard to hurt feelings would actually help us figure out our future. “There is a near-unanimous sentiment among the high-minded that negative advertising is a bad thing … ” writes the pundit Michael Barone.
“It breeds cynicism about politics and government. It is somehow unfair. In response, let me say a few words in praise of negative ads. First, elections are an adversary business, zero-sum games in which only one candidate can win and all the others must lose. Sometimes it’s smart for competitors to concede points to their opponents. But it’s irrational to expect one side to sing consistent praises of the other. Every candidate has weak points and makes mistakes. It’s not dirty pool for opponents to point them out. Second, it is said that negative ads can be inaccurate and unfair. Well, yes — but so can positive ads.”
Jeff Brown’s story
Like Barack Obama in 2008, Jeff Brown’s argument for his candidacy boils down to the power of his own story and his strength as an outside change agent. Doc Sweitzer, the ad guru who partnered with legendary Neil Oxman for many years and who came out of retirement to join Brown’s cause, has produced a series of slickly uplifting commercials.
Brown’s campaign has made one serious misstep — the “Big Ma” ad, positing Brown as a white savior for Black Philadelphia, which was quickly yanked off the Internet. But even that was consistent with the larger point of Brown’s candidacy. It’s as if he has concluded that the city doesn’t need ten-point policy plans; in fact, his website calls for “new ideas” to fight generational poverty, but doesn’t actually offer one.
After eight years of a depressed mayor, Brown proffers the city just needs to feel good again, and he’s running a populist campaign, sans racism, against professional politicians, which raises questions about how he’ll ever be able to work with a Council he derided if elected.
Then again, maybe I’m just part of the cabal of insiders that Brown claims to be running against. “I am astounded by how the political class is missing what is happening on the ground,” writes Brown’s campaign manager Jimmy Cauley in a recent fundraising letter. “(I really shouldn’t be, because it appears that all they do is talk to each other) … Voters are sick of political BS. The other candidate’s messages boil down to ‘I didn’t accomplish anything in the past, now give me a promotion and I’ll do the job.’ Huh?”
It’s an interesting strategy, not that dissimilar from Helen Gym’s: To talk about solutions but not proffer them, while running as an outsider against the keepers of the status quo. Problem is, when you’re under investigation by the Board of Ethics, as Brown is, it’s a little hard to position yourself as the white knight reformer, no?
Parker and Gym … crime fighters?
Like Brown, Cherelle Parker is a charismatic figure, and, in her ad, she’s rivaling Domb as the tough on crime candidate. She’s called for the hiring of 300 police officers, which sounds great, until you hear former Mayor Nutter reveal in his questioning of her in our Ultimate Job Interview series that the city is already losing that many cops to attrition. So we’re down about a thousand cops, and, while getting credit for talking about hiring more, she’s essentially arguing for maintaining current force levels. Contrast that to the policy position Paul Vallas rode to victory in Chicago: Hiring 1,800 new cops right out of the gate.
As for Gym, a new PAC has also posited her as a crime fighter, but their ad doesn’t even mention any policing policy. When you’re in a murder epidemic, as David Muhammad, one of the nation’s preeminent experts makes clear in our How To Really Run a City podcast, interventionist policing that focuses on those we know to be doing the shooting is job one. We have yet to hear that from Gym, but perhaps we will when her campaign goes up on air.
Here’s the thing about political advertising: As surface and manipulative as it can be, it really does often reveal something about the candidates behind the ads. Some revelations come straight from the heart, and some candidates sort of stumble into authenticity. Rhynhart really is a convener and a diplomat; Brown and Parker really are warm, big personalities who love this city; Domb really is the geek who made it big and desperately wants to give back; Gym really is relentless.
Missing from all this is Maria Quiñones Sánchez, whom I’ve always seen as an immensely qualified candidate. If and when she launches an ad, it should reflect the toughness that has characterized her career but that has been oddly missing from the campaign stump. Can’t you see her running the Art Museum steps and saying something like: “The political machine couldn’t stop me. Enemies who burned down my house couldn’t stop me. Breast cancer couldn’t stop me. Bring it, Philly. I’m a fighter and I’ll fight for you as your mayor.” Boom!
All that said, I’m still not sure any candidate has successfully branded themselves yet. Think of it: We knew Ed Rendell was going to revitalize Center City through the arts and tourism. We knew John Street was the neighborhood mayor. We knew Michael Nutter was the good government reformer. Do you yet have the elevator pitch sentence that characterizes any candidate yet? These next weeks on the air will be critical to answering that question.
Finally, the ad — if you want to call it that — that has stuck with me the most wasn’t even produced by one of the candidates or their supporters. It was a TikTok video posted by one Alex Pearlman, who at least at one time appears to be a local comedian.
Allan Domb hadn’t even yet released his “Pledge to Philadelphia,” a comprehensive quality of life plan that includes creating an “Application Tracker to provide accountability to residents, providing responses within two weeks for most applications for job creators and residents, and a maximum of a three-month review for development projects” and creating “Pothole Trackers” and “Garbage Truck Trackers,” respectively.
But this dude, Alex Pearlman, aka @pearlmania500, had a visceral reaction after hearing Domb engage such issues, and if Domb had any cojones, he’d just buy airtime for this and play it citywide.
Let’s close on this, the most Philly “ad” I’ve ever seen:
This is NOT an endorsement. But for real, i was shocked that @dombformayor had an ad that was so reasonable. Like we dont even expect basic functions anymore. #philly #pearlmania500 #philadelphia #mayor #gobirds
MORE ON THE MAYORAL RACEVideo still from Rebecca For Philadelphia's "Two Mayors" ad.