First, a confession: I’ve been grumpier than usual of late, which is saying something. Mayor Jim Kenney’s shoulder-shrugging and Greta Garbo-like leadership—again this week, he had precisely one appearance on his public schedule—has worn me down to the point that I’ve violated The Citizen’s ethos, which is to always find something constructive to prescribe when it comes to the city’s meandering direction.
But this week I’m a bit cheerier. And that is, ironically, thanks to Kenney.
His fumbling job performance has cemented his status as the earliest lame duck in recent mayoral history. The guy is barely a year into his second term and is so widely seen as a political non-entity that he’s had to juice his relevancy by floating fantasies of quitting the job he hates to run for the U.S. Senate.
As the saying goes, politics abhors a vacuum, so it should come as no surprise that, behind the scenes, the jockeying to replace Kenney has already begun. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked to some of the region’s smartest political minds to get a handle on what’s to come, and at some point it dawned on me: If all those who are thinking of running do so—a big if, which we’ll get to—the 2023 lineup of candidates just might be Philly’s most talented, and not coincidentally diverse, slate in recent memory.
On Wednesday, we witnessed arguably the first act of the 2023 campaign. Owing to Kenney’s embarrassing fumbling of the city’s vaccination rollout, Councilman Allan Domb, working with former Congressman and Democratic party leader Bob Brady, convened a group of city leaders for a press conference calling on Kenney to use Lincoln Financial Field as a mass vaccination site when enough doses become available. Other cities have done the same—New York and Yankee Stadium come to mind—and it’s a strategy that none other than Joe Biden has called for.
Brady even invited Kenney to the presser, offering, in effect, an opportunity for the mayor to share in the credit for a much-needed policy shift in the wake of the Philly Fighting Covid debacle. Domb and Brady had lined up many stakeholders in support of their plan—they’re cleverly calling it “Operation Philly Special”—but Kenney’s chief of staff made the administration’s opposition to using the Linc clear in a series of phone calls to those thinking of lending their voices to the cause.
Understandably, the Eagles backed off, releasing a statement that implied they stood ready and willing to help whenever city leaders get their act together.
Some councilmembers didn’t show, not wanting to defy the mayor, but six of Domb’s colleagues did attend: Cindy Bass, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Derek Green, and Mark Squilla were joined by State Senator Sharif Street, labor leader Chris Woods and former mayor John Street.
Kenney’s opposition was posited as somehow in defense of equitably rolling out the vaccine, even though mass vaccination in stadiums is having just the opposite effect in other cities. Two astute insiders suggest what’s really bugging Kenney: In addition to his loathing of Domb, mass vaccination was not his idea.
If all those who are thinking of running do so—a big if, which we’ll get to—the 2023 lineup of candidates just might be Philly’s most talented, and not coincidentally diverse, slate in recent memory.
It’s hard not to conclude that, for Kenney, this is personal when you consider the out-of-bounds statement by his spokesman: “We ask Councilman Domb and other supporters this: Are you deliberately trying to ensure that white privileged suburban residents of other counties and states are prioritized for vaccination over Black and brown taxpayers of Philadelphia?”
Fortunately for Domb, Councilwoman Cindy Bass took the mayor’s red herring reasoning to task: “As an African-American woman, born and raised in the city, I’ve lived racism every day. I don’t have the privilege that he has in his skin,” Bass, who chairs Council’s public health committee, said. “For him to tell me about what I’m doing and it’s wrong for my people I am highly insulted by his statement.”
Make no mistake: by bringing stakeholders together and publicly airing a plan to correct the Kenney administration’s stunning mismanagement, Domb and Bass were leading. But this was also smart politics; it now looks like some elected officials are on the case when it comes to trying to get Philadelphians vaccinated, and it ain’t the absent mayor.
For Domb and Bass, the timing was propitious. A few weeks ago, the 2023 mayoral race was jolted awake when progressive ShopRite grocer Jeff Brown made it clear he’d be running. Like any impatient entrepreneur, Brown has eschewed the advice to lay low once he made the decision to run. He’s gone ahead and hired Jim Cauley, who managed the 2004 U.S. senate campaign in Illinois of some dude named Obama, and has engaged Doc Sweitzer, a renowned media consultant. He’s been working the phones, picking the brains of a who’s who of Philly movers and shakers.
When the Philadelphia Tribune published a story detailing Brown’s plans, it woke up everyone else who had been eyeing a 2023 run.
Here, then, starting with the guy who has already caused quite a mayoral stir, is a rundown of the would-be candidates, with my analysis of each, informed both by the aforementioned series of background conversations I’ve had with numerous politico and civic honchos, and my own sense of the qualities that make a mayor:
First, and most fundamentally, would be managerial competence; you have to have demonstrated an ability to cajole a bureaucracy into delivering for taxpayers. (So unreconciled bank accounts and turning over the city’s vaccination process to a bunch of 22-year-old bros would be out).
Second, we have no time to waste on on-the-job training; we need a mayor who has proven adept at the blocking and tackling of politics, the skill of forging diverse coalitions and striking compromises to serve the common good.
And, finally, we need a mayor with a clear and inspiring vision for what Philadelphia is, and where it should be five years now. A manager, in other words, and a bold visionary.
With that as our foundation, let’s look at the would-be candidates.
Jump ahead to
The Pros: Jeff Brown is a charismatic, larger-than-life backslapper, who no doubt will have the chops to get Black votes; as one insider told the Tribune, “Jeff Brown has a Black card.” That’s because he’s not only been feeding the African-American community for decades, his ShopRite stores, many in food deserts, have long served as de facto community centers that employ folks from the neighborhoods they serve. He’s smart, but also emotionally intelligent, and can strike at themes that inspire, as in our virtual town hall with him last year.
It’s easy to forget how golden likability is in politics, and Brown is eminently likable. He’s also wealthy (he purchased his Rittenhouse Square manse in 2015 for $4.3 million), and thus might have the wherewithal to be a self-funder, which alone could change the dynamics of a race.
Finally, Brown has built his empire of stores by forging public and private partnerships. And his whole business model is built on listening to his customer base and then catering to their needs. So he’s no stranger to putting political deals together and to collaborating with stakeholders.
The Cons: Do voters want to take a flyer on someone who has never held elective office? Granted, Brown has worked with elected officials like now-Congressman Dwight Evans to open grocery stores in communities long starved for them, but that’s a far cry from first and foremost working for the taxpayer. As we’ve learned from a long list of business machers who try their hand at elective office—that orange guy whose name shall not be mentioned and Gov. Tom Wolf come to mind—politics requires a more idiosyncratic skill set.
Brown might indeed possess that skill, but even if he does, are you willing to be patient as he goes through the inevitable growing pains of learning just what’s involved in running a metropolis?
Finally, there’s the issue of chutzpah. There is no doubt that Jeff Brown is qualified. But, in a potential field that includes a number of qualified Black, brown and female candidates, does the audacity of his candidacy run the risk of him seeming like the big-footed privileged white guy?
The Pros: The second term at-large progressive Councilwoman was re-elected with 187,000 votes in 2019—the biggest vote-getter of any Council candidate and just 26,000 shy of Jim Kenney’s total. Of the city’s 66 wards, she finished first in 55 of them. Granted, her fortunes were boosted by a favorable ballot position, but there’s no doubting that—right now—Helen Gym is the odds-on favorite to be the city’s next mayor, should she choose to run.
Unlike Brown, though, Gym hasn’t tipped her hand. As with other city office-holders, she’d have to resign her seat on Council to run for mayor, and there is rampant speculation that what she really wants is to run for Congress, likely challenging Rep. Brendan Boyle in two years. If she has to resign in either case, why not resign to pursue the job she really wants?
Those who believe she won’t run for mayor suggest that Gym is more movement leader than manager. It’s easier to see her as an ideological kindred spirit to AOC in the halls of Congress than combing through the budget at City Hall.
That said, Gym should not be underestimated. Her political rhetoric—which has sometimes devolved into name-calling and demagoguery—has also enabled her to push through groundbreaking progressive legislation that had passed elsewhere, like the Fair Workweek law and her Right to Counsel bill.
In the past, I’ve been critical of the rigidity of Gym’s point of view and her less-than-civil civic discourse, but she no doubt is able to deliver for her constituency. “All the moms I know voted for Helen,” one 30-something Center City mom told me. “And it was because she has built a brand. If you know nothing else about politics, you know that Helen is going to be for the schools.”
The Cons: At our recent Ideas We Should Steal Festival, during a discussion with a group of young mayors who are all moving the needle in their respective cities, Ithaca, NY Mayor Svante Myrick said that “there are three political parties in America: Democrats, Republicans and Mayors.”
That thinking—the valuing of practical problem-solving over partisan score-settling—does not jibe with Gym’s ethos, which is all-partisan, all the time. Do we want a mayor who fixes potholes, or one who demonizes? “I see my role as not being a megaphone for those who already have,” Gym has said. “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.”
Don’t we want a mayor who aspires to represent everyone, as opposed to stigmatizing “those who already have”? Divide and conquer politics may garner votes, but it doesn’t bring people together—whether it’s deployed from the left or the right. When FDR passed the GI Bill of Rights, (over the objections of socialist opposition), creating arguably the most vibrant economy in history, he was shaping capitalism toward progressive ends—not just inhibiting it.
In a mayor’s race, Gym is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, given that, for all her progressive bona fides, she’s aligned herself with indicted labor leader John Dougherty, and—compared to her fellow progressive colleague Maria Quiñones-Sánchez—she’s been loathe to criticize Dougherty’s acolyte and fellow indictee Councilman Bobby Henon.
Finally, the rap on Gym as a legislator is that she’s more show horse than work horse. True to her activist roots, she’s good in front of a microphone. But can she marshall disparate groups around a common vision for the future of the city? That remains to be seen.
The Pros: Back in 2014, Condo King Allan Domb harbored mayoral aspirations, much like Jeff Brown today. But political insiders urged him to learn the political game by running for Council first. And Domb has made his mark, donating his Council salary to the schools while not only serving as a thorn in Kenney’s side (as when the city couldn’t find some 33 million of taxpayer dollars in the city’s bank accounts for a time), but also passing meaningful legislation. Case in point: When Domb learned that Philadelphia taxes its poorest citizens at a higher rate than comparable cities, he passed a wage tax refund that will annually give roughly $800 back to 60,000 impoverished families.
In addition, Domb, who also owns restaurants, has focused on infusing city government with a much-needed customer service ethic. And he’s shown a keen eye for staffing talent, hiring Eryn Santamoor, who ran an impressive Council campaign in 2019, as his chief of staff. Finally, like Brown, Domb has the resources to be a self-funder, so don’t expect him to be dissuaded from running for mayor by the resign to run law.
The Cons: It’s difficult to see how Domb and Brown don’t cannibalize each other in a Democratic primary. And, while Domb deserves credit for doing the hard work of politics these last six years, he still hasn’t moved the popular perception of him as the representative most beholden to the business community’s interests, his wage tax refund bill notwithstanding. Unlike Brown and Gym and Cherelle Parker, who we’ll get to, he’s not a charismatic figure and would do well to find a consultant who can add a bit of pizzazz to his accountant-like style.
In the past, I’ve wondered if Domb really wants to be mayor—the old “fire in the belly” issue. In 2018, when one big money donor approached him about challenging incumbent Jim Kenney, he responded that he’d only consider it if there was a poll indicating he’d win. Not exactly the mark of a risk-taker. But you don’t get to be a private sector Master of the Universe without a fiery competitive streak, and I’m hearing that Brown’s entry into the race has Domb fired up to run, which squares with his bold mayoral demeanor this week, not only standing up to Kenney on vaccinations, but putting together a coalition to join him.
In her nearly four years as city controller, Rhynhart has arguably been the most consistent and fiercest critic of the Kenney administration. She has used the subpoena power of her office to issue reports—like the recent devastating investigation of the city’s law enforcement response to the post-George Floyd protests—that have been wholly substantive, despite Kenney’s accusation that Rhynhart is playing politics.
Rhynhart is arguably the city’s most prominent reformer, as evidenced by her role on the advisory council of Accelerator for America, a group of mayors and civic leaders, founded by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, that bills itself as “the R&D arm of cities and mayors.”
During the recent press conference releasing her findings of the handling of last summer’s protests, Rhynhart resisted the urgings of one reporter to call for Kenney’s resignation. “We need systemic change,” she said, time and again, rejecting the easy and most overtly political path. Clearly, she values transparency and efficiency in government, as when she cleared her office of its patronage positions upon first coming to power.
Unlike Brown, Gym and Parker, Rhynhart isn’t a charismatic candidate, but she does have a unique skill: In interviews, she comes across as a down-to-earth, real person. In an age where candidates sound like they’re speaking at you, Rhynhart sounds like she’s in conversation with you.
Finally, Rhynhart has hired well. Her First Deputy City Controller, Kellan White, who has recently moved over to manage her campaign for reelection, is a widely-respected political mind. And her media consultant, J.J. Balaban, is not only top notch but, like Brown’s Schweitzer, he cut his teeth at Neil Oxman’s The Campaign Group.
The Cons: Rhynhart may have been the city’s most methodical critic of the Kenney administration—which she once served in—but that hasn’t stopped some in the city’s power grid from criticizing her as too soft. All she does, the thinking goes, is issue reports; she’s not a bare-knuckled brawler, in the in-your-face tradition of legendary Philly reformers Richardson Dilworth and Joe Clark. (When Clark was controller, his exposure of corruption in city government led to at least six suicides of City Hall officials over two years.)
That may be a gendered critique, but doubts about her toughness, if widespread, could pose a political problem for Rhynhart.
Maria Quiñones Sánchez
The Pros: A couple of years ago, I called her Philly’s foremost “political badass,” and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez has done nothing since to forfeit the title. She’s not only stood up to the political machine and its friendly corrupt labor leaders time and again, she’s actually run slates of candidates against machine-backed keepers of the insider status quo. “If you listen to the narrative about me, they’re like, ‘She doesn’t get along with people,” she told me. “That’s their way of saying I don’t just go along and I’m not willing to go to jail for them, right?”
Quiñones-Sánchez is the first Latina ever elected to Council and the first Puerto Rican/Latinx to win a District seat, and has become the city’s preeminent pragmatic progressive. She fights for her district (41 percent of whom are at or below the poverty line), but she’s no rigid ideologue. She’s a proud progressive—the driving force behind Council’s domestic workers bill of rights. But she’ll also take on sacred cows, as when she stood up to Kenney over his regressive soda tax. “I can sit in Council and be right all day and get nothing done,” she says, a stark contrast to Gym’s ideological rigidity.
Like Rhynhart, Quiñones-Sánchez is excessively real, a straight-shooter. And, like Brown, she’s highly likable. Because she embraces problem-solving over demonizing, the business community will work with her.
The Cons: You hear it all over town. Politicos, donors, business and civic leaders all say some version of the same thing when it comes to Quiñones-Sánchez. “I really like Maria, and I think she’d be a good mayor,” they say. “But she can’t raise money.”
It’s true that Quiñones-Sánchez hasn’t raised a lot of money for her district races, which have all been challenges to the establishment that she has barely won. But it’s telling, isn’t it, that that’s pretty much the only criticism you consistently hear about her?
Quiñones-Sánchez came here from Puerto Rico in the late ’60s, with her two older brothers and her mom, a factory worker who raised her 18 brothers and sisters. Hers is a story about persistence and resilience and the immigrant experience. If fundraising is Quiñones-Sánchez’s greatest challenge, would you bet against her?
The Pros: Once word got out that Jeff Brown was running, among those who snapped into action was Parker, the likely mayoral candidate of the politically powerful “Northwest Coalition” led by former Councilwoman Marian Tasco, Parker’s longtime mentor. In calls to party shot callers, I’m told that Parker was concerned that Brown could take Black votes from her.
She’s been more visible of late, coming off in appearances as charismatic, entertaining, and passionate. I tuned into one Zoom presentation in which her down home aphorisms had folks on the screen vigorously nodding their heads in agreement. (“Preach, girl!” one commenter noted in the chat.)
Parker has an inspiring personal story to tell, raised in North Philly by her grandmother, a domestic worker, who came of age in the Jim Crow south. Her upbringing, she has said, taught her to hate bullies and fuel her passion for battling inequality.
Parker served on Tasco’s Council staff, before being elected to the state house in 2005. There, during a 10-year tenure, Parker earned a reputation for bipartisan comity. She was elected to Council in 2015, succeeding Tasco, and has supported Kenney’s Pre-k and community schools initiatives. She stresses that economic growth is a key to Philadelphia’s future, and has championed incremental programs like a low-interest home repair program and a $10,000 first-time home buyer grant.
Parker is an accomplished inside player. I’ve spoken to business leaders who see her as someone they can deal with, a trusted caretaker mayor. The question is, will that be enough for Philadelphia voters in 2023, or will it be time for a true change agent?
The Cons: Most believe Parker will run in 2023, but don’t forget the resign to run roadblock. That would mean giving up a job that pays $140,000. The safer path might be to succeed Darrell Clarke as Council President.
If she does run, Parker will have to get explicit about her vision, and how her mayoralty will differ from Kenney, with whom she is so closely aligned. (Telllingly, she did not show up at Domb’s press conference this week in defiance of Kenney).
And she will no doubt have revisited upon her her 2011 DUI conviction while a state representative; she was driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and the officers testified that she smelled of alcohol, had no license, registration, or insurance card, and had trouble getting out of her state-owned car. She didn’t just take the case to trial; she accused the officers of making it all up. After losing her appeals, Parker spent three days in jail, paid a $1,000 fine, took a safe driving class, and went a year without a valid driver’s license. The negative ad from an independent expenditure group writes itself.
The Pros: Green is a smart, policy-oriented second term at-large councilman who also comes out of the Marian Tasco political lineage. In addition to having been a Tasco staffer, Green has a small business background—he and his wife, Sheila Mitchell-Green, owned and operated a shoe store—which informs his focus on economic growth.
Most recently, Green has introduced a bill to establish a public bank in order to boost access to capital for urban entrepreneurs. He’s also long talked about utilizing innovative social impact bonds, also known as pay for success bonds, as a way to incentivize investment in distressed neighborhoods.
Green comes alive talking policy, and is a student of history. He’s read every volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, and cites chapter and verse. He’s had a hard time getting media attention so far on Council, but he’s proven to be a steady, smart, problem-solving legislator.
The Cons: It’s a little hard to decipher Green’s lane in a crowded primary field, and whether he can raise enough money to compete is an open question. And would he want to give up his seat on Council for a longshot run for mayor?
Besides, as a product of the Northwest Coalition and of Tasco’s army, it may be expected that he defer to Cherelle Parker and wait his turn.
The Pros: Bass got her start in politics as a committee person and the president of her East Mount Airy Neighbors association. She worked for State Senator Allyson Schwartz and was the senior policy advisor on urban and domestic policy to former Congressman Chaka Fattah, who was convicted in 2016 on corruption charges.
Now in her third Council term, Bass has been a leading voice on neighborhood quality-of-life issues, most controversially her Stop and Go Bill, a crackdown on shops that exploit the poor by selling beer, shots and crack pipes. An original provision of the bill called for the removal of bulletproof partitions from such corner delis, an issue that went viral for running up against the safety concerns of shop owners. (As a compromise, L&I is studying the issue.)
Bass’ Nuisance Business Bill held businesses accountable if loitering or public drunkenness occurs on their premises. And she’s called for more funding for the streets department, and wants to see roving trash crews in neighborhoods that undergo chronic dumping.
As she exhibited this week at the mass vaccination press conference, she is willing to step up and lead, even if it means taking on the mayor.
The Cons: Will Bass give up her seat to run? That would mean walking away from significant security.
And, while Bass’ emphasis on neighborhood quality-of-life issues is much-needed, is that a platform that gets a candidate elected during a murder epidemic, an economic tsunami and an actual pandemic?
Finally, in 2019, Billy Penn wrote about what it called the “soft corruption” of Council’s Philadelphia Activities Fund, raising questions about some small grants Bass had steered to groups she was politically connected to. It was pretty penny ante stuff, and not at all illegal. But it does seem like more of the same, swamp-like behavior we’ve become accustomed to. It begs the question, will the electorate be in the mood for reform after eight years of Jim Kenney transactionalism?
That’s the lineup, though it’s still way early, and other candidates may yet emerge (like State Representatives Jared Solomon or Jordan Harris). But for now, I’m choosing to focus on the possibility that, after the desultory Kenney years—where intellectual curiosity has gone to die—we just may be in for some actual debate over solutions these next few years. At the dawn of 2021, that hope qualifies as something worth celebrating.