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The Stakes of the Election: The Making of a Mayor

Predictions on election math, messaging that matters, and who will emerge the winner in May’s primary from a former Mayor candidate-turned-award winning documentarian

The Stakes of the Election: The Making of a Mayor

Predictions on election math, messaging that matters, and who will emerge the winner in May’s primary from a former Mayor candidate-turned-award winning documentarian

This has been an extraordinary political season. Concerned citizenship has erupted everywhere, evidencing the overall angst the electorate feels as well as their hopes for a way forward. Nightly forums, intensively policy-focused, have dominated the mayoral primary campaign trail.

But from a macro perspective, the landscape looks fractured and frightened.

There was a growing concern within large segments of the Democratic Party that the drift leftward will leave the city with Mayor Helen Gym, a prospect that sends shivers down the spines of developers, the construction industry and its workforce, and the Philadelphia establishment at large. There has been a lot of chatter that something needs to be done to cap Gym’s electoral ceiling and dilute her chances.

Of late, that fear has moved some donors and influencers toward one or more of the top-tier candidates. Better to be for someone than against? Former City Councilperson Cherelle Parker and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart seem to be the two principal beneficiaries of this trend. Former Mayors John Street and Michael Nutter have lined up for Rhynhart — although both endorsements were a matter of preference and not reaction. Rumors of Governor Rendell doing the same continue to percolate.

Senators Sharif Street and Vincent Hughes’ support for Parker, soon to be followed by other endorsements from other “electeds” may signal a consolidation within the African American political community, a move to be aided and abetted by the endorsement and funding from most of the Building Trades locals.

Meanwhile, grocer Jeff Brown and former City Councilperson Allan Domb continue to lead the field in spending, dropping huge buys on both broadcast and digital platforms.

I am asked every day: What do I think? Where is this going? Who is going to win? My prognosis is a today perspective informed by my own experience and electoral history.

Here goes:


In the four most recent contested Mayoral primaries, turnout ranged from 291,000 (2007) to 311,000 (1991). Only 234,000 voters showed up for Jim Kenney’s runaway victory in 2015. Add to this the precipitous decline in turnout in wards most populated with African American votes between the general elections of 2018 and 2022. In light of the large field and heavy campaign spending, I’m estimating that 257,500 voters will mail-in ballots or show up on May 16.

The Field.

Since the Home Rule Charter was implemented in 1951, this is the largest candidate field ever. In each of the four “open seat” contemporary primaries, five candidates competed. And in each of those primaries, at least two candidates fell into single digits. Collectively, those candidates garnered between 7.8 percent and 18.1 percent of the vote.

This year, we have 11 candidates. If the field stands, there will be six single-digit candidates. Assume together those six get about 13 percent of the vote. The pool remaining for the better-funded candidates is about 225,000 votes.


Gun violence and crime dominate the consciousness of the voters. It is no surprise that all of these candidates are talking about crime. Domb, Rhynhart, Parker and Brown have included anti-gun messaging in their ads. But prior to this election, none of them had built their brands as crime fighters. Helen Gym, having associated herself with defunding police, launched her media campaign with a crime-fighting message, a form of political inoculation anticipating the obvious attacks. Is a “real Helen Gym” ad in the works?


To ignore the atrophy afflicting Democratic City Committee or its constituent power sources — the Northwest Coalition, unions, clergy, etc.— requires a blind eye. The one sector in ascension is the progressive/most liberal wing of the party. Republican City Councilmember David Oh’s resignation reflects as much his desire to be mayor as it does his recognition that the Working Families Party is poised to win both City Council At-Large seats. Which race would you rather lose?

All of the big political successes of late have been earned by supporters of District Attorney Larry Krasner, State Senator Nikil Saval, State Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler and Rick Krajewski, City Council Members Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks and, of course, Helen Gym. This is the progressive wing of the Democratic party. Its adherents are committed, well-funded, organized and clearly learning how to win. Wins beget wins.

This year, we have 11 candidates. If the field stands, there will be six single-digit candidates. Assume together those six get about 13 percent of the vote. The pool remaining for the better-funded candidates is about 225,000 votes.

Winning Math.

Past mayoral primary election winners each walked away with 100,000+ votes: Rendell (146,000); Street and Nutter (106,000); and Kenney (130,000). In this race 100,000 votes might represent 39 percent of the vote, an outcome that would clearly advance the challenging prospects of governance. But this year, nobody will get anywhere near that number.

Candidates and their handlers love secrecy and love to talk. The polling chatter (bragging and positioning) portrays a “bunching” of the candidates each garnering between 12 to 20 percent. Much of this data was acquired before Parker, Gym, and Rhynhart started TV ads. The five leading candidates (Parker, Gym, Rhynhart, Brown and Domb) are scrambling for a piece of a 225,000 vote pie. Assuming the bottom two split 26 percent, and the top three battle for the rest (166,500 votes) it is possible that the winner gets by with just 55,500 votes or 21.4 percent. Yikes. It is more likely that the winner gets a bit more breathing room, say 22 to25 percent. Imagine the next mayor governing having been nominated with fewer than 60,000 votes.

Bottom line: Expect this to be a very close low turnout election.


What are the strategic options for the campaigns? Jeff Brown’s campaign has been entirely focused on building a large base of Black voters. It worked for a while and it may still. We may all be underestimating the degree of grocery store customer loyalty that has made the Brown advertising so credible. Brown has a path but it is narrowing. Brown needs to hold onto his Black support and cut into the pool of liberal White voters. He probably won’t need a huge swath of them.

But the problem is that “holding on” thing. As Parker’s media alerts more voters that a Black woman is running, she may shake enough of that support to doom Brown and put her campaign in close contention. Parker is slowly becoming the institutional Democratic choice. (Whether the institution is still breathing is uncertain.) But if she can generate 40 percent of the Black vote and 10 percent of the White vote she can win. Two big ifs!

Rebecca Rhynhart has run a solid campaign. Steady. Unflashy. Endorsements from two former mayors and The Inquirer are feathers in her cap. These give White voters who might want to support a progressive permission to vote for Rebecca. In the closing weeks, she needs to up her game and emotionally connect with audiences and voters in a way she has not. Hoping that Domb and Brown destroy each other so she can “run up the middle” could create opportunity, but the burden is on Rhynhart.

For Allan Domb, who has matured politically and has an extraordinary resource advantage, his best chance is a small-margin win where all five top-tier candidates hang very close to each other. Historically, that rarely happens in mayoral elections. Given both the field and his brand, Domb’s access to voters of color feels very limited. Thus, he needs to significantly grow his White voter base — a tall order when White voters are spread among numerous candidates.

Two admirable public servants and candidates, Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Derek Green, lack the financial support to remain competitive but are encouraged and likely warriors to the end because the forums give them equal standing and a unique life opportunity.  That needs to be factored into the electoral arithmetic.

And then there is the Helen Gym campaign. Like her politics or not, she is a dynamic politician with very good fundraising and candidate skills. Her operation knows how to succeed in a left-leaning electorate. In 2019 she enjoyed third ballot position for Council-at-large, a helpful position but not one providing great advantage. Gym lapped the next leading candidate by 41,000 votes, garnering 100,000. Every indication suggests that her base bottoms at 20 percent. Her path to victory appears to be the shortest distance between two points.


Political prognosticators most often find themselves hoisted on their own petard. Check me out in six weeks. I’m not entirely sure what a petard is but that could be where you’ll find me.

Politics is best watched through a video camera.

Today, I’m just using a Polaroid.

Through it, I see Mayor Helen Gym.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Helen Gym’s ballot position in 2019. It was third.



From left: Allan Domb, Jeff Brown, Maria Quiñones Sánchez, Rebecca Rhynhart, and Helen Gym. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce

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