The race to be Philly’s 100th Mayor is in a dead heat with three women as top contenders.
With two days remaining until the May 16 Pennsylvania primary election, Philadelphia may be on its way to its first woman and possibly its first Black woman mayor.
An unprecedented election cycle, Philly’s Democratic mayoral primary is the hottest in the region. Beginning with 12 mayoral candidates – 11 Democrats and one Republican – six of them are former city councilmembers who resigned as required in order to run. Four of the candidates in the Democratic primary were women. One has since dropped out. Former City Councilmember David Oh, the first Asian elected to council in 2011, is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
Founded in 1682, Philadelphia’s first mayor, Humphrey Morrey was appointed in 1691 by William Penn, the city’s founder. Whoever wins in 2023 will be the city’s 100th mayor. Many think it should be a woman. Some think it should be a Black woman.
Research from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University reveals that in 2023, of the 100 most populous cities in the U.S., 33 have women mayors. Nine are Black women, 3 are Latina and 5 are Asian/Pacific Islander women.
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Philadelphia’s population is a little over 1.5 million, making it Pennsylvania’s largest municipality and the sixth largest city in the nation. According to the most recent U.S. Census statistics, its residents are 43.6% Black, 33.7% white (alone not Hispanic or Latino), 15.9% Latino and 8.0% Asian. Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1 and have dominated the city’s political realm since the early 1950s. Independents are restricted from voting in Pennsylvania primaries. In this scenario, the winner of the Democratic Primary will probably be the mayor.
Of the remaining Democratic candidates five are considered front runners who are in a dead heat. Philadelphia nonprofit election watchdog, Committee of Seventy, conducted the first nonpartisan public poll of the 2023 Philadelphia mayor’s race and found a statistical tie among the top Democratic candidates.
According to the poll, Democratic voters selected the three remaining women as the top contenders: Rebecca Rhynhart (18%), Cherelle Parker (17%), Helen Gym (15%). Allan Domb (14%) and Jeff Brown (11%) ranked fourth and fifth. Twenty percent of voters remain undecided.
Helen Gym was born in Seattle, Washington to Korean immigrants and raised in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio.
She moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. After college, Gym returned to Ohio to work as a reporter for the Mansfield News Journal. In 1994, she returned to Philadelphia to teach in the city’s public schools. After a year she resigned to become an education activist/community organizer.
Gym co-founded Parents United for Public Education and is one of the founders of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent, free news service. She also co-founded the Folk Art Cultural Treasures School, a charter school in Chinatown. In 2015, Gym became the first Asian woman to be elected to the Philadelphia City Council.
Cherelle Parker was born in Philadelphia to a single teenage mother and raised by her grandparents. While in high school, she was an intern in the office of the now retired City Councilmember Marian B. Tasco.
The first in her family to attend college, Parker earned a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Post-college, she taught high school English in Philadelphia’s public school district before joining Tasco’s staff.
In 2005, Parker was elected to Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives and made history as the youngest Black woman elected to the legislature. Elected by her colleagues to chair the Philadelphia Delegation, it was in this role that she earned her reputation as one of the most effective legislators in Harrisburg.
Following 10 years in the state House, she was elected to City Council in 2016 where she served as Majority Leader. She also is the first woman to chair the board of the Delaware River Port Authority.
Rebecca Rhynhart was born in Madison, Wisconsin and grew up in a Reform Jewish family in Abington, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
She has a bachelor’s from Middlebury College and received a master’s degree from Columbia University. Before her involvement in city government, Rhynhart was a managing director at Bear Stearns and worked on municipal debt at the Fitch Rating Agency.
In 2008, she returned home to serve in Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration as Philadelphia’s City Treasurer. Subsequently, she became budget director. Rhynhart also served as the Chief Administrative Officer in Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration before becoming the first woman elected City Controller.
Maria Quiñones Sánchez’s parents brought her to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico as a baby.
She studied journalism at Temple University and earned a master’s degree from Lincoln University. Before her career in electoral politics, Sanchez was executive director of ASPIRA, Pennsylvania’s largest Latino educational institution. She also worked in Tasco’s office. Sanchez made history in 2007 as the first Latina elected to City Council.
She has since suspended her campaign citing, “the obnoxious, obscene amount of money that is shaping the race.” Former Councilmember Derek Green, an attorney who worked for Tasco, suspended his mayoral campaign for the same reason. Both have since publicly endorsed and thrown their support behind Parker.
The Millionaire’s Club
For the first time in Philly’s history, an unprecedented amount of money poured into the Democratic primary by Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs. According to campaign rules, Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates or their campaigns. They can also raise funds through nonprofits that don’t have to disclose donors. This added to the coffers of candidates with deep pockets.
Real Estate developer Allan Domb was raised in a working-class family in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. He moved to Philadelphia in 1977 after graduating from American University.
Domb studied real estate at Temple University and established his career as a realtor. He soon became the top residential realtor in the nation. The real estate mogul is now a top developer with a portfolio worth over $400 million. Known as “the Condo King,” Domb won an At-Large seat on City Council in 2015. He has self-funded his mayoral campaign to the tune of $7 million.
Grocer Jeff Brown was born in Philly’s Greater Northeast. The family later moved to Montgomery County where he graduated from Abington High School.
His family owned a grocery store in West Philadelphia where he learned the business. Brown is now a multi-millionaire who owns a chain of ShopRite and Fresh Grocer supermarkets in the Philadelphia region. In preparation for his candidacy, he established a reputation as a philanthropist who hires returning citizens. He is the only candidate that has not held elected office.
Currently, Brown is under scrutiny by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics for violating city campaign finance law, allegedly coordinating with For A Better Philadelphia, a Super PAC that spent millions on commercials supporting his campaign. The board has filed suit against the PAC, but Brown denies coordinating with the PAC and continually claims that the case has been settled. The board says it has not.
The Black vote divided
Black voters are the largest voting block in Philadelphia’s Democratic Party. It’s common knowledge that candidates running citywide must attract a large portion of that block in order to win.
“It seems that others have learned what we have forgotten,” reminded Anthony Lewis, nationally-respected housing advocate/consultant and former director of the Housing Association of the Delaware Valley for over 30 years. “More than ever before, you see that all the candidates understand the power of the ‘Black’ vote in Philadelphia. In almost every mailer I received and every TV advertisement, one can see candidates appealing to the Black vote by parading their African-American supporters.”
Two of Philly’s Black mayors, former Mayor John Street and former Mayor Michael Nutter endorsed Rhynhart and appeared with her in commercials. Street admitted he was paid $22,000 for his support. Also, renowned boxer, Bernard Hopkins, recently featured in a commercial voicing support of Domb. Other Black community activists also were in commercials for Rhynhart.
“Sadly too many of those supporters are being paid directly or indirectly for their support and they care nothing about what the candidate they are purporting to support will do for the Black Community,” lamented Lewis, a member of the highly-influential Laborer’s Local 332 who has consulted on numerous campaigns. “It is particularly disheartening when you see these actions by people who only came to prominence by the Black vote.”
In the beginning of the race, Brown was confident he had the Black vote in his pocket because of his stores and philanthropy. This backfired after the release of his first commercial featuring former First Lady Michelle Obama recognizing him at the 2011 State of the Union Address for opening some of his stores in “food deserts.”
The commercial gave the appearance of an endorsement. However, a representative for Obama said she is not supporting Brown who did not get permission to use her likeness. Some of his Black support has fallen off because of what’s seen by some as a paternalistic “savior” attitude towards the Black community. Brown suffers from foot-in-mouth disease and is the cause of his loss of support.
Included in Brown’s campaign woes, two unions representing city streets and sanitation workers recently broke with AFSCME District Council 33’s endorsement of Brown. The predominately Black unions are now endorsing Parker due to Brown’s campaign slogan to “pick up the damn trash.”
“The mayor’s race is divided today because the Black community is divided and it lacks strong leadership,” stated JoAnn Bell, one of the founders of Philadelphia’s Black Women’s Leadership Council. “Black Philadelphia’s growth has been stunted by a fear that they will lose the little they have if they stand up to the “plantation politics” that’s ruled the city for hundreds of years.”
Bell thinks Gym is continuously duplicitous and “is more interested in performative activism rather than attainable solutions.” Gym joined those protesting and criticizing the Union League for honoring Florida’s Gov. DeSantis. However, a week later, she was seen at the private club having cocktails with the General Building Contractors Association. She is seen by Bell and others as opportunistic.
Bell, a talk show host, expressed the opinion of a large segment of Philly’s Black voters. “Despite having elected three Black mayors, progress has been slow. Black Philadelphians are not a part of the economic engines that control this city. It is my hope that we will fight to end this malaise by electing the first Black woman mayor.”