On the heels of Brandon Johnson’s historic win in Chicago, Philadelphia is preparing for a critical primary election on May 16. With the mayor’s office and all 17 City Council seats on the ballot, there is a legitimate opportunity to win a progressive governing bloc that could advance a new vision for the poorest big city in the country. Two-term City Council member Helen Gym, a former teacher and parent activist, is competing in a crowded race for mayor. Several progressive candidates are vying for City Council posts.
The last several years have seen the city’s community organizing groups, labor unions, and progressive activists flex their electoral muscle and win a handful of key elections. Contending for the mayor’s office and a City Council majority, however, represents a significant jump in scale that will put that muscle to the test—and the result could set the direction for the city.
Philadelphia has been struggling for decades to address the effects of deindustrialization and disinvestment that have left 22.3% of the population living in poverty. Decades of underfunding public schools has undermined the quality of public education and created a crisis of decaying school buildings. Gentrification is pushing low-income residents out of their neighborhoods. On top of all this, the city has been in the midst of an unprecedented gun violence crisis that is now defining this election cycle. A Pew Charitable Trusts survey in 2022 found that 70% of the city believes crime, drugs, and public safety is the number one issue.
Many local organizers see this election as a critical turning point the city. “The future of public education in the city is at stake and if we don’t win affordable housing our members will be pushed out,” said Steve Paul, Co-Executive Director of One PA. “Given a progressive majority we can push a bold vision on education and housing. We could see a vision for safety that emphasizes care and not criminalization. We know that can happen,” he said.
“We are in a crucial period where we are either going to swing to the right—you have candidates who are pro-incarceration who want to bring back stop-and-frisk—or we could swing in the other direction and realize that this is a human issue,” said Steph Drain, Political Director of the Pennsylvania Working Families Party (WFP), “The solutions we need are to get to the root of the problem. We need to focus on prevention. We have to invest in communities, invest in housing and schools and good paying jobs,” they said.
The growth of progressive electoral power
Philadelphia has a long history of labor and community organizing. Up until the 2010s the city’s community organizing groups focused far more on issue-based work than elections, and progressive unions were vastly outspent on elections by the moderate, pro-growth building trades. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 – 1, this often left elections as battles between various factions within the Democratic Party. Party structures that had been built as ways for working-class communities and communities of color to gain political power had in many cases ossified into a patronage machine with a notorious pay-to-play culture and limited vision of transformative politics. “Philadelphia has a radical Black tradition, but we witnessed their offspring becoming the establishment. Now you see a reawakening of the Black Left in Philadelphia,” said Drain.
A dramatic shift in progressive electoral politics began to occur in 2015. New electoral forms emerged. Community organizing groups increased their investment in electoral work—and their cooperation. Progressive unions began exerting their power. In 2016, volunteers from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign began building Reclaim Philadelphia to contest for political power across the city. Soon after, their leaders had taken control of two Democratic Party wards and had a solid base within others. By May 2018, working with Neighborhood Networks, Reclaim elected 200 committee people across the city.
Also in 2016 labor unions and community groups formed the Pennsylvania Working Families Party.
In 2015, the 215 People’s Alliance became one of the first community groups to develop a full-scale voter engagement program, connecting electoral and issue-based work. Four years later, more than 20 community organizing groups formed the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia and developed a shared platform for City Council candidates. In 2023 they did so again with a larger coalition and platforms for mayor and City Council. This effort spoke to growing alignment in the community organizing sector.
This new organizing fed—and was fed by—electoral wins. Helen Gym first won an at-large City Council seat in 2015, with support from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and progressive activists across the city. The following year longtime civil rights attorney Larry Krassner was elected District Attorney on a criminal justice reform platform; he was reelected in 2021. In 2019, in a major coup, Kendra Brooks, a parent activist from North Philadelphia, ran on the WFP ticket and won one of the two City Council at-large seats reserved for minority parties, unseating a Republican. That same year, a progressive new to politics who championied equitable development, Jamie Gauthier, shocked the city by defeating longtime West Philadelphia Council Member Jannie Blackwell. Reclaim members Elizabeth Fielder, Nikil Saval, and Rick Krajewski won seats in the state legislature in 2018 and 2020.
In addition, this time period saw multiple waves of mass protest against police violence that, combined with decades of organizing against mass incarceration, sparked the electoralizing of movements for racial justice and criminal justice reform. Groups like Amistad Movement Power, Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, Free the Ballot, and Straight Ahead have built significant voter engagement programs over the last few years and have put people impacted by the criminal justice system on the forefront of organizing to transform it.
As progressive power has grown, both the Right and the center have pushed back against it. Billionaires and corporate interests have poured millions of dollars into defeating progressives and advancing pro-business interests. In 2022 they used PACs to send mailers attacking progressive candidates for being soft on crime. The current mayor’s race features two wealthy candidates who have spent millions of dollars on their own campaigns while raising millions more for aligned PACs.
In addition, after losing a few races to progressive insurgents, the Democratic Party establishment has rallied its troops to fight for endorsed candidates and marginalize progressives within the party structure. Party leaders have attempted to paint progressives as out-of-touch outsiders who don’t understand the concerns of working-class Philadelphians.
Some critics have suggested that progressive growth has occurred mostly in gentrifying neighborhoods and that it is not rooted in working-class Philadelphia, but local organizers push back on that idea. “That’s not reflected by what happens when people get out to vote,” said Reclaim Philadelphia’s political director, Sergio Cea. “The first election we are known for is the election of Larry Krassner, who won citywide outside of gentrifying areas in areas affected by gun violence—not just one time but two times.”
“The Left is a multi-racial coalition,” Drain said. “Sure there are students and young transplants, but in Philadelphia there is a budding Black Left. You see that with these formerly incarcerated folks and criminal justice organizations who really are pioneering a new direction.”
“We have to organize Black working-class neighborhoods,” said One PA’s Steve Paul. “My people talk about how they’ve been betrayed by the party. You gotta talk to people. Traditional Dems aren’t knocking on doors. We are doing the hard work.”
Crime and safety shaping the race
Nowhere has the pushback against progressives been clearer than on the issue of gun violence and policing. Like other big cities, from 2016 to 2020 Philadelphia saw several waves of racial justice protests that shifted long standing narratives on policing. Krassner won election and re-election. Organizers won a partial victory in 2020 when the mayor’s proposed $19 million budget increase for police was canceled.
Since then, however, the tides have begun to turn.
In the current mayor’s race, no candidate is calling for reducing police funding and many are competing to take tough on crime stances that they believe now resonate with voters. While polls do show that voters think crime and violence are the top issue, only about half of voters think increasing funding for police is a key solution and when presented with multiple options for how to address crime and violence, increasing funding for police is one of least popular options.
The election may hinge on who is able to present a more compelling program on how to address this crisis. “I’m excited about following in the footsteps of Chicago and Boston where everyday working people who have been subject to the tough on crime policies have seen that it doesn’t work, that it creates harm, and see that we need to address the root cause which is poverty and disinvestment in Black and brown communities,” Cea said.
Battle for the mayor’s office
The mayor’s race has five leading candidates. Helen Gym has the backing of the leading progressive groups. As a City Council member, she helped restore nurses, counselors, social workers, clean water, and arts and music to the school district. She championed legislation that created the city’s first mental health crisis response units, as well as eviction protection and fair scheduling bills that grew out of labor-community coalition work.
Gym’s campaign has made a comprehensive community safety plan its first priority. It includes declaring a state of emergency on day one, reducing 911 response times, community driven interventions, supporting victims of crime, and opportunities for young people. She has also released bold policy proposals including a 10-year, $10 billion Green New Deal for Schools, and jobs guarantee for young people. Her opposition includes former City Controller and Wall Street staffer Rebecca Rynhart and former State Representative and council member Cherelle Parker, along with the two self-funded candidates, former City Council member and real estate magnet Alan Domb and supermarket owner Jeff Brown. Over the last several weeks different factions of the party establishment have been consolidating around Ryhnhart and Parker. Rynhart is a policy wonk who has gathered endorsements from three former mayors and has solid support from middle-class liberal voters.
Parker has the support of many Black and Latinx wards including Northwest Coalition, the vaunted political machine that has been central to choosing several mayors. In contrast to Gym, Parker favors tax cuts for businesses to promote commercial corridors and has centered her campaign on protecting what she calls “middle neighborhoods,” once-stable Black and brown neighborhoods that are now struggling. Most significantly, Parker’s safety plan calls for hiring 300 new police officers and she has expressed openness to revisiting the “stop and frisk” policy that Philadelphia voters voted down several years ago.
City Council opportunities
With five city council members having resigned to run for mayor, the future of that body is up for grabs in this election as well. Twenty-seven candidates are vying for five majority party at-large seats. Incumbents Isaiah Thomas and Katherine Gilmore Richardson are all but assured victory and have often voted with progressives. Rue Landau is former housing rights lawyer who has been endorsed by progressive groups like Reclaim and the WFP, as well as the city’s Democratic Party, and stands a good chance to win.
Two other progressives are running strong campaigns but will have to vie against candidates with more party support. Erika Almirón is the former executive director of the Latinx immigrant organizing group Juntos. She ran a strong campaign in 2019 and this time has support from key Latinx ward leaders. She is running to be the first Latina elected to citywide office on a platform that includes affordable housing, fully funded schools, and economic justice. She was recommended this time by the Democratic Party and is endorsed by Mijente national. Amanda McIlmurray is a founding member of Reclaim and has strong grassroots support across the city. Her campaign is focused on affordable housing, community safety, workers’ rights, and universal family care.
District council races are rarely competitive, but this election features two strong district campaigns from progressives. Andrés Celin is a former community organizer and staffer for Helen Gym who is running for the 7th district in the eastern part of North Philadelphia. This district has the most concentrated Latinx population in the city and has also been the center of the city’s opioid crisis. He is running a grassroots campaign driven by young people and community members who came together through years of organizing. Celin presents a powerful vision for transforming one of the city’s most neglected neighborhoods. Seth Anderson-Oberman is a longtime union organizer running for the 8th district seat in Northwest Philadelphia. He is a co-founder of the Labor Coalition for Black for Lives and is running a campaign around a new approach to public safety, housing justice, fully funded public schools, and equitable community investment.
“These aren’t just folks that we just like their policies,” One PA’s Steve Paul said of the candidates the group endorsed. “They were organizing on the ground with us before they ran. The fact that they are running shows the power we are building.”
A test for the Left
As opposed to Chicago, where the mayor’s race pitted a Black progressive against a white moderate. Philadelphia’s politics create a more complex dynamic across race, class, and political ideology. While more conservative forces are present, two factions will be the main contenders for the working-class Black and Latinx voters who will likely determine the outcome. On the one side is a left/progressive coalition of labor unions and community organizing groups putting forward a redistributive approach to taxes, affordable housing, and public education and a community-centered approach to safety. On the other side, the neighborhood-based political establishment that has supported the city’s working class for decades is proposing gradual tax cuts, support for small businesses, attention to quality-of-life issues, and a tough on crime approach to community safety.
Clearly progressives have made significant advances over the last seven years. Now their ability to win governing power will depend on the extent to which they have built deep and lasting relationships in Black, Brown, and working-class communities, and the degree to which they have convinced voters that their vision truly makes another Philadelphia possible.
While focusing on the possibilities of this moment, organizers are still holding the longer view “As a Black man and an immigrant, this is the first time I’ve seen a dream ticket,” Paul said. “But electoral politics alone is not gonna get us the changes we need. The problems our communities face are structural; the solutions to those problems require that we have mass movements in the streets, direct actions and political power. Helen Gym gets that. The candidates we endorse get it. We are in this for the long haul,“ he said.
Reflecting on the city’s troubled history and potential for transformation, Drain of the WFP added, “This is just the beginning. We will have a progressive mayor, and we will keep moving forward. Philly is a powerful place with a lot of powerful organizers, a lot of powerful Black folks. The MOVE bombing happened here. That has to be rectified. Philly has to do right by its children.”