Philadelphia’s Progressive Movement Aims for the Mayor’s Office

A coalition of grassroots organizations concerned with criminal justice reform that helped elect Larry Krasner as DA in 2017 is now backing Helen Gym in the May primary.

Maura Ewing   |    May 2, 2023

Mayoral candidate Helen Gym speaking at February town hall event. (Twitter/Helen Gym)

On a Thursday evening in March, Robert Saleem Holbrook, the executive director of a local nonprofit called Straight Ahead, stood in front of a crowd at a small, West Philadelphia church. He looked out at the 100-plus people gathered, many of whom could be described as the who’s who of the city’s grassroots progressive organizers. The event was billed as a talk between one of the candidates in Philadelphia’s upcoming mayoral race and “The Movement Against Mass Incarceration.”

“We’re here today with the candidate that our movement backs,” he said. That candidate, Helen Gym, sat in the front row wearing a bright red suit. “[T]he reason that we back this candidate is because Helen Gym is someone to not only listen to us, she not only said, ‘Here’s my public safety campaign, what do you think of it?’ But rather said, ‘Hey, I need a public safety campaign, can you help me build it out?’” 

In a crowded field of nine Democratic candidates vying for office ahead of the May 16 primary, Gym is one of five with the fundraising and popular support to be truly viable. The primary is considered a de facto general election in this deeply blue city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of nearly seven to one. All of the leading candidates are pretty evenly split in recent polls, and unlike in Chicago, there are no runoffs here. So, the next mayor of Philadelphia could win with less than thirty percent of the vote. With just two weeks to go, campaigns are ramped to full speed. 

At the event in March, Gym spoke of violence tearing apart neighborhoods, emphasizing her overall public safety platform centered on investing in communities most affected by violence, bolstering trauma-informed services, and remodeling the police department.

“In the face of unmitigated violence that’s happening to our young people, to Black and brown youth all across the city of Philadelphia, it is our mission to be able to show a new path for how we’re going to save the city,” she said, “and deliver a vision for safety—and investment across Philadelphia—that does not drag the clock back on civil rights.” 

She added: “If it was about funding our police department… we should have the safest city in America.” (The Philadelphia Police Department’s nearly $800 million budget this fiscal year is the largest of any city agency and has grown by $150 million since 2016 when the current mayor took office.)

A Gym administration would be the most powerful seat held by Philadelphia’s burgeoning progressive political machine which has been strengthening since Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016. Since then, the left has delivered a number of blows to the typically centrist Democratic establishment in Philadelphia. The election of District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017—and his reelection four years later—has been the highest-profile victory, but a slew of other leftists have taken office at the neighborhood, city, and state level including the city’s first Working Family Party councilperson, two prominent community organizers elected to the state house, and a number of progressives at the helm of some of the city’s numerous Neighborhood Advisory Committees. 

The next mayor has their work cut out for them. Homicides over the last few years have reached a historic high, schools are closing because of asbestos contamination, people are dying from opioid overdoses at relentless rates, and economic disparity along racial lines is on the rise. At a time when the stakes for voters are so high for public safety, public education, and inequality, the fact that Gym is a viable candidate proves how far the city has come in taking left-wing politics seriously, explained Steph Drain, Philadelphia political director of the labor-aligned Working Families Party, which endorsed Gym. “[Jim] Kenney was considered progressive in 2015,” said Drain, referencing the current mayor. “But we are now recognizing that we are able to have someone who is actually progressive and not just settle for someone who is a moderate.” 

Some local activists have expressed frustration with Philadelphia politicians for their relative inaction, for example not standing up sufficiently in defense of Krasner’s criminal justice reforms when they’ve been assailed by state Republicans and other critics. To get an ally in the mayor’s office, they say, could be a game-changer to transform the city further. “It says that the progressive movement has teeth,” Drain said.

Gym was first elected to city council in 2015, becoming the first Asian American woman to sit on council after ascending over the past two decades through Philadelphia politics, from public school teacher, to activist, to elected representative. She was reelected in 2019 with a dramatic lead over other at-large council members, winning more votes than any other candidate for city council since the 1980s. She ran as an activist councilmember and ferocious defender of social justice causes, especially inequities in the public education system. She kept this profile up as a councilmember—one time going so far as being arrested at the state Senate with other activists demanding better funding for Philadelphia schools. During her tenure, she spearheaded a number of successful initiatives such as improving monitoring of lead in public schools and installing hydration stations, establishing ‘fair workweek’ regulations, and ending contracts with troubled juvenile detention providers where staff abuse ran rampant.

Critics accuse her of grandstanding, focusing on headlines more than policy. “You can’t go to get something passed in the Senate,” said another mayoral candidate, Cherelle Parker, in a recent forum. “[I]f you’re going to roll around on the floor, use a bullhorn, shout at the senators, and tell them they’re morally bankrupt.”

But Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval, who cut his teeth as a labor organizer and endorses Gym, rejects the notion that politicians need to leave their activist hat at the door in order to legislate effectively. “People who come out of social movements as organizers have a mode of coalition building and communicating among people who may not otherwise see eye to eye,” he said. He demonstrated this concept by passing a $125 million home repair program during his freshman term in a Republican majority legislature, with allies from across the aisle. 

Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016, delivering him to the White House. In Philadelphia, this moment galvanized grassroots organizations, many who supported Bernie Sanders during the primary of that election cycle, to come together and work in concert. In fact, former Sanders staffers and canvassers founded the leftist political group Reclaim Philadelphia, which has propelled several members to office, including Saval. 

“After the 2016 election, we saw the birth of Reclaim, the expansion of the [Democratic Socialists of America], empowerment of the [Working Family Party], these organizations with largely socialist ideals,” said Drain. “The momentum from Bernie Sanders delegates and voters transferred over to these political institutions. We’ve gained power.” 

Since then, community organizers have worked in tandem to support candidates who care about issues like environmental and racial justice. In 2017, over 30 of these groups formed the Coalition for a Just DA and hit the ground knocking on doors to usher Larry Krasner into office. The groups represented a wide array of communities most affected by the carceral system: LGBTQ people, sex workers, immigrant families, formerly incarcerated individuals, and victims of violent crime. That coalition has since disbanded, but a number of the original organizations are backing Gym. 

Holbrook said that the decision to back Gym was an easy one, based on history. “The relationship that she’s built with the left goes back years—to the years she was an activist in the community.” 

If she wins, Gym could govern alongside a veritable progressive flank in city council. Because so many current city council members left office to run for mayor, a wave of freshmen councilmembers will be ushered in next term. Five of the seven at-large seats up for election are open without incumbents; the race to fill them has drawn a large and diverse pool of candidates—with a distinct camp running as progressives, potentially upending the ideological balance in Philadelphia city government.

The only other mayoral candidate seen as liberal is former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who has roots as a Wall Street banker. Without a track record on city council, it’s hard to know how Rhynhart would govern, but during her tenure as comptroller, she did take on the establishment by conducting ruthless audits of agencies such as the Philadelphia Police Department. Her office’s report revealed deficient systems of accountability, inefficiencies in operations, and made her an enemy of the Fraternal Order of Police local chapter. However, on the campaign trail, she has positioned herself more as a technocrat, deft at navigating bureaucracy, friendly to business, and more aligned with the local political establishment. She boasts endorsements such as three former mayors, including Michael Nutter, who aggressively advanced stop-and-frisk during his tenure—and continues to support the tactic—and is a vocal critic of Krasner for being “anti-police.” 

Rhynhart also supported a controversial new curfew banning unchaperoned teens from a downtown mall after 2 p.m., which opponents see as a return to draconian policing of youth. Gym, who opposes the curfew, said so at a recent candidate forum. “We cannot criminalize young people.” 

As of April 28, the Democratic party itself has not endorsed any candidate. “The Democratic establishment here is in this fractured state,” Drain said. “But the progressives have figured it out from the beginning, moving in lockstep while the establishment is devouring itself.”

The West Philadelphia church gathering is emblematic of that cohesion. Last month Gym announced her public safety platform flanked by Holbrook and a number of other activists. “This conversation about public safety is one that is about investing in communities and actually stopping cycles of violence,” she said.

Public safety is the banner issue of Philadelphia’s campaign for mayor. According to a recent poll by the market-research firm SRSS and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, nearly 90 percent of Philadelphians believe crime should be a top priority for the city’s mayor. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Philadelphia has seen a devastating uptick of gun violence. Last year, the city recorded 516 homicides, a slight decrease from the year before but still surpassing the previous record of 500 set in 1990. Nearly nine out of ten murders between 2020 and 2022 were committed by firearm. The violence was heavily concentrated in communities of color, which have historically been under-resourced. 

The mayor will decide who leads the Philadelphia Police Department, propose the size of that department’s budget, as well as how funds are allocated to anti-violence programs.

The plan Gym has laid out prioritizes crime prevention with ambitious measures such as universal access to mental health treatment in neighborhoods most affected by gun violence, guaranteeing job placement assistance to young people in those neighborhoods, and ensuring that recreation centers are open nights and weekends—a plan she brought up directly in contrast to the new mall curfew for unchaperoned teens. She proposed deploying mobile mental health crisis units, staffed with social workers rather than police, 24/7. The plan focuses on the root causes of violence, namely poverty and trauma, rather than a carceral response. 

Gym’s public safety plan doesn’t increase the number of police officers in the department, but reorganizes how they are deployed. She endorses a community policing model that increases the number of cops on the street in high-crime neighborhoods; her case is that it would allow officers to form relationships with community members to improve relations. But critics of this approach say it could simply lead to more arrests and harassment in already over-policed sections of the city. When it’s been deployed in other cities, community policing has been criticized for still ostracizing Black and Latinx youth, even as police prioritize the concerns of other older residents in the same neighborhoods. 

“There’s always tension when we start talking about more policing in these already over-policed neighborhoods,” said Holbrook, who is also executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “As a movement, we are going to continue to navigate them.”

Gym’s critics in the mayoral race say that the cash-strapped city cannot fund her plans for public safety or other areas. Parker called Gym’s education plan “imaginary,” and said, “What taxes will you raise? What services will you cut?”

In response, Gym’s campaign says that her plans will not be funded by extra dollars off the average Philadelphian’s back, but primarily by leveraging state and federal funding that is available, for example, expanding job training programs that already rely on federal funds, and utilizing resources such as Medicaid to give low-income citizens access to mental health care.

“Other candidates in the race have promised to cut taxes across the board while also promising things like year-round schooling, neighborhood infrastructure improvements, hundreds more police officers, and expanded workforce development with minimal details on what that would look like—notably, these candidates rarely get asked how they would fund or implement such programs,” a spokesperson with Gym’s campaign wrote in a statement to Bolts. “While Helen’s vision for investing in people and neighborhoods and prioritizing residents in neighborhoods hardest hit by gun violence is a departure from the status quo, she is by no means the only candidate proposing new or different city services.” 

Gym has said that she would create a new commission to conduct a “comprehensive review” of existing tax policy, with an eye for instituting some reforms. And if necessary, reallocating city funds away from other areas to improve the services that Gym prioritizes is also on the table. “If the only way we can find money to clean a vacant lot in Nicetown is by spending less on center city or Rittenhouse square, Helen is prepared to do that,” the spokesperson wrote. 

Some other candidates’ messaging around public safety calls back to the “tough on crime” heavy-handed policing common in US cities throughout the 1990s—part of a national trend in political rhetoric that some have identified as a backlash against the historic uprisings against police brutality in 2020. “In some of these debates these candidates have sounded, if not centrist, and then somewhat more conservative than what you’d expect from a bunch of Democrats running in a big city,” Patrick Christmas, chief policy officer of the good governance group the Committee of Seventy told Bolts.

Parker has proposed hiring 300 new police officers, also with an emphasis on increased community policing. Three of the five leading contenders are open to some form of stop-and-frisk—which a judge found to be used in racist and unconstitutional ways here in 2011. The Philadelphia Police Department is still under court monitoring for its use of pedestrian searches.

“Under a Parker administration, every legal tool available, every constitutional tool available to our Police Department will be employed to ensure that we end this sense of lawlessness,” Parker told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And I’m no flip-flopper about it.”

Allan Domb, a real estate magnate and current at-large city councilmember, wants to triple the department’s recruitment budget and vows to thwart what he sees as a “culture of lawlessness” in the city.

Messages centered around police reform, often boiled to the phrase, “defund the police” have become a toxic concept in this election cycle. Gym, even as she tries to ward off accusations from the right that her proposed reforms would make the city less safe, has bowed to some of their pressure. “I am not coming in to dismantle departments that I myself run,” she told Al DÍA. But her supporters on the left have made it clear that, should she win, they will work to make sure she ushers in transformational changes on policing and justice.

Drain is drawing inspiration from the left’s victory in Chicago’s mayoral election in April. “I think that we saw that with Brandon Johnson, we have these education activists who are running these elections in cities that are dominated by the establishment,” they said. “It shows that Philly organizers are making it happen and it could happen in these large cities that haven’t seen change historically.”

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