And They're Off! The 2023 Mayor's Race Starts in Earnest

With Councilmember Helen Gym’s entrance into the 2023 Philadelphia Mayoral race this week, all of the candidates we mentioned in our overview from earlier this fall have now declared their candidacies, and the race has begun in earnest. 

At the moment, the field better resembles the 2007 Mayoral primary, with several strong candidates with established bases of support, than the 2015 race which was more-or-less a race between Jim Kenney and Tony Williams. There are also some complex geographic and factional divisions in the race that are being sketched out now even before anyone has really had much of a chance to pitch themselves.

In addition to Councilmember Gym—a public education activist-turned-legislator with two terms as an At-Large representative—the left-of-center lane in the primary also features some competition between 4-term Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez, and to some extent, Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.  

Councilmember Gym, who is sure to run as the most left-wing candidate in the Mayor’s race, has had some successes in nationalizing local politics in a way that has positioned her as part of a national left movement of state and local legislators. Campaigns like the one supporting her “Fair Work Week” legislation, which regulates employer scheduling practices, are a good example of this dynamic. Election watchers can very likely expect to see some air cover from national left organizations promoting her candidacy and recruiting small donors online.

Both Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Rebecca Rhynhart have established records of success at beating the city Democratic Party machine in upset elections, winning them good-will from some progressive and change-oriented factions, but both would likely struggle to compete in a race to the left with Gym, who is guaranteed some amount of left institutional support and also likely the support of some teachers’ union organizations. Where Sánchez and Rhynhart might have some advantages over Gym in attracting support from a similar base of voters is in the additional policy and management credentials they bring to the conversation. 

Councilmember Sánchez has made a name for herself as a behind-the-scenes heavy-hitter in city government alongside of her more visible and prolific legislative record, and has a reputation as a policy leader among Council colleagues and staff on both the legislative and administration sides. Among the Council members running for Mayor, Sánchez is arguably best situated to start running the city bureaucracy on Day One. Sánchez also has a very iconoclastic record on Council, presiding over both left-coded pieces of legislation along with more business-friendly legislation like small business tax reform and the Mixed-Income Housing density bonus program. 

Rebecca Rhynhart is likely to have a lot of supporters in the left-of-center lane too, but she also is likely to appeal to some of the voters who want the next Mayor to get a handle on lagging city services. Rhynhart is one of just a few Mayoral candidates with executive experience—in addition to businesspeople Allan Domb and Jeff Brown—from running an agency of over 125 employees, which is arguably the more relevant type of executive experience for running the city government. 

Rhynhart has also carved out a lane during her tenure as someone who is serious about using data to improve public policy and solve problems, making several useful contributions to the ongoing debates over violence prevention, policing, and taxes. That kind of technocratic skill set and approach to solving public problems may also have some appeal to the voters who are interested in Brown, Domb, or Derek Green.

Real estate businessman-turned-Councilmember Allan Domb and Shoprite owner Jeff Brown are competing for the more moderate lane in the race, with both men expected to contribute significant personal resources to their campaigns. As a two-time elected official who has twice been on the citywide ballot, Councilmember Domb is likely starting the race with more name recognition than Brown. On Council, Domb has prioritized education and financial literacy and economic development issues, which could resonate in the current economic environment. He’s also been campaigning most overtly on public safety topics so far in the race, which is top-of-mind for voters.

Jeff Brown’s candidacy has a somewhat different appeal, where he has been showcasing the significant support he has received from Black voters in the communities that are home to his multiple Shoprite grocery stores. It seems clear that Brown, who is white, will have quite a few prominent Black validators and surrogates making the case for him in the race, but whether this will persuade any significant portion of Black voters to vote for Brown remains to be seen. Brown, who was a very visible public foe of Mayor Kenney’s soda tax proposal during the time it was being debated, hasn’t spoken much about the soda tax on the campaign trail so far, focusing his pitch instead mainly on jobs and workforce development issues. 

Councilmember Derek Green, a small business owner and practicing attorney, has developed a political brand on City Council where he has operated as more of a problem-solver, with some similarities in tone and substance to Rebecca Rhynhart’s political brand. Green has taken on issues like access to capital for minority-owned businesses, workforce development, simplifying city business regulations, and establishing a public bank for Philadelphia—all important topics, if lacking in the kind of pizzazz that makes for potent campaign fodder. 

In a race where few of the candidates have wanted to come out and directly criticize Councilmember Gym just yet, Green raised some eyebrows by giving a sharp-elbowed quote to the press right on the day of her announcement. On the one hand, a signal from Green that he won’t be afraid to tangle with Gym and her supporters may strike some undecided constituencies as a positive mark, however, the swipe also struck some center-left voters who aren’t yet sold on Gym as gratuitous. 

The conventional wisdom at the moment is also that Green is competing with Councilmember Cherelle Parker for a similar base of voters in Northwest Philly, where they both live, and where the Northwest Coalition of Democratic ward leaders will be an important power broker. Northwest Coalition leaders had supported Mayor Jim Kenney’s 2015 run, and the rumor from that time was that this backing came with an understanding that Kenney would then support Councilmember Parker for Mayor in 2023. None of the candidates seem to be beating down the door for Mayor Kenney’s endorsement exactly, but this would mainly be interesting if the Coalition leadership’s plan remains unchanged since 2015.

Councilmember Parker has been courting the support of the city’s business community and the building trades with some success, having developed a record on Council as a pragmatic operator who has passed several popular initiatives like the Taking Care of Business Clean Corridors street sweeping program and the Restore-Repair-Renew program for home improvement loans. Parker also advocated for restoring funding for the Commerce Department after the Kenney administration cut their budget during COVID. 

Two more candidates are also expected to enter the Mayor’s race, including Municipal Court Judge James ‘Jimmy’ DeLeon, and State Rep. Amen Brown. 

Rep. Brown may be the more consequential of the two candidates, although neither is considered particularly viable. Brown has blazed a trail as a more moderate antagonist of the Democratic Party’s left wing, and has recently attracted the interest of some New York-based developer allies who are expected to fund an independent expenditure campaign supporting his Mayoral bid. The Inquirer ran a story over the weekend about the bizarre circumstances of Brown’s announcement speech in New York in a literal smoke-filled room. According to the rumor mill, an announcement in Philadelphia was scheduled for this week, but seems to have been postponed. 

Sources close to Brown have been spreading the word that the independent expenditure campaign could be as much as $15 million—an amount unlikely to elect Brown as the Democratic nominee, but which could nonetheless prove to be a destabilizing factor in the race, particularly for other candidates running on some variation of the public safety themes Brown has been highlighting in recent appearances. 

Without any form of ranked-choice or run-off voting in Philadelphia, the Mayoral race is going to be an exercise in claiming the largest tiny slice of the pie, and the eventual winner could capture the Democratic nomination with as little as 20% of the vote, or even less. And with voter turnout expected to be lower than in this year’s midterm, it could be anyone’s game.

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2022-12-09 16:50:35 -0500