The Emerging At-Large Primary Field for Philly City Council

With three Democratic At-Large members having resigned to run for Mayor, the At-Large City Council candidate field in 2023 was expected to be pretty crowded. So far, though, it doesn’t appear the race will be quite as crowded as it was in the 2019 cycle when there were just two open seats. The 2019 Democratic primary had attracted 30 At-Large candidates, while the 2015 primary—with just one open seat—featured 15 At-Large Democrats on the ballot. 

What’s happened so far this cycle is that two At-Large members—Derek Green and Allan Domb—resigned to run before the deadline where they could be replaced in a special election in the fall. Democratic City Committee nominated two people for those seats—Sharon Vaughn and Jimmy Harrity— who then went on to win the special elections in November.

Sharon Vaughn has said she will not be running for the full term in the spring, but Harrity is running and is expected to be endorsed by City Committee. At-Large Councilmember Helen Gym resigned after the general election to run for Mayor, and there is not currently a plan to fill her vacated seat in a special election.

With Harrity in the race, there are technically only two open seats with no incumbent running, however, it seems unlikely that Harrity will amass much of an incumbency advantage in just a few months on the job before the primary election. He is able to send official taxpayer-funded City Council mail for a period to increase his name recognition and has begun doing so. 

With incumbent At-Large members Isaiah Thomas and Kathy Gilmore-Richardson all but certain to receive City Committee’s endorsement too, that leaves two spots on the Party’s dance card for the fourth and fifth spots. There are various rumors circulating about what City Committee will do, and the latest is that they plan to endorse in four of the five slots, leaving one open. City Committee’s 2023 endorsements should be announced on January 30th or 31st, before the petition period begins.

The candidate names that have been reported so far, or that have shown up on the Board of Ethics's list of registered committees, include:

Nina Ahmad

Jalon Alexander

Christopher Gladstone Booth

Sherrie Cohen

Abu Edwards

Ogbonna ‘Paul’ Hagins

Terrill ‘Ya Fav Trashman’ Haigler

Gregg Kravitz

Rue Landau

Amanda McIllmurray

Will Mega

Daniel Orsino

Katherine Gilmore Richardson

Michelle Prettyman

Eryn Santamoor

Curtis Segers

Isaiah Thomas

Donavan West

The list of expected or rumored candidates is somewhat longer, however, and this week we’ll be sharing that longer rumor mill list with a bit of context where available. 

Top Tier of Viability 

Currently, Kathy Gilmore Richardson and Isaiah Thomas, both elected in 2019, are the only two At-Large incumbents running for re-election in 2023 after serving a full term. Neither member has made significant enemies the last four years, and both are expected to appear on the slates of endorsing organizations across the Democratic spectrum. The only significant risks to either member at this point would be if they were to draw an exceptionally weak ballot position, or if they were to raise so little money that they couldn’t communicate with their base to a degree that matters.

Second Tier of Viability

Ranking candidate viability beyond the two roundly-well-liked incumbents is admittedly a subjective exercise—especially in the absence of any polling, and before the campaigns’ fundraising reports are released on January 31st

But from our own information-gathering about who is supporting whom, and of how some of the stronger endorsing organizations and interest groups are thinking about the primary, some patterns have emerged that are worth sharing for discussion purposes. We hope candidates won’t take it personally; this is simply an attempt to synthesize and summarize what we have been hearing from various local politics observers across the spectrum these last few months. 

Jimmy Harrity, by virtue of being an incumbent likely to receive City Committee backing, has a place in the second tier rather than the third-tier position we might have assigned him without those advantages. Harrity’s chief strength comes from being personal buddies with Bob Brady, Sharif Street, and other top party figures, rather than any particular record of achievement in public service or name recognition. 

Harrity is also likely to have some building trades unions’ support, but it’s not clear yet how much this has to do with obligation versus genuine enthusiasm, which could affect the scale of the election program various unions may run for Harrity. This distinction is important, as it is unclear what kind of personal fundraising capacity Harrity has, beyond his relationships with Brady and the building trades. 

Other candidates said to be in the running for City Committee’s endorsement include Eryn Santamoor and Rue Landau

Eryn Santamoor ran for an At-Large seat in 2019, coming in 8th place behind Justin DiBerardinis and Adrián Rivera-Reyes. Since then she has worked for Councilmember Allan Domb, and continued to build political relationships across the city. Prior to her 2019 run, Santamoor had been a public sector consultant with PFM, and had worked in the Nutter administration. Her political appeal is similar to that of Rebecca Rhynhart as a technocrat suited to tackling complex public problems. Santamoor built up a lot of goodwill with the hospitality industry, urbanists, and corridor organizations during the debate over outdoor streeteries, serving as the main coordinator around this on City Council. She’s also apparently built up a lot of ward leader support since her last run, building relationships across the city.

Rue Landau most recently worked for the Philadelphia Bar Association as the Director of Law and Policy, and before then served as the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. Landau is a favorite of many individuals on the left who have worked with her in city government and the non-profit sector, and likely starts out with more name recognition than the average candidate. Much of the electoral activist energy behind her campaign so far has come from LGBT movement actors, particularly those associated with Mark Segal, but it seems likely she could be endorsed by more generalist progressive organizations too. 

Tier 2.5 of Viability

The next tier down from here is a bit of a nebulous region that includes candidates who have the potential to catch fire, but aren’t currently as well positioned to finish in the top five. These candidates could still attract significant support because of how they might fill into some of the weak spots in the candidate field, pushing them into Tier 2. 

Donavan West, founder Black Business Accelerator & Culturally Congruent Solutions and a former President and CEO of the PA African-American Chamber of Commerce, has already joined the field and has been attracting attention from some key players in the election. West entered the race at what may be an important moment, where 48th Ward Leader Anton Moore—thought to be entering the race in more of a Party-backed lane—has decided not to run. That’s left a spot open on some ward leaders’ ballots who may have expected to support him. Moore’s absence from the race has apparently led some elected officials to give West a serious look as an accomplished Black candidate with demonstrated leadership qualities and a base among Black-owned business owners. 

Another rumored soon-to-be-candidate is Job Itzkowitz, Executive Director of Old City District. Itzkowitz is an attorney and once worked for Councilmember Cindy Bass in the 8th District. A Philadelphia native and Central grad, he would bring a varied set of relationships from across the city, and some war stories from the frontlines of the small business recovery. Business Improvement District directors were some of the unsung heroes of the pandemic-era economy, helping corridor businesses apply for PPP loans, and negotiating with the City over the details of bringing the entire hospitality industry outdoors. Itzkowitz would also be one of the most urbanist-friendly candidates to get in the race, with several significant housing and transportation wins to speak of from his 8-year tenure as director of Old City District.

Nina Ahmad has been on the citywide ballot twice in Philadelphia in the last five years, having run for three federal and state offices (in 2018 she shifted mid-cycle from a run against Congressman Bob Brady to a run for Lieutenant Governor.) This ballot exposure gives her more name recognition than some of the other candidates, and she also has the potential to contribute personal funds to the campaign. Ahmad also has some key supporters in the Democratic establishment. She previously served as the Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement under Mayor Kenney and ran the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW.) 

This category could also describe the candidacy of former Reclaim Philadelphia political director Amanda McIllmurray, who has been in more of a behind-the-scenes role than in a candidate role over the years, but is well-known to a specific network of activists. McIllmurray ran Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler’s first campaign for the state House in 2018, and Senator Nikil Saval’s successful 2020 primary challenge to Larry Farnese. She was briefly a candidate for the 1st Council District, running against Councilmember Mark Squilla, before switching to the At-Large field

Another candidacy that could fit this description is that of Max Tuttleman, whose iconoclastic portfolio of activist pursuits include board service with Recycled Artists in Residency (RAIR), the Police Foundation, FringeArts, and Mural Arts. Tuttleman served as the Director of Global Growth Strategies for Gabriel Investments and was a cannabis entrepreneur. He is active with his family foundation’s philanthropic giving where, among other things, he helped fund the distribution of naloxone to organizations on the frontlines of the city’s opioid crisis, and the doula pilot at SCI Muncy—a first step in making pregnancy and parenting supports available to women incarcerated in Department of Corrections facilities. 

Third Tier of Viability 

The third tier of viability is meant to convey something about candidates who we think could take off under the right circumstances, but for different reasons may have a tougher time breaking through based on where things stand in mid-January.

This group includes Erika Almirón, Luz Colón, Abu Edwards, Terrill ‘Ya Fav Trashman’ Haigler, and J.B. Kelly.

It isn’t that any of these candidates lack political skill or potential—several of them are our friends and colleagues, and we want to be clear this isn’t meant as a knock on any of them. The issue is more that, whether it’s fundraising capacity, campaign timing, or same-lane competition for endorsements, the people in this group may have a somewhat harder time making it into the top 5 finishers than those in Tier 2. A good ballot position, unexpectedly strong fundraising reports, or endorsements from influential election actors could shift the trajectory for any of these candidates and move them into Tier 2.

Stay tuned: In our next newsletter, we’ll explore the landscape of the competitive general election City Council races.

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  • Jack Malloy
    commented 2023-01-24 15:51:43 -0500
    Fantastic update.
    These 17 seats are more important than a term limited Mayor.
    Hope the voters begin to realize that.
    Looking forward to the next update.
    Thank you !
  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2023-01-20 16:55:56 -0500