Labor led coalition wins victories in Philly primary

PHILADELPHIA – Primary election day 2015 was a big victory for Philadelphia ‘s electorate. The city’s labor movement, defenders of public education, African-American elected officials, youth defending their schools, and many other progressive groups came together to nominate James Kenney as the Democrats’ mayoral candidate this November.

Early in the process Philadelphia ‘s AFL -CIO Council endorsed the former Councilman-at-large. That was followed by an endorsement from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers‘ (PFT) president Jerry Jordan and a pledge by the Council and its affiliates to knock on every door in Philly to elect Kenney.

The primary in Philly, as in many other big cities, is the focus. The Democrats’ registration margin is overwhelming, and a victory in the primary usually guarantees election in November. Kenney’s opponents however were not lightweights. They were Lynne Abraham a former District Attorney for 19 years, Nelson Diaz a retired judge and activist, Doug Oliver an able newbie to electoral politics, Milton Street a 1970’s community activist turned entrepreneur, and state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams.

The mayoral candidates spent nearly three months on the stump in city neighborhoods seeking the nomination. Polling initially indicated a very close race between the front runners, Williams and Kenney.

Anthony Hardy Williams was state representative and now state senator represents Philadelphia ‘s largest African-American community in Harrisburg. But his political focus has not matched the example set by his trail blazing father, Hardy Williams, one of the first African Americans to win state elective office.

The Senator’s ad campaign was sophisticated and emphasized the his role in affirmative action, public engagement, support for charters and his notable personal background. The Senator positioned himself as a major spokesman for charter schools and a supporter of various legislative efforts to privatize the state’s public education system. Early on, Senator Williams won the support of the Susquehanna Group, an investment organization that plowed millions into his campaign. This organization’s reputation as a backer of Wisconsin ‘s Scott Walker hurt Williams’ election prospects with labor and in the African-American community.

Kenney, on the other hand, impressed progressive constituencies with his readiness to grow and change during his career in City Council. Once a supporter of aggressive police tactics, he focused his mayoral campaign from the “get go” on: ending “stop and frisk”, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and funding public education, especially early childhood programs. He came up through the Democratic Party, and his background as a South Philly guy, son of a fire fighter who went to the city’s Catholic schools added to his persona.

Not only did the labor movement step up and deliver campaign workers and money but their organization and early endorsement moved others to get involved. Among the unions was the special role of teachers, the PFT and their retirees building support among their members and beyond for Kenney. The important effort of African-American churches to get out the vote added to the victory.

Kenney’s victory was especially sweet as he won over 54 percent of the vote, winning every ward except one. Williams came in second with 26 percent. In November Kenney will face the Republican nominee and a possible independent.

City Council races

The City Council races also brought some successes. Philly’s City Council is a 17 member body:10 seats are filled by districts, the remaining 7 are at large members. Most of the district seats were uncontested. Two of the seven at large seats are guaranteed to the minority party according to the City’s charter. The field was especially crowded this year, as 16 Democrats vied for the 5 seats. Since four of the 16 Dems in the race were incumbents, the race was widely seen as a free-for-all among the other 12 for the one open seat. The result was a fierce campaign with two incumbents losing.

Especially important were the campaigns of two women activists, Sherrie Cohen and Helen Gym. Cohen is a leading activist on behalf of LGBTQ rights and well known for activities for equality, and against cuts in education, libraries and the gamut of human services. Cohen also has recognition for her father’s legendary role as a labor lawyer and Councilman at large until his death a few years ago. Cohen’s mother too was a distinguished activist in Philadelphia politics, and Sherrie is an excellent example of carrying on the family tradition. Cohen won a spot on the Democratic slate for council at large.

Helen Gym built her reputation as an activist for public education. She is also known for opposition to placing casinos in the Chinatown community. A mother of school age children, Gym brings a high level of understanding on education and budgetary issues. Both Gym and Cohen were often visible in mass demonstrations at School Reform Commission meetings and in the broad progressive movement, and they worked together in this hotly contested race. This was Gym’s first effort to gain elective office, and she was endorsed by Philly’s teachers union.

Gym won was nominated as one of the five Democratic candidates. Cohen came in 6th in the crowded field.

Ballot questions

Ballot questions or issues usually are about whether or not the city should borrow money for this or that capital project. That was not true this time.

Working Families worked with public education activists and teachers to collect thousands of signatures to get abolition of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission on the ballot. The SRC was created by the state legislature fifteen years ago under Republican Governor Tom Ridge to improve “failing schools”. It has been an agent of further privatization and anti-union activity and still faces an annual budget crisis. The mass collection of signatures got the non-binding referendum on the ballot. It passed.

Women’s’ and supporting organizations won a new city commission on advancement of women’s rights. This commission will advise city leaders, the mayor in the first place, on initiatives to accomplish its mission.

All city agencies and activities are to communicate their ideas and requests in language accessible to millions of citizens. Dubbed the “plain language issue” this question too passed.

Lastly, a commission was established to propose a pre-K system for 3 and 4 year olds in the city. This commission was expressly prohibited from suggesting taking budget monies from other education items.

To round out the victory, Pennsylvania voters nominated most of the AFL -CIO state organization endorsed judicial candidates.. As in the 36 other states where voters elect judges, there are periodic attempts to change election to selection by special committees. The argument is that it is unseemly for judges to solicit money from many who may appear before them in court. Still, Pennsylvania voters seem to feel that it is far better to have judges answer to the electorate than to have an obscure process removed from voter view.

Amidst the victories are many unfinished issues, activities and initiatives, but the movement to build, support and elect leaders who are responsive to and come from democratic and working class movements took a step forward in our city.

Photo: Jim Kenney campaign website.