Philly could be next in line for a progressive mayor
Helen Gym walking the streets of Philadelphia recently. She has been endorsed by a host of progressive lawmakers nationwide including Bernie Sanders, AOC and many others. | Matt Rourke/AP

PHILADEPHIA—Community activist, organizer, and former teacher Helen Gym is putting together a progressive multi-racial coalition in her bid to become the 100th mayor of Philadelphia.

Does this sound familiar? It’s how financially outgunned Rep. Karen Bass (D) succeeded in her bid to become Mayor of Los Angeles and what Teachers (AFT) member and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (D) accomplished to become Mayor of Chicago earlier this year.

Like those two, Gym, an Asian American, is one of a field of nine in the May 16 primary, which is tantamount to an election in the City of Brotherly Love, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1. The last GOP mayor of Philly left office in 1952. Incumbent Jim Kenney (D) is term-limited.

And like Johnson and Bass, a top Gym foe is a rich self-financing candidate, developer Alan Domb. He’s spent $5.9 million on the race so far. Progressives term Domb a Democrat in name only. Gym criticizes him for supporting a publicly financed pro basketball arena which would devastate the city’s Chinatown, where she was born. The primary is May 16.

The Philadelphia Democratic primary is the most important race in Pennsylvania that day. It’s also not the only one deeply involving the Working Families Party, which is well-organized in the state—and which elected community activist Kendra Brooks to a City Council at-large seat four years ago. She seeks re-election.

Running for another seat

Now WFP’s trying to get its former Organizing Director, Nicolas O’Rourke, elected to the other at-large seat (out of seven total) reserved for non-majority party candidates, thus shutting out the Republicans.

The council race is also notable for another reason: Longtime unionist, activist, and organizer Seth Anderson-Oberman told a questioner in a recent candidates debate that he was a CPUSA member, and then elaborated on why, including party positions on issues with which he agreed. He seeks a city council seat from the Eighth District. The winner gets the seat, as there are no Republicans waiting for a November showdown.

Gym stands for community projects and neighborhood revitalization—and against the extensive basketball arena—have brought her enthusiastic support from the Working Families Party, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and, not surprisingly, the Teachers (AFT) local which represents Philly public schools.

“If she gets into office, we expect she’ll put a lot fewer roadblocks in the way” of progressive policies, including a citizen initiative for rent control, a youthful activist in Philadelphia told Peoples World.

Gym helped lead the movement to take back control of the city’s public schools from the Republican legislature-imposed takeover board.  That was one reason for her early endorsements from both the Teachers and the Working Families Party.

“I’ll kick off a Green New Deal for Philadelphia schools to modernize all school facilities in an era of climate change,” Gym told Axios Philadelphia. She’ll also ”place Philadelphia public school students into a pipeline of family-sustaining, union jobs, engage the entire city in a real facilities planning process and provide children and educators with the schools they deserve.

“Quality school buildings establish positive school climates, retain teachers, improve students’ physical health and development, and they show our children that they matter,” Gym added.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan explained his union’s unanimous endorsement of Gym by citing her “comprehensive” plan to revitalize the city’s schools. It “incorporates commonsense and visionary solutions to issues, it is rooted in the priorities that we have collectively organized around for a year, and it is what is needed to meet this moment.

“Gym’s plan clearly outlines resources and services that students need to thrive and clearly connects the dots to investing in the teachers and support staff that bring those resources to life every day. In this plan, Gym outlines key initiatives including a facilities modernization plan, a workforce investment plan including creating a robust pipeline for teachers of color, and a plan to truly invest in schools as community hubs—to name a few components.

“Gym’s plan also prioritizes safety, and in it, Gym outlines thoughtful and proactive measures to address a real crisis in our city. Ultimately, what Gym’s plan does is provide a strong blueprint for ensuring that our children have what they need.”

Most of the heavy spending in the mayoral race has been on negative ads against Gym. Many come from Domb, who also criticizes Gym for a conflict of interest on the basketball arena issue since Gym’s daughter is a Chinatown community organizer against it.

Like the other hopefuls—including both former City Council President Cherelle Parker and her prime foe, Domb, who also served on the council–Philadelphia law forced Gym to resign her council seat when she began her campaign for mayor.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.