Public education key issue in Philly mayoral race

May 19 is primary day in Philadelphia. This year’s election is not shaping up as your “normal” off year primary in the City of Brotherly Love as a crowded field of mayoral candidates vies for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Winning the Democratic primary here usually insures election in November.

This year the front running candidates for the job of Philadelphia mayor are distinguishable by their very different bases of support. James Kenney, former City Councilman-at-large, has emerged as the choice of most of labor and has won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. The majority of local unions want a mayor who responds to the needs of working men and women, and the AFL-CIO has taken the unusual step of endorsing a candidate in the primary. The feeling in the labor movement is that the concerns of working people who put candidates in office are too often ignored after the election. Kenney has welcomed labor’s endorsement and is running to make good on his record of support for public education, building a pre-k system, building affordable housing, and doing business with banks that invest locally. The fact that Kenney, who is white, is receiving significant support from local African American leaders and organizations shows the central importance of public education funding as an issue in thus year’s election.  

The other front runner is former state senator Anthony Hardy Williams. While Williams, who is African American, comes from a family prominent in local Democratic Party politics, as a state senator he has supported the legislative efforts seen by many as designed to privatize and undermine Pennsylvania’s public education system. Williams has not shared this recent history in his publicity and advertising. The Williams campaign is heavily supported by the Susquehanna Group, an investment organization which has been a big contributor to the notorious Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  It has been widely rumored that Susquehanna is interested in turning public services into for-profit investment enterprises. Local media sources have reported that Susquehanna has given at least one million dollars to the Williams campaign. 

In addition to the city’s labor movement, James Kenney has been endorsed by an array of elected African American leaders.  Among them are Cherelle Parker, Marian Tasco, Cindy Bass and Representative Steve Kinsey. There are early indications that this will be a close race so every vote counts.  

The race for the five majority at-large seats in City Council is also stirring interest and has drawn 21 candidates. (Two of the seven at large seats go to the “minority” party by law and tradition.) This is yet another hotly contested race as two well known women activists are running strong campaigns.  Helen Gym has long been active in the Asian American community and has led opposition to casinos and stadiums in Chinatown. As a former teacher and as a parent, she has also become a formidable figure in defense of public education.  She was among the first to expose the School Reform Commission (SRC) plans to further privatize Philadelphia’s public school system. 

Sherrie Cohen has been an able spokesperson and organizer in defense of public services, such as the city’s library system, too often on the chopping block of city budgets. She readily acknowledges that she is the daughter and political heir of the late Councilman David Cohen, long a champion of Philadelphia’s working men and women. She is a leader in the fight for a $15 minimum wage, to end stop-and-frisk, and for universal pre-k. She is also active in the fight for equality for the LGBTQ community and would become the city’s first openly gay City Council member.

Photo: Ben Sears/PW