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Cherelle Parker spent 10 years in Harrisburg. That could pay off for Philly.

Cherelle Parker could be the first mayor to have previously served in the General Assembly since the late James H.J. Tate, giving her a head start on navigating state bureaucracy.

Democratic nominee for Philadelphia mayor Cherelle Parker served in the state House for nearly 10 years and chaired the Philly delegation.
Democratic nominee for Philadelphia mayor Cherelle Parker served in the state House for nearly 10 years and chaired the Philly delegation.Read moreTyger Williams / Tyger Williams / Staff Photographer

Cherelle Parker helped pass a 1% sales tax for Philadelphia to fund public schools. She became allies with a top Republican. And she joined a 2007 walkout of the state House to push for gun reforms.

She’s now poised to bring to the mayor’s office those experiences in Harrisburg, where she spent 10 years as a state legislator.

After winning the Democratic mayoral primary, Parker is heavily favored to prevail in the general election and would be one of only a few mayors to come into office with previous experience as a state lawmaker. Parker would be the first mayor to have served in the General Assembly since the late James H.J. Tate, who was Philadelphia’s longest-serving mayor, from 1962 to 1972.

Past mayors often have experience in City Council or city government before running for the top executive job. Before being elected to Council, Parker also worked as a staffer for former Councilmember Marian Tasco. But she also knows how to get things done in a state where policy changes are usually negotiated behind closed doors, after serving in the state House from 2005 to 2015 and chairing the Philly delegation. There, she earned a reputation as a problem solver willing to work across the aisle to improve the city.

Philadelphia is often portrayed as at-odds with Republicans in Harrisburg. But both the state and the city depend on each other: Philadelphia is the biggest economic driver in the state, while the city needs the state to help fund its schools, give it taxing authority, and much more. State lawmakers have the power to pass gun laws and set the state’s minimum wage, and Pennsylvania often preempts cities from passing their own laws.

“[Parker] knows Harrisburg,” said Sen. Vince Hughes (D., Philadelphia), who was one of the first state lawmakers to endorse Parker’s mayoral run. “She understands how it works, she understands the bureaucracy, she understands the players, and she understands the plays. She gets it, and there is no translation necessary.”

One of the most impactful relationships she forged in Harrisburg is her friendship with Gov. Josh Shapiro. They served on a House committee together, and the two have worked closely for nearly 20 years. One Philly lawmaker said Parker has Shapiro on speed dial.

“The governor is proud that his friend Cherelle Parker made history this week, and he is optimistic and hopeful that with her as mayor, the relationship between the commonwealth and the city of Philadelphia will be stronger than ever as they continue working together to expand economic opportunity, make our communities safer, and build a better future for all,” said Manuel Bonder, a Shapiro spokesperson.

‘Starting off with a big advantage’

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who served as Philadelphia’s mayor in the 1990s, said he would often have to lobby lawmakers in Harrisburg to get what he needed.

As mayor, he’d talk to the governor or his office at least twice a week — though he said he spoke with Philly’s mayor much more frequently once he became governor.

Rendell expects Parker’s time in the state House to uniquely set her up for success.

“She is a very effective advocate at lobbying and making the case for the city,” Rendell said. “One, because she’s smart and understands complex issues and she’s very well-liked everywhere she’s gone. So she’s starting off with a big advantage in dealing with Harrisburg.”

“For a city like Philadelphia, a trip to Harrisburg is far more impactful than its relationship to Washington,” Rendell added.

Among Parker’s most notable legislative successes was her work to get state lawmakers to allow Philadelphia to tack on an extra 1% city sales tax to go to the School District of Philadelphia. At the time, the district desperately needed more funding, after former Gov. Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from education funding across the state.

Parker was also part of a 12-member walkout by the Legislative Black Caucus in 2007, in protest of the House’s failure at the time to advance gun-control measures, including a proposal to limit Pennsylvania residents to one handgun purchase per month and one to allow municipalities to enact their own gun legislation.

House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) noted Parker has relationships with both Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly.

“I’m very excited to see how her relationships and her experience in Harrisburg and in City Hall will really give us the platform to collaborate more intentionally and help us resolve our ongoing crises in Philadelphia,” McClinton added.

Parker memorably befriended former House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who earned a reputation as a tough leader willing to wield his power to advocate for his personal beliefs. When he left the House in 2020, Parker filmed a nine-minute video thanking Turzai.

“You are what I often refer to as my unlikely ally,” she said in her Turzai send-off video, The Center Square reported at the time. “We are not a monolith of people. When we needed your assistance on issues that no one ever expected for us to get support, your door was always open.”

Perennial issues following every mayor

One of Philadelphia’s perennial issues is preemption, through which state laws prevent the city from passing its own policies on issues like gun control and minimum wage.

Could Parker — and her many relationships in Harrisburg — finally convince the state to give up some control?

Several current and former officials said it’s not likely, though she is best fit to make the case for the city.

Once the state takes control of an issue, “They almost never give it back,” Rendell said.

“That’s not a Cherelle Parker responsibility,” Hughes said. “That’s a legislature, governor issue.”

However, Philly officials said they’re still hopeful the gun violence epidemic — and a one-seat Democratic majority in the state House — could convince lawmakers to at least let the city make its own gun reforms, if not change the state’s gun laws.

A united message on Philly

Rep. Morgan Cephas (D., Philadelphia), who chairs the Philly delegation in Harrisburg, said the delegation has many members who worked on City Council. With Parker’s likely addition to the mix as the city’s first female mayor, all of Philly’s advocates will be on the same page about what they should be fighting for.

“We’re able to come up with a common agenda,” Cephas said. “We’re not all having different conversations and advocating for different things. We’ll be in alignment.”

She noted several bills aimed at limiting Philadelphia’s autonomy that passed the Republican-controlled state Senate in recent weeks: a Democrat-sponsored bill to ban supervised injection sites, a Republican proposal to give the state attorney general oversight of SEPTA crimes, and a move to end nonresidential wage taxes.

“It’s going to be critical that we’re all talking with one voice,” she added.