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Philly’s AOC? How Helen Gym became the city’s most progressive Council member.

Gym, an at-large Council member and a progressive leader, was the top vote-getter in nearly three fourths of Philadelphia’s precincts May 21. She has drawn comparisons to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Helen Gym celebrates last month after getting the most votes in the Democratic primary for City Council at-large.
Helen Gym celebrates last month after getting the most votes in the Democratic primary for City Council at-large.Read moreMargo Reed / File Photograph

Helen Gym was cooking for her family’s Lunar New Year celebration when she received a call from Mayor Jim Kenney’s team. It was January 2017, and President Donald Trump had just issued an executive order prohibiting citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

Could she help gather people at the airport to rally against the ban?

Gym, a freshman City Council member, put out a call on Twitter, and contacted community groups, friends and elected officials. An hour later, the international terminal was filled with protesters. That night, amid similar rallies around the country, a federal judge stayed the order.

“There’s hundreds of people, and we’re chanting ‘Let them in!’ and you know, that to me is like when our democracy is a living, breathing entity,” Gym said. “It’s not some static thing fixed and written in the 1700s. … We create it … and we can make change.”

Assembling large groups of people to fight for what they think is right — in schools, housing, immigration policies — is what Gym has been doing for three decades. Now 51, she’s an activist-lawmaker who got more votes in May’s primary than any other Council candidate since 1987. It’s quite a turn from 2015, when she almost lost.

Gym’s critics say she’s all about the limelight, attracted to popular progressive issues that get attention. Gym sees it differently. She says her background in activism leads her to those grassroots movements whether or not it’s a cause she has any say over. Being out there on big issues made her a better-known name ahead of the election, and has drawn speculation about what the next four years hold.

“I think we’ve been trained to be distrustful of the public sector,” Gym said. “The default [assumption] is ‘things will never change.’ You don’t necessarily counter that by staying in your lane and being prudent. You counter it with bold action.”

A commanding win

Gym didn’t just win the Democratic nomination for reelection on May 21. She got 108,604 votes spread across every city neighborhood, winning 56 of 66 wards. That’s more votes than Michael Nutter won in a seven-person mayoral primary race in 2007 and more than Kenney received when he won the mayoral primary in 2015.

Political observers credit Gym’s popularity to a good narrative and a lot of media exposure — be it through a call for the Frank Rizzo statue to come down or fights for school nurses and counselors. She is involved in almost every major battle in Philadelphia. As recently as Friday when a South Philly refinery burst into flames, she gathered with protesters outside of City Hall, demanding the plant be shuttered.

For the primary, Gym had support of both the grassroots groups often challenging established politicians and the city Democratic Party. (She also had good ballot position — third among 28 names — and raised the third most money of any Council candidate.)

“There’s a saying in politics, there’s no podium that someone won’t stand on, but that’s the game, right?” said political consultant Mustafa Rashed. “And if the reward for that is you get 100,000 citywide votes, well, show me a politician that wouldn’t sign up for that. It’s extraordinarily impressive what she did, and I think it has shown she has the sauce.”

Gym was council’s first Asian American female member, and there’s speculation about a run for mayor in 2023. The city has never had a female mayor, and several other women are rumored to be considering a run, including fellow Council members Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Cherelle L. Parker, and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.

Grassroots legislating

Gym said she picks her issues based on what she’s hearing from the community, even if it’s not something City Council controls, like the School District.

“My work comes out of these broad-based coalitions," she said. “It’s not a calculated agenda."

Arguably the biggest legislative win for her has been the “Fair Workweek” bill, which requires more predictable scheduling for retail, fast food, and hotel workers. The law, fashioned after similar bills in other cities, drew support from hundreds of workers who rallied at City Hall.

“She included our members who were retail and service workers in every decision,” said Cecily Harwitt, organizing director at One Pennsylvania, a group that advocates for worker rights. “Normally, the only thing a City Council office does is a boring press junket, but they were very hands-on about like, let’s get a drum line, let’s get people out. They valued the kinds of protests and actions that we like to see.”

Harwitt also credited Gym with holding the line on compromises that could have weakened the bill.

Not everyone was pleased. Rob Wonderling of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce said he appreciates Gym’s efforts to keep the business community informed, but worries about how legislation that adds stress on businesses affects job growth.

Gym has also passed bills to bolster drinking water safety testing, taken up renter rights, and secured money for a legal defense fund for people facing eviction.

Gym’s critics — few of whom would speak publicly — have questioned the depth of her legislative record.

“Anything that will get her attention, that’s her issue,” said former Councilman Bill Green, who has engaged in Twitter feuds with Gym. Green formerly chaired the School Reform Commission, which Gym frequently challenged. “It’s far-left progressive stuff that is on the national agenda,” Green said. "She’s about 30 miles wide and a quarter-inch deep when it comes to policy.”

Philly’s AOC?

Gym is likely Council’s most progressive member. She’s vice chair of Local Progress, a national network of local elected officials who share ideas and tips to move legislation.

She’s unsure who she’s endorsing in the 2020 presidential election but is decidedly “not in the Biden camp.” And she’s a bit of a burgeoning celebrity in national progressive circles. A group in Los Angeles wants her to speak at its Fair Workweek rally. She’s a consultant for the NBC show This Is Us, which features a character on Philadelphia City Council. She’s speaking at the city’s first public gathering of presidential candidates in July, the Netroots Nation political convention.

Debbie Wei, who worked with Gym when both were members of Asian Americans United fighting plans for a casino and a stadium in Chinatown, compared her to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the controversial representative from New York.

“I’d imagine a lot of AOC’s detractors would say the same thing of her — always stealing the limelight, always going for the sexy win,” said Wei. "And watching her operate, I know that’s not what she cares about. She cares about social justice.”

The education candidate

When Gym won her seat in 2015, she was a former teacher turned rabble-rousing public school activist, known for co-founding the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a news outlet covering the district, and Parents United for Public Schools, a parents organization.

Some people dismissed her as a one-issue candidate, but it was an issue — education — that fueled her victory. And many reforms she’s since pushed, like ending suspensions in grades K-2 and returning the district to city-control, were accomplished.

Education is still a key issue for Gym. After a three-hour Council meeting this month, she changed from heels into flats to dash to a school board meeting, where she encouraged members to create an emergency facilities repair fund.

Gym spoke at four high school or middle school graduations this spring. She’s a mentor for two students who organize youth climate rallies. (They call her their “climate mother.”)

During a pause in a busy day, Gym pivots into actual mother mode and calls her 16-year-old daughter, Taryn.

“Hello, Bunny!” she gushes into the phone. The girl had just won second place in a national history competition. Her winning speech was about the 1967 student walkouts in Philadelphia.

Gym, a daughter of Korean immigrants and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, also has an adult son and daughter with her husband, Bret Flaherty. The family lives in Logan Square. The kids’ educational path has been scrutinized by her critics. Her kids attended FACTS Charter School, which Gym cofounded, and later went to elite public magnet schools, Masterman and Central.

“Helen Gym has skillfully marshaled her children through all the educational options,”said David Hardy, executive director of Excellence Schools PA, a school-choice advocacy group “Now she stands as a big obstacle for low-income families’ having those same kinds of options.”

What’s next?

Gym won’t say if she plans to run for higher office, only that in her next term she wants to focus more on environmental legislation. She was one of four members to vote against a bill to open a liquid natural gas plant in the city.

She opposes a bill that awards 10-year tax exemptions in certain Keystone Opportunity Zones. She also voted against a bill, introduced by Brian O’Neill, banning food trucks in his Northeast district, bucking the tradition that Council defers to the district members on local issues.

But Gym says she sees her primary win as a vote for more independent, at times dramatic, action.

“I would say that there is a real appetite for movement at the local level," she said. “Being bold in the face of cynicism, distrust, and dysfunctionality is one of the most important things you can do. I don’t start with whether something will have a chance of passing. I never start there. Because 600 to 800 people filling City Hall — it’s hard to say no to that.”

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.