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Philly needs a bullhorn mayor to slice through decades of status quo baloney

In a crowded Philly mayoral race, Helen Gym is fighting for the city's poor and neglected. No wonder status quo elites are so desperate to stop her.

Philadelphia City Councilmembers Helen Gym, Jamie Gauthier, and Kendra Brooks walk with protesters following the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June 2022.
Philadelphia City Councilmembers Helen Gym, Jamie Gauthier, and Kendra Brooks walk with protesters following the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June 2022.Read moreSteven M. Falk / MCT

It was one of those raw late April afternoons in Philadelphia where the weather in the far corner of LOVE Park — unrelentingly gray, windy, occasional drizzle — seemed to match the grim civic mood looming over the City Hall tower in the background. At the supposed 12:45 p.m. start time for this Helen-Gym-for-mayor campaign rally, just a few folks milled around and chatted with the candidate in her bright red coat, carrying a reusable Target shopping bag, and you briefly wonder if you got the time or place wrong.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a blue-clad army of about 50 supporters — young and old, Black, brown, and white, including members of the teachers’ union that has endorsed Gym, carrying signs that read “The Wealth To Fix Our City Exists!” — crossed JFK Boulevard all at once, and it was showtime. Over the next half-hour, speakers from the various Jenga blocks of Philly’s shaky civil society reimagined the city as it could be. A librarian from South Philly spoke about the dream of reopening on the weekends as a community refuge. An instructor and union leader from the Community College of Philadelphia imagined the benefits of free tuition.

“When I say, ‘Moral!’” chanted emcee Elisa King, a minister and counselor at CCP, “you say, ‘Budget!’” — driving home the rally’s theme that City Hall needs to focus on restoring vital services, not more incremental tax cuts.

When the 55-year-old former City Council member finally got the microphone, the spring sun had seared through the layer of clouds. Gym declared her idea of a moral budget “is not defined by the corporate-backed interests, the developers and the status quo electeds, bureaucrats and wealthy individuals who have long tried to buy this campaign with their tired ideas and their technocratic solutions.” The crowd whooped. “Those candidates have played it safe all their lives.”

The only remaining progressive in a May 16 primary field whittled down to five or six major candidates defined her rivals’ ideas as “just too small for this moment. They’re talking about safety that’s only defined by policing. They’re talking about development only in terms defined by the tax cuts and those people who get to benefit. They manage crisis — we’re here to end them!” Almost on cue, a passing dump truck on the boulevard tooted its horn loudly in support.

It’s fitting that the race to pick the 100th mayor of America’s founding city is also arguably its most consequential in decades, perhaps since the divisive Frank Rizzo era. That’s because the coronavirus also attacked the civic immune system that had allowed the city’s leaders to ignore the warning symptoms of the nation’s highest rate of deep poverty and unacceptable schools housed in unsafe buildings while touting the surface glitz of Philadelphia’s comeback ... for tourists and a handful of gentrifying neighborhoods. Now, a spike in gun violence and related dysfunction has put the nation’s sixth-biggest city at a crossroads.

I might be The Inquirer’s national columnist, but I’ve watched this local election closely — not just because I work and pay taxes and ride the troubled subways here (or because my two adult offspring live here), but also because what Philadelphia voters decide in a little more than two weeks will say a lot about how America is going to solve its urban problems, especially persistent poverty. In this (sort of) post-pandemic era, comparable cities such as Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles have rejected old-school police union fearmongering for young, progressive mayors who see how issues like attacking climate change or youth unemployment can bring real change.

It’s not at all clear yet whether Philadelphia has the courage or boldness to follow its sister cities down that fresh pathway. I’ve watched both televised debates and have been somewhat taken aback by how most of the major candidates have crafted a message around not new ideas but “leadership.” What they are really offering, in essence, is a pledge to restore some presence and personality to City Hall that’s been missing during the shockingly absent Jim Kenney administration, but with little evidence they’d change the status quo policies of minor tax cuts or Fraternal Order of Police-endorsed policing that coincided with decline.

In the debates and on the campaign trail, Gym has set herself apart as the only candidate who fully grasps the root problems in the most desperate neighborhoods — and who wants to go big to actually address them. How many times can we hire more cops or return to “stop-and-frisk” policing with the same tired results? That’s why Gym is the leader in pushing for trained responders to replace cops on mental health calls — hugely successful where it’s been tried — and is the only candidate who agrees with the majority of Philadelphians who twice elected Larry Krasner as district attorney: that some criminal justice reforms were long overdue.

Elite critics of some of Gym’s bigger and bolder ideas — going all out in fixing unsafe school buildings, or guaranteed employment for adults under 30 — call them unrealistic pie in the sky. Most everyday voters know what matters most about a political leader is less about the budgetary small print and more about who and what they are willing to fight for. And in her seven years as an at-large City Council member, Gym has fought for what cynics had written off as lost causes and won a strikingly high percentage of the time.

» READ MORE: Will the killing of Tyre Nichols change Philly’s mayoral debate over cops, crime? | Will Bunch

A ”fair workweek” ordinance that mandates essential workers have predictable schedules. Long-overdue eviction protections for the city’s beleaguered tenants. A return to local control of the Philadelphia School District while fighting to restore school nurses and counselors. A push to get lead out of school drinking water. No wonder that after her first term on Council, The Inquirer Editorial Board hailed her as “a savvy, passionate and progressive leader.”

Things are a lot different now that Gym is running for mayor. While she’s been endorsed by the influential Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and a panoply of other unions and progressive groups, many of the city’s elites — even some who’ve been somewhat supportive of her Council work — seem dead set on preventing her from running Philly. Some of that is with a budgetary magnifying glass, but much of it centers on attacking her personality and blocking her ideas. Yes, she changed her mind on charter schools after founding one — but who wouldn’t after watching them become a negative drain on public education? Of course it was a mistake to protest the Union League and go there just days later, but is that a big enough reason to punish Gym — and the city — by voting for someone who doesn’t share your values?

“I think it’s about making things about individuals and reducing it to isolated incidents rather than looking at a track record that holds steady over time,” Gym told me Wednesday after her rally. “The way to marginalize real movements for change is to hyper-individualize faults within imperfect people. I mean, I’m not perfect — I make mistakes and all of that — but I think the difference with me is I have a 20-year-plus track record of standing alongside communities.”

One truism about politics is that a lot of times you can gauge a candidate by the enemies they make. The Chamber of Commerce crowd and their handmaidens aren’t fighting Gym because of her mistakes, but because of the things she gets right. There’s a reason many of Philadelphia’s most essential yet underheard folks — the teachers and librarians and social workers — don’t just think that Gym is the best among a large field of candidates, but truly believe that her election in 2023 is a matter of civic life-or-death.

“She is rising to the moment, which is a moment of crisis for our city,” Stan Shapiro, vice chair of Philly Neighborhood Networks and a former City Council staffer, told me before the rally. “It’s not a time for the status quo, for business as usual, for just keeping the lights on. There aren’t enough lights. There aren’t enough rec centers. There aren’t enough health centers.”

One of the other straw man arguments from Gym’s critics centers on how she’s carried a bullhorn to protest in the streets on behalf of Philly’s kids, or its underserved people, or the moment when — the horror! — she was willing to get detained in Harrisburg to dramatize how state Republicans won’t invest in education. We’ve had decades of “conveners” and glad-handers on the second floor of City Hall with too little to show for it. It’s time to try a bullhorn mayor, a real fighter. In a race with many candidates, there is only one who truly matters.

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