At an iconic Center City gay bar, mayoral candidate James F. Kenney greeted some of the leading LGBT advocates in the city, calling them his family and pledging to continue to protect their rights, in life and love, at a fund-raiser for his campaign.

A drag queen manned the DJ station at Woody's, rainbow flags flew, and a slide show of Kenney through the years played on the TVs.

Twenty years ago, such a campaign event likely would not have happened. Today, LGBT voters are seen as a key bloc of politically minded, progressive supporters who are expected to turn out - particularly this year, when two openly gay candidates are running for City Council. Kenney picked up major LGBT endorsements on Friday.

While Philadelphia is nationally renowned for its support of LGBT people, it's also the only big city never to elect an openly gay person to Council or mayor, something members of the community and allies say needs to change.

"It is literally the most important election for the LGBT community in 25 years," said Mark Segal, editor of the Philadelphia Gay News and a longtime leader of the Philadelphia LGBT rights movement.

The last election this big, Segal said, was in 1991, when he helped bring about the defeat of Councilman Frank Rafferty, who openly battled homosexuals. Kenney won Rafferty's seat that year.

This year, two gay candidates, Paul Steinke and Sherrie Cohen, are vying for City Council at-large in a much more welcoming political climate. They have energized a base that some say could sway the outcome of the mayoral race.

While it is impossible to count LGBT voters in the city, conservative estimates put the population at 5 percent, Segal said.

A 2007 LGBT community assessment by the Philadelphia Health Management Corp., a nonprofit public health research group, found about 25,000 men and 25,000 women living with same-sex partners in the city.

"Fifty thousand people is definitely a significant population that can have an impact in politics, and also one that crosses with so many different populations," said Chris Bartlett, director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, who helped author the study.

Previous winners of the mayoral race have received between 100,000 and 200,000 votes.

Both Bartlett and Segal said it's too soon to say whom the gay community will support for mayor - or if it will even generally vote the same way.

On Friday, some local LGBT leaders, including State Rep. Brian Sims, endorsed Kenney, citing his LGBT-friendly legislative history and partnership with the community.

"More than anything, it's been having a guy that is so traditionally Philadelphian standing up for the LGBT community," Sims said following the announcement at William Way. "It's brought us support, it's brought us allies, in a way that we weren't seeing before."

Kenney, who stepped down from the Council post he held for 23 years to run for mayor, introduced the 2013 LGBT Equality Bill and the 2014 LGBT-specific hate crime legislation, both now laws.

"What we've seen from Jim is unmatched," said Sims, the state's first openly gay elected official. "We're wrapping up the second term of a mayor who's been the most supportive of LGBT rights I could imagine, and it's in large part due to Jim Kenney."

Malcolm Lazin, head of the Equality Forum, an LGBT civil rights organization, says it's too soon to cast Kenney as the pick.

"I think it's way too early in the game to make that assumption. . . . The community has some difficult decisions to make here," Lazin said. He noted the many firsts for a progressive voting bloc to consider - Nelson A. Diaz would be the first Hispanic mayor, Lynne M. Abraham would be the first female.

Lazin, supported by Republicans in his own 2011 bid for Council at-large, is backing State Rep. Anthony Hardy Williams for mayor. Lazin said Williams impressed him with his work to ban gay conversion therapy and beef up anti-bullying laws.

In the Democratic at-large race, there's pressure on party leaders to endorse Steinke or Cohen in a field of 21 Democratic candidates vying for five seats. The party typically supports incumbents; there are four this year.

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, party chairman, said Democrats would "absolutely, positively, without question, give consideration" to the push for an LGBT candidate. They started hearing from candidates this weekend.

Sara Jacobson, cochair of Liberty City Democrats, said with five open spots, Steinke and Cohen are not running against each other. Her group, and the party, could endorse both.

"It's an option," she said, "and one that would certainly send a strong message," particularly a few months before the 50th anniversary of the modern gay rights movement in July and a year away from the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Steinke, former manager of Reading Terminal Market and former executive director of the University City District, has been portrayed as a business-minded unifier. He sits on the board of William Way and says he's been an LGBT advocate since he came out in his early 20s.

He noted that Philadelphia received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign's equality index but has yet to elect an LGBT person to a legislative office.

"You look at Harvey Milk, and he got elected in 1975, and then a lot of the civil rights advances happened," Steinke said, referring to the San Francisco politician. "In Philadelphia, we've gone the opposite route. The civil rights advances have come together nicely, but we've yet to elect someone who's openly gay to the City Council."

Cohen, an attorney with the Tenant Union Representative Network, is also a longtime gay rights activist. Her 1975 protests at City Hall resulted in one of the nation's first police brutality lawsuits, after she and a dozen others were kicked down four flights of stairs.

Cohen said that while those tensions have greatly dissipated and the community has strong allies, it doesn't replace a physical seat at the table.

"I think it's important for every community to have representation in government," Cohen said. "And certainly, having an open LGBT council person would be a great role model to young people, who nowadays may see images of themselves reflected in the entertainment field but really not enough in government."

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