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Progressives have scored big in Philly politics. Here comes the establishment pushback.

Super PACs could spend big to influence the 2023 mayoral and City Council elections. Some may try to swing the city's politics back toward the center after years of gains on the left.

Philadelphia City Hall photographed in August 2019.
Philadelphia City Hall photographed in August 2019.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Progressive candidates have racked up victories in recent Philadelphia elections, rankling the Democratic establishment and many in the city’s business community.

Here comes the pushback.

At least five groups are contemplating major financial moves in the 2023 elections for mayor and City Council. While not yet working together, they appear to be thinking alike, and it’s possible some of the efforts could merge.

Clout predicts super PACs spending big to swing the city’s politics back toward the center after several years of gains on the left.

It’s not clear whom they would support in the mayoral election, but it’s certain they’d want to stop progressive Councilmember Helen Gym if she runs.

The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia may launch a super PAC to help business-friendly candidates or hinder those it sees as bad for the city’s growth. Or both.

That would amount to a redo of the Chamber’s unsuccessful last-minute effort to oppose the 2019 election of Councilmember Kendra Brooks, a member of the progressive Working Families Party who won a seat reserved for minority parties that was held by Republicans for 70 years.

Chamber spokesperson Dan Fee said the business group hasn’t decided what its involvement will be next year. He expects upwards of 10 super PACs of varying political persuasions in the 2023 election.

Those groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, avoiding the city’s restrictive campaign finance limits by not coordinating with candidates.

Fee said the city’s limit drives money to such groups and “absolves the candidates from the responsibility of the actions of their backers.”

“This is how things are done now, and it takes everything out of the hands of candidates,” Fee said.

In recent Philly elections, progressives have benefited from significant outside spending efforts, including a super PAC funded by billionaire George Soros that helped elect District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017.

Philly’s building trades unions scored big in the 2015 race for mayor as part of a coalition of super PACs that spent about $4 million to elect Mayor Jim Kenney.

Ryan Boyer, leader of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, said a new super PAC from the 30-union council might expand to Council races next year. Major turnover is brewing there.

Gym and Councilmembers Cherelle Parker, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Allan Domb, and Derek Green may all resign to run for mayor, while other members may retire or face primary challenges. Another member, Kenyatta Johnson, is due to stand trial Monday on federal bribery charges, putting his future at risk.

That means that close to half of Council’s 17 seats could turn over next year.

Boyer last year touted Parker as a potential contender for mayor.

“I think the [super PAC] will pull for a candidate who shares our values,” said Boyer, adding that Parker is one of a group of people who fit that bill.

Another super PAC may rise from A Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit founded in November by Mark Gleason, the former executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, an occasionally controversial advocate for school choice. Gleason, who has tapped deep pockets before, said his group is pushing for improvements for economic issues, crime, and education.

“We’re one of a number of groups that are frustrated and want to see the city moving in a different and better direction,” he said. “There is a swing back to the center happening.”

Gleason said it was “premature” to say if that could lead to his being a candidate for public office.

Clout hears yet another group, Philly For Growth, is circling back to an effort launched in 2019 to seed Council with candidates considered friendly to the real estate industry.

That culminated four years ago with the head-turning “talking baby” ad, featuring a toddler enhanced with some computer animation, urging voters to support candidates “who will grow Philadelphia with us.”

A Philly For Growth spokesperson declined to comment.

Philadelphia 3.0 is also returning to the Council battlefield. The outside spending group, funded by wealthy individuals like investors Josh Kopelman (who chairs The Inquirer’s board) and Richard Vague, says its goal is to back reform-minded candidates.

Executive director Ali Perelman said she expects the group to get involved in four or five Council races in 2023, but not the mayor’s race.

“It’s going to take some really impressive leadership for this city to really emerge from an extraordinarily difficult last few years,” Perelman said. “My expectation is that there’s just going to be more activity on the Council side in ’23 than we saw in ’19, and by activity we mean more competitive races.”

Johnson rallies the faithful pretrial

Johnson’s legal team is expected to start picking jurors for his trial Monday and his backers are already making an appeal — not to a higher court, but to a higher power.

On Friday evening, Johnson will join supporters at Yesha Ministries in South Philadelphia for a pretrial “victory prayer service,” according to a flier for the event obtained by Clout.

Bishop James Darrell Robinson, who organized the event, said he and other faith leaders have spent countless hours praying for Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, who was also indicted, because they are important community leaders.

”He’s present at our funerals. He’s present at all of our community events. He’s present with our youth,” Robinson said. “We wanted to make sure that we let him know that we appreciate him for being present and that we believe in his innocence.”

Clout provides often irreverent news and analysis about people, power, and politics.