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Philly has never had an openly LGBTQ City Council member. That could change after next year’s election.

Some Democratic insiders are pushing the party to back public interest lawyer Rue Landau for an at-large Council seat in 2023.

Public interest attorney Rue Landau.
Public interest attorney Rue Landau.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia is the largest U.S. city that has never elected an openly LGBTQ member to its City Council, and some local Democratic insiders are pushing the party to change that.

“Philadelphia and Pennsylvania are usually first in something,” said Mark Segal, who is the editor of Philadelphia Gay News and a close friend of Democratic Party leaders. “This is something that we’re last at.”

The endorsement of the Democratic City Committee, which is made up of the city’s dozens of neighborhood-based ward leaders, can be crucial in Council races. In a crowded 2019 race for the five at-large Council seats open to Democrats, all five winners were backed by the party.

“If you look at the people who have been successful at running citywide races recently, it has been with a lot of party support,” said Lauren Vidas, an attorney who is lesbian and ran unsuccessfully for a district Council seat in 2019. “If we want to be serious about electing an LGBTQ member of the community, that’s something that party leadership is going to have to prioritize because with their help, I think it could happen.”

» READ MORE: The 2023 Philly City Council campaign is already underway

Council is made up of 10 geographic district seats, and seven at-large seats that are elected citywide. Of the at-large seats, only five can be won by the majority party, meaning Democratic candidates must finish in the top five in the primary to get elected.

Segal is close with Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady, who has called Segal “the honorary LGBT ward leader.” Segal is lobbying Brady and the ward leaders to consider endorsing Rue Landau, a former city official and longtime Community Legal Services attorney who is gay, for an at-large seat.

Landau is still exploring whether to run next year, and she recently spoke before the City Committee’s policy committee, which is made up of top party leaders and recommends candidates for endorsement to the full body of ward leaders.

“It’s essential that we have an LGBTQ person in City Council,” Landau, who lives in Bella Vista with her wife and son, said in an interview. “It’s time for LGBTQ people to not only have advisory roles with the city, but to take a seat at the table, especially now at a time when LGBTQ rights are being rolled back at the state and federal levels.”

Of the 10 largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia is the only one to have never had an openly LGBTQ member of its municipal legislature. Brady declined to say whether the party will prioritize electing someone from the community next year.

“We will run that election when it comes. I do it one at a time,” he said. “When it happens, we will take that up for consideration.”

Past efforts came up short

There has been at least one gay Council member. But very few people knew.

John C. Anderson was a rising star in Philly politics after he was elected to an at-large seat in 1979. Charismatic and warm, Anderson generated buzz in political circles as someone who could be the city’s first Black mayor.

But there were whispers about his sexuality. Those in his orbit knew Anderson was gay, but being out could have been a political nonstarter, or worse — his first election was a year after the assassination of San Francisco‘s Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in U.S. history.

“There was a tremendous amount of stigma, and it just wasn’t something that people talked about,” said former Mayor Michael Nutter, who was a staffer in Anderson’s office and his campaign manager in 1983. “But in his own way, and at that time, he still advanced issues for the LGBT community and civil rights.”

That summer, Anderson’s health declined. On Oct. 3, 1983, a month before he was up for reelection, Anderson died at age 41 — his life cut short by AIDS.

In the four decades since, a handful of LGBTQ judges have been elected in Philadelphia, and two state representatives are openly gay. But efforts to add LGBTQ representation on Council have fallen short.

Sherrie Cohen, a former tenants rights attorney and progressive activist who is gay, won the Democratic endorsement for an at-large Council seat in 2015 — the only time the party has ever backed an out Council candidate. She came in eighth in the primary, one of two times she fell short of being one of the five Democratic nominees.

“Overall it does have pros and cons for voters, in that many people want us to have an inclusive government that is inclusive of all disenfranchised, marginalized communities,” she said. “But of course there’s still people with homophobic views or transphobic views.”

Cohen is running for Council again, and also spoke before the policy committee. But she has struggled to gain traction since alienating some after a March 2019 incident in which her then-campaign manager questioned the ethnicity of Deja Alvarez, an opponent and the first openly transgender woman to run for Council. There’s still some dispute over how the incident played out.

Alvarez, who in 2019 came in 10th out of 28 candidates, said a broader skepticism exists within Democratic city politics.

“They’re skeptical of any newcomer,” Alvarez said. “Then if you add the intersectionality of being trans and Latina, people are going to be extra skeptical.”

‘Veiled commentary’

Vidas in 2019 ran unsuccessfully against Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson in the 2nd District, which includes parts of Southwest and South Philadelphia.

Vidas said she encountered prejudice on the campaign trail, but doesn’t believe it was the deciding factor in a race that was dominated by other issues, including neighborhood quality-of-life concerns, public integrity, development, and gentrification.

“There was definitely some veiled commentary, and in some cases not-so-veiled commentary,” she said. “You can only win over the people you can win over, and I didn’t focus on that negativity.”

People would subtly point out, for instance, that she didn’t have a typical heteronormative family. “Because I don’t have children and I’m not married, that was something that I heard: How could I possibly care about kids if I don’t have kids?” she said.

Paul Steinke, the former general manager of Reading Terminal Market, ran for an at-large seat in 2015 and was more vocal about the fact that he was campaigning to be Council’s first gay member.

Although he didn’t have the party’s endorsement, he hoped to stitch together a coalition of LGBTQ people and leaders in the business community. But it didn’t translate, and he finished 10th out of 16 in the primary.

“The LGBT community has been politically active for at least 40 or 50 years,” he said. “During that time, why a candidate hasn’t emerged? Maybe, collectively, we haven’t been putting forward strong enough candidates.”

» READ MORE: What’s next for LGBTQ equality? Trans rights, coalitions with allies and political power | Opinion

To win, an LGBTQ candidate this cycle will have to balance acknowledging the historic nature of their run and showing they can lead on a host of other issues like crime and economic development, said Ted Bordelon, an LGBTQ political consultant.

“A successful campaign will be a candidate who has the resources and has a message that is resonating,” said Bordelon, who recently launched Agenda PAC, which aims to attack anti-LGBTQ candidates in races across the country. “Not just with breaking the glass ceiling. But someone who can get out there in front of voters and relate to them.”

Who is ‘viable’?

Although Steinke didn’t win the party nod and came up short in the election, he doesn’t believe his identity was a barrier to fund-raising or endorsements.

But others say the party still has a ways to go to be representative of all Philadelphians.

Alvarez thinks some donors feel more comfortable aligning with the “old guard” — gay men and lesbian women who drove the community’s political agenda for decades — and are more likely to support LGBTQ candidates if they’re white and cisgender “because they are seen as more viable.”

This year, Michael Galvan is one of the candidates hoping to fill the void. A former Kenney administration official, Galvan — age 32, Latinx, and queer — was the first Democrat to declare candidacy for the 2023 at-large Council race.

Galvan said the response to their campaign rollout was generally positive, and they’re convinced the electorate is ready for its first LGBTQ Council member.

“The reason I love the city is because it’s so secure and safe and home for people like me,” they said.

Vidas said she was encouraged by the fact that a number of LGBTQ candidates are exploring running for Council in 2023. The next step, she said, is for Democratic ward leaders to do their part by backing Landau if she runs.

“They have the power to right that wrong,” she said, “so hopefully folks decide to step up for her.”