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Helen Gym wants to finish the fight she started 30 years ago. Would she be Philadelphia’s activist-mayor? | Meet the candidates

Philadelphia mayoral candidate Helen Gym has become a polarizing political figure. Her supporters see a champion. Her critics see a “character.”

Helen Gym has evolved from a teacher into a school board protester into a leader of the city’s social justice movement and now is a mayoral candidate running as a “tough Philly mom.”
Helen Gym has evolved from a teacher into a school board protester into a leader of the city’s social justice movement and now is a mayoral candidate running as a “tough Philly mom.”Read moreAnton Klusener/ Staff illustration/ Staff photos

Helen Gym was in the way.

It was June 2021 and the Philadelphia City Council member was blocking the doors of the Pennsylvania state Senate alongside activists demanding more funding for public schools.

“Shame on the unjust funding of our school kids!” Gym shouted as police handcuffed her. She was issued a citation, then released.

The day encapsulates the duality of Philadelphians’ impression of Gym. Her supporters saw a champion — a longtime advocate for schools who would stop at nothing to call attention to injustice, and someone who has backed up her rhetoric with tangible action.

But her critics saw a performance — a moment ripe to be used in a future campaign. They describe her as a populist, and someone who speaks the language of social justice but hasn’t always lived up to it.

Helen Gym searched for purpose at Penn and later found meaning in education

Through three decades in Philadelphia, Gym has evolved from a teacher into a leader of the city’s social justice movement and now a mayoral candidate running as a “tough Philly mom.” She’s one of 11 Democrats running in the May 16 primary.

The question is whether she’d be a mayor with the elbows-out posture of a longtime activist — and if that’s what the city wants in its next chief executive.

Gym has become a polarizing political figure, in part because she occupies a clear lane as a progressive in the mayoral field. It could also be because she has so often described herself in fighting terms. And fighters have opponents.

She fought the state takeover of Philly schools and fought against planned school closures. As a legislator, she fought for a defense fund for immigrants, fought for legislation to benefit hourly workers, fought for novel legal protections for people facing eviction.

In many cases, her approach worked. She won concessions as an advocate, and while she ruffled plenty of feathers in City Hall, she was a productive lawmaker for seven years on Council.

Asked whether her style translates to the mayor’s office, where she’d lead a workforce and be responsible for keeping a bevy of department heads happy, Gym rejected the notion, saying her vision for the city is larger than keeping people comfortable.

“I’m trying to lead us on a common mission,” she said, “to transform people’s lives.”

Lessons learned, from Ohio to Philly

Gym, 55, lives in Philadelphia’s upscale Logan Square section today, but she grew up in a suburb outside Columbus, Ohio. The daughter of Korean immigrants, Gym was a bookish teenager with little interest in politics.

She studied history and economics at the University of Pennsylvania, but she likes to say she graduated from the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper. Her first job was at a tiny paper in Mansfield, Ohio, a manufacturing town.

There, she interviewed a steel worker who’d lost his legs in an accident, and she assured him he could “probably find another job.” He explained that he had an eighth-grade education and couldn’t find work that would pay what he and his family were worth.

Gym was mortified.

“I never forgot what he said,” she recalled, “and I never forgot how I felt.”

She returned to Philadelphia in the early 1990s and took a job at a community center in Olney, then became a teacher at James R. Lowell Elementary School in the neighborhood.

Gym felt there was pent-up energy to improve schools in underserved neighborhoods, but not many solutions coming from institutions. She cofounded a news organization to cover education, and after leaving her district job in 1997, fell deeper into community-based work.

She fought against a baseball stadium in Chinatown in 2000 (she’s said she is “skeptical” of the proposal for a Sixers arena in Center City). And as she was raising her children, Gym cofounded Parents United for Public Education, fighting the state’s takeover of Philadelphia schools and advocating against the expansion of for-profit charters.

For years, she lobbied Council, spoke at school board meetings, and took the mayor to task for what she saw as a divestment of public education.

One of the most high-profile sagas was in 2009, when South Philadelphia High School was roiled by racial discord. Gym partnered with students, many of them Asian immigrants, who staged a boycott and spurred a movement for safer schools.

“Our society sometimes is not that patient to young people,” Wei Chen, one of the students, said recently. “They always see the young people as troublemakers. But Helen Gym doesn’t feel that.”

In 2013, when the state-controlled School Reform Commission voted to close about two-dozen schools, Gym rallied hard against it.

“You want Helen to be in the trenches with you when you’re in a fight,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who was arrested protesting that plan. “And that’s the kind of mayor you want: somebody willing to be in the trenches, somebody who can walk the walk with parents and with workers and with kids.”

Gym became one of the district’s staunchest critics — earning her new scrutiny amid the reform movement. Charter school advocates questioned her motives, pointing out that her children attended a charter that Gym cofounded in the early aughts. The school, the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures charter, was established in Chinatown after the stadium battle and when the district was under state control.

The school wasn’t intended to be “in lieu of public education,” Gym says, but a “supplement.”

“It felt really important to prove that we could build a school that would lift our values,” she said. “Many charter operators open schools they would never imagine sending their own kids to.”

Her critics say her advocacy against expanding the charter-school footprint rang hollow.

David Hardy, the cofounder of Boys’ Latin Charter School and a senior fellow at the Commonwealth Foundation who has long opposed Gym’s education positions, said she presents as a “feisty fighter” for families but has hampered their ability to choose a charter over traditional school.

“She’s created this character, and a lot of people in this town buy into that nonsense,” he said. “They make it seem like they’re for public education, but you don’t see a whole lot of success for poor children in this city.”

‘She will not let up’

With the backing of the city’s teacher’s union, Gym came in fifth in the 2015 Democratic primary for an at-large Council seat — only the top five vote-getters continue on — and became the first Asian American woman on Council.

Gym learned to legislate through the lens of a broader progressive movement, said Wilson Goode Jr., a former Council member and son of the former mayor. He handpicked Gym to succeed him on the board of Local Progress, a national organization for local officials.

He said her leadership flourished after Donald Trump was elected president. Gym rallied thousands at the airport in 2017 to protest his travel ban.

“[Trump’s election] changed the way we view politics, and I think changed people’s expectations of Council people,” Goode said. “She performed well in Council in terms of crafting a legislative agenda, but at the same time rose to a different level of leadership.”

But she turned off some Council colleagues, who have said publicly and privately that Gym could be rigid during negotiations.

William K. Greenlee, a former Democratic councilmember who served with Gym, described her as rarely veering from her positions, but also capable of compromise.

Greenlee, who is backing Cherelle Parker in the mayor’s race, recalled that Gym revised her 2018 Fair Workweek legislation — which requires predictive scheduling for workers — after business community opposition threatened its passage. It was a sign that she could make an agreement.

Where Greenlee said he takes issue with Gym’s campaign is posturing — which he said is espoused mostly by her supporters — that she’s “above the fray.”

“We’re politicians, and I’m sure Helen made agreements on things, or to get things, that’s what we all did,” Greenlee said. “My only problem with that is that I admit that.”

Gym says she worked to win over colleagues of different political persuasions. She said the issues she took on, such as unsafe drinking water in schools, may seem popular — but solutions were rarely simple.

“The status quo for Philly politics is that people acknowledge that there are really important issues and they’re popular, and yet nothing ever gets done,” Gym said. “I never accept half-assed ideas to solve really big problems. And if that rubs somebody the wrong way, I think that reflects more on them.”

When Gym ran for reelection in 2019, she proved to be one of the city’s most popular politicians, winning more primary votes than any other Council candidate in decades.

That year, she angered Democratic party leadership when she endorsed Kendra Brooks, who ran for Council as a member of the liberal Working Families Party. Gym tweeted that “in a time of corporate Dem shills and keyboard warriors acting as pseudo progressives, Kendra has walked the walk.”

Brooks won, as did Democrat Jamie Gauthier, who beat a West Philadelphia incumbent. The three made up a progressive bloc on Council that was far from a majority, but wielded real influence. They pushed for a program to cut evictions by diverting landlords and tenants to mediation, and advocated for behavioral health providers to respond to mental health calls instead of police.

Toni Damon, the ex-principal at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School in North Philly, said Gym’s work went beyond legislation. When Damon had one counselor and one assistant principal serving 500 students, Gym advocated to secure one more of each.

“She came when we needed her,” Damon said. “People say the squeaky wheel gets the oil. She doesn’t back down. She’s persistent. And she will not let up.”

What comes next

On Jan. 30, Gym stood at City Hall and accepted the endorsement of the Working Families Party, saying that together, they’d lift up the people ignored by “career politicians, austerity bureaucrats, and too much of the wealthy and privileged in Philadelphia.”

She wrapped up the news conference, hopped on her bicycle, and rode away.

Hours later, she visited the Union League, the ritzy private club she’d denounced days earlier because it honored Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. She made the stop in the midst of a well-publicized campaign against the club that was led by Black clergy and officials.

Her attendance at the event, hosted by the General Building Contractors’ Association, drew criticism and questions about authenticity. A group of Black ward leaders said that “her blatant hypocrisy draws significant concern.”

She apologized. But some remain deeply bothered. Blondell Reynolds Brown, a former Democratic Council member, said recently it was a poor show of character.

“When people like Helen Gym show you who they are, believe them,” she said.

Gym’s campaign has said it’s “moving forward.” They say she should be evaluated based on her track record and her plans to improve public safety, education, and economic opportunity.

Her biggest advantage may be that her supporters are loyal. After the Union League flap, there was little sign of a crack in her base. She continued to win endorsements from well-organized groups that say she’d be one of the nation’s most progressive big-city mayors.

And she was defended by the teachers’ union, which sees an opportunity to elect a close ally. It has backed winners before — but union members say this would feel like one of them.

Damon said Gym’s critics have overblown the Union League visit, saying: “People who know her know the work that she’s done.”

“You can’t take center stage,” Damon said, “if you weren’t there from the beginning.”

Inquirer staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.