Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym on Tuesday endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, making her the first prominent elected Democrat in the city to back the party’s front-runner.

Gym, an activist turned lawmaker with a large liberal following, rallied with Sanders and hundreds of nurses last summer to protest the closure of Hahnemann University Hospital. She said Tuesday that the Vermont senator’s connection to grassroots organizing, as well as his focus on Medicare for All and debt-free college, led her to endorse him.

“It wasn’t a difficult choice," Gym said. "I come out of movements that have reshaped the political map here in Pennsylvania.

“I’ve seen movements reshape our city and state, and I believe in the power of movements to reshape our country. Bernie Sanders doesn’t just talk about movements for change, he leads them.”

Gym, who supported Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016, got her start in politics organizing against a stadium proposed for Chinatown and as a public school activist. She was first elected to Council in 2015 and coasted to reelection in 2019 with more votes than any other candidate for at-large seats. In the May 2019 primary, Gym received more votes than Mayor Jim Kenney got when he won the mayoral primary in 2015.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders after a rally to protest the closure of Hahnemann University Hospital in July. At rear from left is Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, who endorsed Sanders for president.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders after a rally to protest the closure of Hahnemann University Hospital in July. At rear from left is Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, who endorsed Sanders for president.

She’s just the second elected official in Pennsylvania to endorse Sanders, despite his surge nationally and wins in early-voting states. State Rep. Sara Inamorato, a freshman who represents parts of Pittsburgh, endorsed Sanders last year.

Much of Pennsylvania’s Democratic establishment is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden. Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner are backing Elizabeth Warren.

Gym endorsed Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks in a successful race for Council last year, rankling local Democratic Party leader Bob Brady, who called the move “stupid.”

Gym said fears over Sanders among establishment Democrats are overblown, including that he would doom candidates in down-ballot races in swing states.

“I see it as who is speaking to the needs of everyday Pennsylvanians?" Gym said. "In a city where an oil refinery exploded on national TV, leaving us with contaminated neighborhoods and lost jobs, this is not an abstract thing. His agenda for housing, for debt-free college, for clean air and water and health care for all and strong public schools, is in no way a left agenda. It’s what the Democratic Party used to be, and it’s time to take it back.”

Gym was the first Asian American woman on Council, and there’s widespread speculation she may run for mayor in 2023.

In a poll last week, Sanders led his challengers in the April 28 Pennsylvania primary, and finished about even with them in hypothetical head-to-head matchups against President Donald Trump in the state.