Amid grave concerns about public safety, education and the direction of a major American city, Philadelphians will take a major step on Tuesday toward electing their 100th mayor in a contest with implications that will reverberate across a crucial presidential battleground.
The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary is all but certain to become the mayor of Philadelphia — the largest city in Pennsylvania, a premier presidential swing state — and the spending on the race has reflected those stakes. The crowded and increasingly acrimonious mayoral contest is the most expensive in the city’s history, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Five contenders are generally considered to be the leading Democratic candidates: the former City Council members Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker and Allan Domb; Rebecca Rhynhart, a former city controller; and Jeff Brown, who has owned grocery stores.
Ms. Parker, Ms. Rhynhart and Ms. Gym are often regarded as in the strongest positions, but the race is fluid and highly competitive. Sparse polling shows that there are many undecided voters, and some Democrats worry about low turnout, factors that make the outcome difficult to predict.
Here are five things to know about Tuesday’s primary.
It’s a test — however imperfect — of progressive power.
Nearly two years ago, left-wing Democrats were bitterly disappointed by New York, as the relatively moderate Eric Adams swept into Gracie Mansion on a message of law and order.
But since then, mayoral candidates identified with the more liberal wing of the party have notched other notable victories, including Michelle Wu in Boston and Karen Bass in Los Angeles. Last month, Brandon Johnson, a left-leaning Chicagoan, electrified progressive Democrats across the country with his mayoral win.
The Philadelphia mayor’s race offers the next significant, if imperfect, citywide test of progressive power. Some of the same players who engaged in other key races — including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, teachers’ union activists and organizations like the Working Families Party — are backing Ms. Gym. Mr. Johnson endorsed her on Friday.
She is a veteran community organizer focused in particular on schools, who is pledging to deliver “transformative” change.
“My opponents think my plans are too big,” she said in an ad. “I think their ideas are too small.”
Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez are expected to rally with her on Sunday. In an interview, Mr. Sanders sought to connect the candidacies of Mr. Johnson, Ms. Bass and Ms. Gym.
“What Karen and Brandon and hopefully Helen will be able to do,” said Mr. Sanders, who is himself the former mayor of Burlington, Vt., “is say, ‘You know what? This government, our governments, are working for you, not just wealthy campaign contributors.’”
A low turnout or a slim margin of victory in any direction could make it challenging to draw sweeping conclusions about the mood of the city, but many observers see Ms. Gym’s candidacy as a notable test for the left.
“If Helen wins, that’s a big story, because it means the progressive movement won,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor who is supporting Ms. Rhynhart.
Philadelphia could elect its first female mayor.
Philadelphia’s mayors to date have at least one thing in common: They have all been men.
“Let’s just say I’ll bring a different touch,” Ms. Parker, a former state representative, says in a campaign ad that highlights images of some of those who would be her predecessors.
Ms. Parker, who has advocated for a more robust police presence while stressing her opposition to police abuse, has often used her identity as a mother of a young Black man to argue that she can strike the appropriate balance on matters of public safety.
“I am a Black woman who has lived my real life at the intersection of race and gender,” said Ms. Parker, who has the support of much of the party establishment, in an interview. “I know what it feels like to be marginalized.”
And Ms. Gym, who could also be the city’s first Asian American mayor, has branded herself a “tough Philly mom” — but she made it clear that the history-making potential of her candidacy was part of a much broader argument.
“It is really important that change is more than just a change of faces,” Ms. Gym said. “People want a transformation of how people live.”
Ms. Rhynhart, who is running on her government experience while promising to take on the status quo as a critic of the current mayor, took a similar tack.
“There’s been 99 male mayors,” she said. “It’s an important time, and likely long overdue, to have a woman as the leader of our city. But I’m focused on being the best overall leader.”
The city’s self-image is also at stake.
No one doubts the pride many Philadelphians feel in their city, the birthplace of the nation’s democracy and the home of aggressively devoted sports fans.
But several current and former city leaders said the city’s challenges with issues surrounding crime, education and other postpandemic concerns had taken a significant toll on morale.
Philadelphians, said State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, are looking for someone “who can sort of bring the city back — I think almost in an emotional way.”
The current mayor, Jim Kenney, made headlines last year for declaring that he would “be happy” when he was done being mayor, comments he later sought to walk back.
“The mood in the city is despair — a lot of people have given up,” Mr. Rendell said. “For a lot of people, it is the last chance to turn it around.”
Mr. Rendell was elected mayor in 1991, at a moment of crisis for the city. Mr. Domb drew parallels between that race and the current moment.
“This is a turning-point election,” he said.
The next mayor could be a prominent player in the 2024 presidential election.
When President Biden wants to project patriotism, talk about the future of American democracy or just count on a warm reception, he often heads to Philadelphia, a city he knows well as a former senator from nearby Delaware.
There will be a natural opening for Philadelphia’s next Democratic mayor to serve as a party surrogate as Mr. Biden seeks re-election. Philadelphia’s lower turnout rates have also disappointed Democrats in recent federal elections, and a number of candidates pledged in interviews to focus on turnout and voter access as mayor.
The success or failure of the next mayor to manage the city may be noticed by Republicans, said Representative Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who supports Ms. Parker.
“If we have a Democratic mayor in Philadelphia who is not doing well or is unpopular, that does make winning in the Philadelphia metro area more challenging,” he said. “That’s something Republicans would certainly use statewide.”
Public safety is the dominant issue.
On Monday, a canvasser working with a progressive political organization was fatally shot after a dispute with another canvasser with the group — a stunning moment that underscored how problems of gun violence are shaping the city, and the mayoral race.
“Public safety is virtually everyone’s No. 1 issue,” said former Mayor Michael Nutter, who backs Ms. Rhynhart.
While the full crime picture in Philadelphia is complex, leading candidates have made it clear that they see it as the biggest force in the contest and have moved assertively to address it in advertising.
Some who once opposed an increase in police funding after the killing of George Floyd have struck starkly different tones in discussing law enforcement this primary contest, and there is broad agreement across the ideological spectrum on the need to fill police vacancies, while candidates also denounce police abuse.
Certainly, there are notable distinctions in emphasis and policy, too. Mr. Brown has been endorsed by Philadelphia’s police union.
“The most urgent concern is crime, and especially violent crimes,” he said. “Philadelphia really isn’t doing well.”
Candidates differ about how to balance investments in social services with those in law enforcement, and some have clashed over police stops of citizens.
“We can’t go backwards to racist, unconstitutional practices,” Ms. Rhynhart said. “But we can’t have the current chaos.”