Helen Gym Lost, But Philly’s Progressive Movement Isn’t Going Anywhere

Gym may not have emerged victorious in the mayoral primary, but the labor-left coalition that powered her campaign has emerged as a formidable political force.

Mindy Isser

Helen Gym's loss in Philadelphia's mayor's race offers lessons for the electoral Left. (Photo by Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News Via Getty)

In Tuesday’s Democratic primary election for Philadelphia mayor, Helen Gym came up short in her quest to bring an unapologetic progressive vision to City Hall. While her loss is certainly a blow to the progressive movement, no one should be planning any funerals for the Left — whether in Philly or across the country — any time soon. The election illustrated the increasingly influential role of the growing labor-left coalition in the city due to the strength of the Gym campaign, even though it ultimately failed to win out.

Gym, a former public school teacher, education activist and two term City Council member, resigned to run in the Democratic primary for mayor this year, in a very crowded field of candidates. (While this was the primary, Philly is such a predominately-Democratic city that it is all but assumed that the winner will prevail in the general election). 

Other candidates included the winner Cherelle Parker, a single Black mom who also resigned from City Council to run for mayor and the political establishment’s favored pick; Rebecca Rhynhart, a former Wall Street executive turned City Controller, who presided over former Mayor Michael Nutter’s austerity budget which closed libraries and fire stations; Allan Domb, also known as the Condo King,” a real estate agent and another former City Council member who resigned to run; Jeff Brown, a businessman who owns grocery stores and has never held political office; and a few other candidates who either dropped out before ballots were printed or who received a minimal share of the vote.

Gym spent her time in City Council crafting legislation to benefit Philly’s workers and tenants. By partnering with unions and progressive organizations, she was able to pass Fair Workweek, a law providing low-wage workers more control over their schedules and their lives. She also passed an eviction diversion program that has been applauded by the Biden White House, and which helped cut evictions in the city by 75%. While her detractors disparaged her as just an activist,” or someone with lofty goals but no real plan, her recent history of winning material gains for the working class was the sort of work she and her supporters were hoping to take into the mayor’s office.

There are a number of reasons behind Gym’s loss: a vicious and well-funded campaign against her led by billionaire GOP mega-donor Jeffrey Yass, the richest man in Pennsylvania; a crowded field, including Rhynhart, who ran as a reformer” siphoning off many of Gym’s potential progressive voters, and Parker, who ate into Gym’s potential union support; plus an inability to bring enough Black voters behind her campaign. 

Critics may claim that Gym’s loss shows a lack of popular support for progressive policies, but that’s simply not the case. In 2019, Gym won more votes than any other candidate in her re-election bid for City Council. And she won nearly 45,000 votes this week, coming in third place in the mayor’s race, even after Yass’s Super PAC poured $600,000 into daily mailers and television ads targeting Gym. Progressive policies remain popular, seen by both national polling around issues like Medicare for All and a higher minimum wage, but also in Philadelphia, with the recent re-election of progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner, even after he faced an onslaught of conservative attacks.

While a number of left-wing City Council candidates also lost on Tuesday, one new progressive candidate was elected for the first time: Rue Landau, a civil rights lawyer and former housing organizer. (Her victory can’t be chalked up entirely to the Left, though, as she was endorsed by many Democratic politicians). Similarly, Democratic Socialists of America-backed, first-time candidate Seth Anderson-Oberman’s race against the 8th district’s Cindy Bass is currently too close to call, with only a few hundred votes separating them. And since Bernie Sanders’ initial presidential run in 2016 inspired organizers as well as young and working class people around the city to get involved in electoral politics, progressives such as Nikil Saval, Rick Krajewski, Elizabeth Fiedler, and more have won seats in the State House and State Senate. 

Outside of Philly, progressives across the country have been racking up wins. Brandon Johnson, Chicago’s new mayor, was sworn in earlier this week after defeating a conservative establishment opponent. His shocking victory in April came after other progressive mayoral victories in other cities, including Michelle Wu in Boston and Karen Bass in Los Angeles. And across the state in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, progressive Sara Innamorato was victorious in her primary for County Executive, and Matt Dugan looks set to win his election for Democratic candidate for District Attorney. Last month, a progressive faction in St. Louis won a majority of seats on the Board of Alderman.

Despite right-wing attempts to stoke fears about crime in urban areas, voters in cities around the country are still choosing to elect candidates that have a more holistic view around criminal justice, seeking to attack the root causes of criminal behavior while finding more short-term solutions to violence. Voters remain open to platforms that invest in social programs to lift residents out of poverty and provide more protections for working people. 

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This election isn’t the end of the line — Philly progressives also have the general election to look forward to in November. In 2019, voters elected Working Families Party (WFP) member Kendra Brooks to City Council, scooping up one of the two guaranteed minority party seats that had previously only gone to Republicans. (As a progressive alternative to both the Republicans and Democrats, WFP is eligible to run and win these minority seats.) This year, Brooks is running for re-election, along with PA WFP Organizing Director Nicolas O’Rourke, in hopes of capturing both minority seats. (O’Rourke also ran in 2019 but lost.) The WFP is also running Jarrett Smith for the minority party seat for city commissioner, meaning that the party could potentially hold three seats in city government.

The growth of the WFP in Philly is a bright spot for progressives, as it serves as the base for a true labor-left bloc in the city, with unions and progressive organizations uniting to support left-wing candidates and causes, through funding, increased ground game and other resources. But it’s not a panacea: member-unions of WFP often endorse more establishment candidates, hedging their bets in both directions. (For example, SEIU 32BJ is a member of WFP, which endorsed Gym, but the union itself endorsed Parker.) 

And while many unions are members of WFP, the building trades, who also endorsed Parker for mayor, are notably absent. The trades are arguably the most politically powerful unions in the city, with very large war chests used to fund candidates. But with some exceptions, they usually back the more establishment candidates, and this race was no different. If a labor-left bloc is to truly flourish in the city, it needs to figure out how to bring in the trades, which is easier said than done.

But the elephant in the room in this election and others is race. It’s clear that for the most part, voters chose their preferred candidate by racial lines. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, majority-Black precincts gave nearly 56% of their vote to Parker, while majority-white ones gave her just 12% of their vote.” And in a Black-majority city like Philadelphia, that means that without a coalition including the building trades and Black political class backing you (like current Mayor Jim Kenney, who is white, received), a Black candidate will most likely win. Gym’s challenges in galvanizing Black support in a majority Black city undoubtedly made it difficult to bring together a winning coalition.

Gym’s ground game was powered by grassroots support. Unite Here, along with other independent expenditures from other progressive groups, knocked on 431,000 doors and made over half a million phone calls for Gym. Other unions, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and AFSCME DC 47, endorsed Gym, but Unite Here offered the biggest ground game by far, with other unions’ support mostly consisting of mailers and financial contributions. If unions are serious about electing their endorsed candidates, they will likely have to activate their members to not only vote, but to knock doors in their communities. Progressive groups like the WFP, One Pennsylvania and Amistad Movement Power provided significant door knocking operations, but it wasn’t enough to counter all of the wards that endorsed Parker and handed out sample ballots with her name on them at the polls. 

This race showcased some of the stark challenges facing the electoral Left. If Rebecca Rhynhart hadn’t run, many of her voters may have gone to Gym, perhaps leading her to victory. But that doesn’t change the fact that both candidates’ bases were largely white. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, young progressive white voters gave… Gym her largest vote share,” while most of Rhynhart’s base was wealthy white liberals.” And while many Black supporters and other people of color not only backed Gym but worked hard to elect her, this organizing didn’t translate to significant gains in Black neighborhoods. 

Whether Gym would have won or not without Rhynhart is one question, but the Left should not be a coalition of just college-educated young people and well-off, well-meaning white people. It should be a mass movement of Black grandmothers and their families, construction workers and their unions, immigrant domestic workers and their neighbors, as well as college-educated young people and well-meaning white people. 

Recent victories for progressives in Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and elsewhere have shown that such multiracial movement building is more than possible — we just need to work a lot harder to get there. 

Disclosure: The author volunteered on Helen Gym’s mayoral campaign 

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Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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