Progressives are hoping to rack up another big-city win in Philadelphia’s mayoral primary after scoring a major upset in Chicago earlier this year.
Big national figures on the left, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have thrown their weight behind Helen Gym, a former member of the Philadelphia City Council, in the close and crowded primary.
Whoever wins Tuesday’s contest is likely to succeed in November’s general election, making the primary another important test of progressive firepower in America’s metropolitan centers.
“They don’t want politics as usual,” one Philadelphia-based education advocate working to elect Gym said about residents in the city. “They want somebody who will be there at the rallies, at the organizing events, on the picket lines, in the community meetings.”
“Helen’s there,” they added.
A striking number of prominent Democrats have lined up behind Gym, who would join the ranks of some hard-fought and unexpected left-wing winners this year. Last month, progressives shocked the establishment after Brandon Johnson, a liberal seen by many moderates as fairly radical, won Chicago’s mayoral race.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are hosting a rally for Gym, a former public school teacher, on Saturday in a final push of what’s turning out to be a close, multicandidate race where megadonor spending and quality-of-life issues are taking focus. Although the big names are expected to draw national attention to one of the poorest major cities in the country, Gym so far has focused more sharply on local issues, balancing the excitement a Sanders-style rally brings with the priorities of residents struggling at home.
“This campaign has always been about bringing people together to reshape political systems so that they meet people’s needs — from quality public education and affordable housing to workers’ rights and real community safety,” said Gym, 55, in a statement after the event was announced. “This rally is all about joy, possibility, and people power.”
For teachers and labor and community advocates, her victory would be a major moment. If Gym emerges as the nominee, some allies believe it would signal the party can move in a more progressive direction confidently and that her platform resonates.
“This will be a huge, huge victory, and obviously having a progressive mayor like Helen would be very, very transformative,” the education activist said. “I think it’s emblematic of the ongoing organizing effort and the ongoing rhetoric that has shifted.”
Polls have suggested the race will be a nail-biter in the final stretch. The liberal think tank Data for Progress, which has accurately depicted progressive momentum in other down-ballot races, placed Gym in contention for first place alongside Rebecca Rhynhart, the former city controller, with each earning 21 percent of support among the selection of serious candidates. Cherelle L. Parker, who represented the ninth district in the City Council, came in third with 19 percent support in the survey taken late last month.
Another poll from the nonpartisan group Committee of Seventy suggests an even closer match: a margin-of-error tie among the top five contenders.
Progressives have reliably run and won seats on similar agendas to what Gym is promoting for Philadelphia. This year, education has taken center stage, and Gym is calling for a “Green New Deal for Schools” — part of a 10-year proposal to make the current system fairer, safer, and more modern for young people to succeed.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the Progressive Caucus and is also supporting Gym, has been joined by other lawmakers who came from less traditional backgrounds to beat out their competition, including fellow educator Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).
“When you see somebody who approaches legislation from an organizing perspective, it makes it so much more powerful,” said the education activist, who has known Gym from her earlier ascent to the City Council. “You see how that has impacted people by her ground game. People are coming out … volunteering after working all day or spending their Saturdays knocking on doors because they see what she does.”
The cycle leading up to 2024, which many consider a true test of Democratic sticking power, has also magnified how many primaries have become close contests. As the party looks to solidify its place in the White House and Senate — and gain back control of the House — smaller local races have been a test of the left’s standing.
One critique moderates like to levy on progressives is that they aren’t appealing enough to win in general elections. But voters in many races have proven those naysayers wrong, choosing the most liberal option among a variety of Democrats.
That trend has only amplified in recent months, as voters chose liberals Karen Bass in Los Angeles, Michelle Wu in Boston and Johnson in Chicago, to lead their respective cities even as crime, education and other divisive issues remain prevalent.
“Just like we saw in Chicago, this contest in Philadelphia will come down to big money versus grassroots organizing,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, which is putting its mobilization muscle of 40,000 members in the city behind Gym.
The wins also have shown progressives are a big force behind the Democratic Party’s expanding diversity, ultimately sending more candidates of color to higher office and helping shift the once-prevailing narrative the left is mostly white and male. That trend shifted notably in the House and has continued in cities across the country.
Gym’s crime-reduction platform, specifically, is unique in its simplicity. She wants to move law enforcement officials into what she describes as “community foot patrols” and intends to use increased tech tools to make forensics sharper and more reliable. She’s also expressed a desire to address the slower-than-ideal police response times for residents who call 911, and, like many Democrats across the ideological spectrum, plans to work to minimize the number of unregistered and illegal firearms in the rotation.
Despite her support from top-tier Democrats, one voice is notably absent: President Biden, a Pennsylvania native. Biden has weighed into only a handful of primaries and has occasionally bet on the wrong horse. While his endorsement would likely carry weight in his home state, it’s also not necessarily expected. Gym has run to the left of Biden on some issues, and progressives say her ability to pull together different grassroots coalitions is what makes her a powerful choice.
“What we know is that progressives’ messaging on issues from public safety to education to good jobs and housing has resonated with the Democratic base in key cities, from Chicago to St. Louis,” Geevarghese said. “We are confident that this message, championed by Helen Gym, will resonate with Philadelphians on election day.”