Former City Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker, who ran as a law-and-order candidate, won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Philadelphia on Tuesday, all but officially ensuring her the city’s top leadership post.
Parker, a Black woman from a working-class background in North Philadelphia, promised first and foremost to restore a “sense of order” to a city reeling from record-breaking gun violence. She has said she would hire 300 more police officers to be dispersed evenly throughout the city, and would reinstitute a “constitutional” stop-and-frisk policy that she calls “Terry stops.” Among other measures, she has also spoken about expanding the hours of city public schools to provide more safe spaces for kids to spend their free time.
“We deserve ― and quite frankly, Philadelphians are demanding ― a proactive community policing presence in their neighborhoods, when they see law enforcement walking their streets, riding bikes, not there just because somebody called 911 and the community’s in the midst of a crisis,” Parker told HuffPost earlier this month.
At the same time, Parker vowed to oversee a police force that acts as “guardians and not warriors,” and that does not engage in racism or misconduct with impunity.
Parker’s victory speaks to the stronger hand that moderate Democrats have sometimes enjoyed over progressives in American cities in the past few years, where rising crime and an uncertain economic environment have increased the appeal of a more conservative style of policymaking.
Parker, who is also a former state lawmaker, sometimes calls to mind the rhetoric of New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D), a former police captain who relishes the chance to push back against progressives whom he sees as being out of touch with the actual views of working-class and low-income people of all races.
“I am Black and a woman. I have had to operate at the intersection of race and gender all my life. I was progressive before being ‘progressive’ was a thing,” Parker said. “But I’ve also worked extremely hard to not let anyone put me in a box and label me.”
“I won’t allow anyone to engage in ‘I know what’s best for youse people’ policymaking,” she added. “This is my lived life experience. When you hear me advocating and developing that neighborhood community policing and development plan, guess what? It comes from the ground up. It is not a policy solution that Cherelle Parker, very specifically, developed alone in my own silo.”
If elected, Parker would be the city’s first female mayor and its first Black female mayor.
Parker is due to face former City Council member David Oh, a Republican, in the general election in November. But in a city as overwhelmingly Democratic as Philadelphia, that contest is widely considered a formality.
In Tuesday’s closed-party primary, Parker triumphed over eight other Democratic contenders, including four rivals credibly competing for the nomination: former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, former City Council members Helen Gym and Allan Domb, and supermarket owner Jeff Brown.
Election analysts and limited public polls suggested that in the final weeks of the race, Parker was locked in a neck-and-neck battle with Rhynhart and Gym.
“I won’t allow anyone to engage in ‘I know what’s best for youse people’ policymaking … This is my lived life experience.”
– Cherelle Parker, Democratic mayoral nominee
Each of the women represented different urban coalitions and accompanying approaches to the problems plaguing the country’s sixth largest city.
The most common criticism of Parker ― that she is a machine politician who would represent a continuation of her ally, outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney, and his administration ― also spoke to her fundamental strengths as a candidate.
Thanks to the departure of a strong Black rival and the consolidation of support for Parker among Black clergy and elected officials, Parker developed the advantage she needed with Black voters, who make up 40% of the city’s population and more than half of the Democratic primary electorate.
One clergy member who endorsed Parker, Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, is more progressive than Parker on some questions of criminal justice policy. But based on his experience working with Parker in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, he trusts her to strike the right balance between enforcement and reform.
“When it comes to public safety … she fully gets the feeling that many people in our community have,” Tyler told HuffPost, noting that Black Philadelphians make up a disproportionate number of the victims of violent crime.
Endorsements from the city’s moderate building trades unions likely helped Parker reach a segment of the city’s white working class. Those unions funded a super PAC in support of her bid, offsetting Rhynhart and Gym’s fundraising advantages.
Parker also locked up the support of many Latino elected officials. The withdrawal of former City Council member Maria Quiñones Sánchez, the field’s main Hispanic candidate, accelerated that process.
All the while, Parker signaled to the city’s population of moderate and mainstream liberal voters that her package of incremental reforms ― skills training programs, a greater emphasis on vocational trades in schools, an openness to public charter schools and an expansion of the street “cleaning and greening” program she pioneered on the City Council ― presented more opportunities than risks.
“In today’s atmosphere in Harrisburg and Washington, that’s an extremely important quality that public officials should have: to be able to bring things back to the middle and deliver for our communities,” said state Rep. Danilo Burgos (D) of North Philadelphia, who endorsed Parker after Quiñones Sánchez’s withdrawal. “And Cherelle has that.”
Rhynhart, a former Wall Street executive and city budget director, had a base of support among the city’s affluent, college-educated liberals concentrated in Center City and some northwestern neighborhoods. Touting her work as a financial expert, she promised to employ “data-driven plans” to solve the problems ailing the city. Rhynhart’s record, style and plans ― liberal but not left-wing ― also won her the backing of three former mayors and the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Gym, who would have been the city’s first Asian American mayor, was the preferred candidate of the city’s formidable grassroots progressive movement. She ran on rebuilding public schools and protecting vulnerable renters, framing the public safety crisis as an outgrowth of the city’s underinvestment in low-income and working-class neighborhoods.
But neither Rhynhart nor Gym proved capable of making significant enough inroads beyond their respective bases. For Gym, it didn’t help matters that she faced a $1 million advertising blitz from a super PAC funded by a conservative billionaire.
Her loss, in particular, is a disappointment to the activist left, which had momentum following Mayor Brandon Johnson’s win in Chicago in early April.
“It’s not like there has been, until recently, a string of progressive wins at this level of governance in America,” said Ari Kamen, mid-Atlantic regional director for the Working Families Party, a progressive group that was heavily involved in trying to elect Gym. “We just have to keep doing it and work harder and continue to fight for this.”