Wanted: Female Mayoral Candidates

Philadelphia’s power structure is famously lacking in female representation, especially in the coveted mayor’s slot. Should we blame the old boys’ club, or is it finally time for women to man up?

The faces of powerful Philadelphia politicians in 2012.

It’s March 8th, and the recent national debate over the “war on women” is at its zenith. Rush Limbaugh has just called a Georgetown law student a slut and a prostitute after she argued that her university’s insurance plan ought to cover contraception. A week later, Governor Corbett will suggest that mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions are no big deal because, hey, “you just have to close your eyes” to avoid seeing the picture.

In Philadelphia’s City Hall, Councilwoman-at-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown crosses her arms and leans towards the microphone. For the next four minutes, she delivers a levelheaded attack against “the all-out assault on women’s rights.” She proclaims that the root of the problem is the lack of women in elite positions in business and government. She tells her colleagues they should haul local CEOs into Council chambers and grill them on why there are so few women in their boardrooms. “In politics, the saying goes, if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu,” she says. Her delivery is crisp, forceful and deadly serious—three adjectives not always associated with Brown’s oratory.

This isn’t a new subject for the Councilwoman. She trots out resolutions honoring women’s contributions every few months. Today, though, feels like more than just another nod to her core constituency. Brown sounds like a ready-to-announce mayoral candidate. What better way, after all, to ensure that Philadelphia women have a seat at the table than to go after the most powerful office in local politics? And Brown is arguably better positioned than any other woman in the city to mount a mayoral campaign: She’d likely have the backing of the powerful political organization led by U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah; she’s had the experience of running for and winning citywide office four times; her base of African-American women is the most reliable voting block in all of Philadelphia, and she’s got supporters among Center City and Chestnut Hill white progressives as well.

As the Council meeting wraps up, I approach Brown and ask if she’s planning a run for mayor, expecting a wink and a sly “We’ll see.” Instead, she tells me about her 16-year-old daughter, who’s getting ready for college. She talks about the financial challenge of resigning her Council seat to run for mayor, and the personal sacrifice that’s required. She says she’s already walking a tightrope backwards in heels, and how can she run for mayor on top of that?

And this, I think to myself, is the city’s leading political champion for women. What a cop-out.

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