How the Fight for Gay Rights Could Decide the City Council Race

The LGBT community is pushing to elect the city's first out Council candidate.

Photo courtesy of Philly Bricks.

Photo courtesy of Philly Bricks.

Philadelphia is one of the most-gay friendly cities in the United States. It has strong LGBT advocacy groups, a strong LGBT tourism scene, and strong laws protecting the LGBT community.

Yet, an out person has never been elected to the City Council.

If LGBT leaders in Philly and beyond have their way, that will change after this year’s municipal elections. Why now (besides the fact that it’s 2015)? There are two openly gay, viable candidates running for Democratic City Council At-Large in the May 19th primary; plus, many people in the LGBT community argue that the endorsement of an out Council candidate by the city’s Democratic Party is long overdue.

“I think it’s just simply time,” says Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania. “The fact that there isn’t an openly gay Council person already is surprising.”

The two out candidates, Sherrie Cohen and Paul Steinke, are both formidable.

Cohen is the daughter of the late, progressive Councilman David Cohen, and she finished sixth in the primary election for five Democratic Council At-Large seats in 2011. As Cohen likes to point out, she would have won if she had only gotten about one additional vote in each of the city’s 1,688 voting divisions.

Steinke, meanwhile, was the general manager of the city’s beloved Reading Terminal Market for 13 years. He’s also an impressive fundraiser, particularly for a challenger: At the end of 2014, his campaign also had more cash on hand than any other Democratic candidate for City Council At-Large, including the incumbents.

As viable as Cohen and Steinke are, though, their victory is anything but guaranteed. No fewer than a dozen Democrats are running for five City Council at-large seats, and they’re serious competitors. Four of them are incumbents—Council members Blondell Reynolds BrownW. Wilson Goode, Jr.Bill Greenlee and Ed Neilson—who can count on name recognition and support from the Democratic Party and the other advantages of incumbency. Some of the challengers, such as education activist Helen Gym and adjunct professor Isaiah Thomas, already have won the backing of powerful unions. Others, like Dilworth Paxson partner Tom Wyatt, have proven to be competent fundraisers.

In such a competitive race, the support of the Democratic Party could go a long way.

The Philadelphia Democratic City Committee is expected to endorse all four sitting Council members, so that leaves one seat to play with. LGBT leaders are lobbying hard for it to go to one of their own. Their argument: The DCC has never endorsed an openly gay candidate for City Council, and, for goodness’ sake, even the city’s Republican Party has done that already (see: Malcolm Lazin, 2011 primary election).

“This community has supported the Democratic Party for the last 45 years. We have chipped in not only our sweat, but also our money,” says Mark Segal, a longtime gay rights activist and the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. “We feel very strongly that the time is now for the [DCC] to recognize the LGBT community by endorsing one of its candidates for City Council.”

If the DCC’s support doesn’t come through, Segal says, “The LGBT community would look at other ways of doing this.”

This isn’t the first time the LGBT community has made a play for the Democratic Party’s support. Shortly before a special election was held last year to replace former at-large City Councilman Bill Green, 14 local LGBT leaders wrote a letter to party chairman Bob Brady, urging the party to nominate an out candidate.

“The LGBT community has been a loyal constituency of the Democratic Party, providing votes, talent, volunteers and financial support,” wrote William Way executive director Chris Bartlett, Philly Pride organizer Franny Price, Mazonni Center CEO Nurit Shein, Lazin, Martin and others. “Philadelphia with San Jose, California are the only two of the ten largest U.S. cities that [do] not have an openly gay LGBT elected member on [their] legislative body. … We believe that this vacancy presents the Philadelphia City Committee with a unique opportunity to correct this inequality.”

Democratic ward leaders did not heed their call to nominate an LGBT candidate. Instead, they picked Neilson, a then-state representative, reportedly in order to avoid a bloodbath between him and state Rep. John Sabatina, who were merged in the state’s redistricting plan.

Now, though, an out candidate seems to have a much better chance of winning the party’s support. Sources tell us the top brass at the DCC is committed to the idea, and agree with LGBT leaders that the time is right.

When asked if he’ll get behind an LGBT candidate this spring, Brady says, as he often does, “It’s up to the ward leaders to decide.” But, he adds, “I would like to see it happen.”

Of the two out candidates, Cohen likely has a better shot than Steinke of getting the Democratic nod. She was endorsed by some ward leaders in the 2011 election and her family has long had ties to the Democratic Party. Steinke, meanwhile, is a new face to many in the DCC, though he has been making an effort to meet with ward leaders in recent months.

That could change, though, depending on what happens in a tin can in March. In Philadelphia, the order in which city candidates’ names appear on voting ballots is determined by which bingo ball they pick out a Horn & Hardart coffee tin that is supplied by elected officials.

If Cohen draws No. 12, she might be less likely to receive the Democratic endorsement. If Steinke draws No. 1, that helps his case. Candidates at the top of the ballot tend to do better in elections, and the city’s Democratic Party is fond of picking winners.

The support of the DCC would provide Cohen or Steinke with a powerful get-out-the-vote operation, among other benefits. But party support does not assure victory. In past years, it might have. Now there are simply too many capable candidates in the race for a party endorsement to trump all.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: The City Council At-Large race is, in many ways, turning out to be a more competitive and compelling showdown than the battle for our next mayor.