Pulse: Guns Are for Girls

Philadelphia writer at large Sasha Issenberg is keeping tabs on this year's mayoral race. This month: a look at how the candidates are learning to tailor their pitches to women.

Thanks to Frank Rizzo's tux-and-nightstick ensemble and his onetime threat to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot,” Philadelphians are perhaps the nation's foremost connoisseurs of tough-guy politics. This expertise explains why John Street's July citywide address (during which the Mayor told would-be criminals, “This is our house”) and the subsequent cavalcade of mayoral candidates begging state legislators to draft new anti-gun measures were met with such shrewd indifference. These were, in the annals of Philadelphia law-and-order rhetoric, girlie performances.

That might have been the point. In a city where political divisions are typically seen along race and class lines, a gender gap may be emerging when it comes to the way voters talk about issues. Though nearly two-thirds of both genders in a summer Keystone poll identified crime as the city's top problem, women ranked gun control as their second priority, while that same issue barely registered among men. “If crime is defined as a guns issue, it plays for female voters. If you define it as a punishment issue, it plays more male,” says Democratic consultant Ken Smukler.

The women's vote is treated as a mystical force in city politics. Though pollsters don't typically organize their data by gender for city races, the largest bloc of voters in a Democratic primary is black women, which may be why candidates have so far sounded less like Rudy Giuliani and more like Oprah. Typical are the bland ads businessman Tom Knox aired to launch his campaign, asking voters to sign his gun-law petitions — even though no one in Philadelphia knew who he was.

The candidates' pet issues seem to fall naturally along the gender divide, between those that resonate most with women, like education (Chaka Fattah) and guns (Dwight Evans), and those popular with men, like taxes (now ex-candidate Jonathan Saidel), ethics (Michael Nutter) and management (Knox). In a November Philadelphia Tribune poll of black voters, Nutter was already evincing a gender gap, with nearly twice the support among men as he had with women.

The absence of tough-guy politics from the campaign is as much about race as gender, as Democrats confront the disappearance of white men — now just about one-sixth of the primary electorate — from their base. Accordingly, candidates are learning to soften their language when talking about the issues.

Four years ago, when trying to muster outrage over corruption in the Street administration, Republican Sam Katz reframed the debate to focus on graft's drain on social services. His message had two targets: white women and middle-class blacks. This year, that sensibility will extend to crime: Even if the murder rate continues to rise, voters are far less likely to see candidates with nightsticks stuffed in their cummerbunds than petitions.