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?

A month after her speech on gender inequality on the floor of City Council, Blondell Reynolds Brown is in her cramped study in City Hall, watching the latest developments in the Trayvon Martin shooting on CNN. She is leaning forward again, and her arms are crossed, but her posture feels altogether different. The confidence that was so apparent a month before, in Council, is gone. Instead, Brown is looking for affirmation. She can scarcely believe it when I say politicos often mention her as a potential contender. “Do they really?” she asks, for the second time. I assure her they do. “Hmmm,” she says.

The data is convincing: Anytime is a good time for a strong female candidate, be it for the local school board, mayor or Congress. The electorate has long since figured out that women are equal to male leaders. So when they run, female candidates fare at least as well as men do. And the conditions are particularly promising for a female candidate in Philadelphia’s 2015 mayoral election, if one can be found. There are at least five men widely thought to be eyeing the Democratic nomination for the job: Councilmen Bill Green and Jim Kenney, District Attorney Seth Williams, City Controller Alan Butkovitz and State Senator Anthony Williams. Of those candidates, three are white, two are black, and none is exactly a fresh new face.

All signs point to a wide-open race where a plurality—say, 35 percent of the vote—could be enough to win the primary. It’s easy to imagine a capable female candidate standing apart from the backbiting men. “I absolutely believe there are several women who have the same profiles as those candidates, if not better,” says Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, another woman often mentioned as a potential mayoral candidate—if not for 2015, then for later. Sánchez has run for Council three times without the party’s support, and she’s won two of those campaigns. She’s proven herself as gifted—and ruthless—at the political black arts as any veteran of the old Fumo machine. What’s more, Sánchez is smart, ambitious, and refreshingly sure of her own abilities. And yet she seems to think she’s not ready to run for mayor. Why not? Bill Green took office for the first time the same day Sánchez did. As one female Council aide put it to me, the city’s political system “very much rewards blind self-confidence.” Green is oozing self-confidence. But Sánchez has arguably accomplished just as much, and she’s only oozing caution.

Sánchez likes seeing her name in the mix, but she seems more interested now in consolidating her power and ensuring her position than in making a bid for the top job. “I have a district that needs a lot of work,” she says. And like Blondell Reynolds Brown, Sánchez says she’s just not sure she can afford to quit her $120,233-a-year Council job and run. “Bill has another job,” she says of Green, who works as an attorney with Duane Morris. “He can afford to run.”

Perhaps no woman would command as much instant credibility in the next mayor’s race as U.S. Rep Allyson Schwartz. But the Congresswoman hasn’t given the idea much thought. “Should I be encouraged to run or to think about running? I guess the answer is yes,” Schwartz says, without much conviction. But her reticence makes sense. For one thing, she now lives in Rydal and would have to move back to the city to run. But it’s also not clear that becoming mayor would really be a step for up for Schwartz, who is fast becoming a national player. How about Lynne Abraham? There’s no questioning her confidence, and she says she hasn’t ruled out a mayoral run in 2015. But she’s 71 years old, and her window might have closed. To hear Abraham tell it, the city would already have had its first female mayor if she’d taken the plunge back in 1999, when Rendell left office, or even in 2003, after Street’s first term. “I decided not to go for it. I wasn’t afraid. I knew I would be elected. You just can’t run to run. You have to have this fire in your belly,” Abraham says over the phone, smacking her lips as she swallows down her lunch.

But is there any woman in Philadelphia who has that fire? Are any actually convinced the city demands their leadership? If that woman is out there, I couldn’t find her.

“Women, we’re more methodical,” says State Rep Cherelle Parker, an up-and-coming­ 39-year-old Democrat from Northwest Philadelphia who is also seen as a potential contender.­ “A woman who runs is going to make sure she has certain ducks in a row.”