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?

There was no mention of duck-ordering at the evening memorial service for the legendary Hardy Williams, who died two years ago in January after a lifetime spent kicking down the barricades erected by Philadelphia’s white political establishment to keep black pols in their place.

Instead, the mourners talked about how Williams—who in 1971 mounted the city’s first credible campaign by an African-American for mayor—faced the machine and “busted it wide open.” At the service, former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter remarked that Williams had “set the stage,” that he understood “sometimes you have to lose an election to make a point.”

Facing Frank Rizzo, Hardy Williams got 45,000 votes, which was enough to make the point that black Philadelphians were starting to think it was time for one of their own to run City Hall. Four years later, Williams got out of the way so as to give Charlie Bowser a better shot at becoming the city’s first black mayor. Bowser came closer, but he didn’t get there in 1975, or when he ran again in 1979. Fittingly, it was Wilson Goode Sr.—who’d run Hardy Williams’s 1971 mayoral campaign—who became the city’s first African-American mayor, in what was black Philadelphia’s fourth serious attempt to take power, in 1983. “These guys planned this whole thing out,” says Zack Stalberg, CEO of the Committee of Seventy. Each had individual ambitions, of course, but they shared a goal: elect a black mayor. “It would be good if the significant women in town were also developing strategy to win that office at some point,” Stalberg says.

It would be good, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Philadelphia women have never really had a Hardy Williams. The city’s trailblazing female pols—the Vernas, Krajewskis and Tartagliones—were more invested in their own careers and individual fiefdoms than in the symbolism of electing a female mayor.

The closest thing female Philadelphia has to a Hardy Williams might be Judee von Seldeneck, who’s not a pol at all. The almost-too-charming North Carolina native, who has tenaciously clung to her drawl even after 40 years in Philadelphia, is the CEO of a national executive search firm, and maybe the most powerful woman in Philadelphia.

For more than a decade, von Seldeneck and a group of other powerful Philadelphia women have been meeting regularly at their respective offices and homes to talk about, among other things, the status of women in this town. Although von Seldeneck declined to list the members, her “Ya-Yas” are reputed to include Judge Midge Rendell and Pew president Rebecca Rimel, among others. Really, it’s the kind of cabal that powerful men have used to consolidate and maintain influence for pretty much all of recorded history, and it’s just the thing women need to gain something approaching parity in the city’s political system. But even an all-powerful­ cabal needs a front man, or woman. “We are scratching our heads trying to find somebody to run for mayor,” von Seldeneck says. “Plenty of women could do it and be terrific, but they won’t do it.” Including, of course, the Ya-Yas themselves.

If, like von Seldeneck, you think a capable and high-profile business or nonprofit leader would make a compelling nominee, the roster of potential female candidates expands dramatically. There’s tourism boss Meryl Levitz, Mural Arts guru Jane Golden, and Sister Mary Scullion, whose good works have already made her a potent political force. Ask around, and you’ll hear mentioned Sharmain Matlock-Turner, the president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition; former city managing director Loree Jones, who now runs City Year Greater Philadelphia; and Estelle Richman, another former managing director who currently runs daily operations at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the business world, there’s senior UPS executive and United Way chairwoman Rosemary Turner, or former Fidelity Bank CEO Rosemarie B. Greco.

As von Seldeneck runs through the ample possibilities, she says, “This is making me think we ought to check in and see what’s going on in their heads.” But come on. Any self-respecting cabal would have done that already. They’d make sure to have at least one candidate in the bag, and maybe an alternate or two. And they’d be lining up dollars and street muscle for a campaign that’s fast approaching. I don’t dare say that quite so baldly to von Seldeneck, but when I hint at my thinking, she replies, “We could easily become united around a candidate if a couple of us decided that was important.”

And as much as anything, that explains Philadelphia’s dearth of girl power: Thus far, candidate gender has mattered less to women here than other factors, like race, platform and political camp.