The Philadelphia Mayor’s Race 2015: Assessing the Candidates

The runup to the 2015 mayoral election is officially under way. Surveying the field, our man explains why despite our seeming electoral ennui, the person we select really does make a difference.

From left: Terry Gillen, Darrell Clarke, Lynne Abraham, Ken Trujillo, and Anthony Williams.

From left: Terry Gillen, Darrell Clarke, Lynne Abraham, Ken Trujillo, and Anthony Williams.

There is, already, a bored, obligatory quality to Philadelphia’s 2015 mayoral election. The candidates underwhelm. Public interest is running low. For all its outsize influence in the past, City Hall today feels a little less domineering.

I had lunch with a smart, engaged guy the other day, a young(ish) Turk in Philly’s huge nonprofit sector, who told me he was past tired of talking and thinking about which Big Papa we should pick to rescue the city this time. “This is our problem,” he told me, “this daddy complex.”

The next mayor may not be a daddy at all (Lynne Abraham is the big leader in early polls), but the point is worth mulling. Is Philadelphia finally sophisticated enough, and are its civil society and business leadership mature enough, that its progress is no longer leashed to City Hall? Are the fundamentals — the primo location, our proximity to the Marcellus Shale, the urban orientation of the millennials — now so sound that the fight for the mayor’s office just isn’t that important? In November, at Philadelphia magazine’s ThinkFest, prominent Penn bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel asked CHOP CEO Steven Altschuler what the next mayor should do to help. “Leave us alone,” Altschuler replied. He laughed, but it wasn’t a joke.

Still, I found myself screaming internally as I listened to both Altschuler and my overly optimistic friend. The notion that we need not worry about this very worrisome election strikes me as an elaborate and unhelpful coping mechanism. Yes, Philadelphia’s recent gains — the growing population, a declining homicide rate, the construction boom — do suggest there’s an opportunity, at last, for enduring growth and change. But that’s all it is. A chance. And if you don’t think City Hall still plays a decisive role, you’re not paying attention.

The Mean Girls­-esque dysfunction between Mayor Nutter and City Council has already derailed the sale of PGW and imperiled, at least a little, Philadelphia’s energy-hub prospects. (Nutter: This deal is so fetch! Council: Michael, stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen!) The School District of Philadelphia is in the midst of, no kidding, an existential crisis, and the next mayor will have a huge say in its fate. Not to mention: pensions, taxes, crime, urban planning, and on, and on, and on.

And then there’s this: Philadelphia politics have a cyclical quality, and the pendulum is due to swing next year in a direction that could greatly displease the gaggle of millennials, entrepreneurs and gentrifiers who seem to have embraced the City-Hall-Doesn’t-Much-Matter mentality.

Philly’s great political divide isn’t between Republican and Democrat, or even between black and white (though that comes a lot closer). The real fight for power is between Center City-focused reformers on one side, and party-oriented rowhome champions on the other. Outside the mayor’s office, the candidates of rowhome Philly dominate. But the race for the top job is more competitive. Nutter, Ed Rendell, Bill Green and Richardson Dilworth all played for the former team, with John Street, Frank Rizzo and James Tate for the latter. (Wilson Goode is tough to classify.)

Culturally and economically, Center City Philadelphia is ascendant. One might expect that the mayoral political cycle is about to be broken — that Nutter will be followed by another reform-minded, business-friendly, downtown-centered mayor who will be featured in a nice Governing magazine profile and stay out of Altschuler’s way, except maybe to build bike lanes to CHOP’s latest mega-medical complex.

Instead, the prospective mayoral field is dominated by party stalwarts, neighborhood-centered pragmatists more inclined to deal than to reform, and identity politicians who are none too fussed with matters of policy. “Nobody” isn’t running for mayor this year. The people listed below are.

The Favorites

Lynne Abraham
The early, perhaps surprising front runner in private candidate-commissioned polls is Abraham, who walked into a packed room at the Franklin Institute to formally announce her candidacy while Mummers played the Rocky theme song. Despite the throwback vibe, the former district attorney impressed with a rousing speech that showed she’ll be a legitimate force in the campaign to come. This field is thin on personality and charm, and Abraham — whom Frank Rizzo long ago dubbed “one tough cookie” — has
plenty of both.

But Abraham is old. She’d be 75 within a few weeks of being sworn in, which would make her far and away the oldest mayor the city has had in at least 100 years (and probably ever). This isn’t necessarily an issue because of Abraham’s health or intellect. She seems, if anything, more vigorous than many of her competitors. But how well does she understand the city that Philadelphia has become? Is she the right person to move it forward?

Darrell L. Clarke
The City Council president isn’t a mayoral candidate, at least not yet. But the mere prospect of his candidacy was enough to drive easily spooked City Controller Alan Butkovitz from the race, and the final field will likely not be settled until Clarke makes a decision.

If he runs, Clarke would be formidable. Like his mentor, John Street, Clarke boasts a rock-solid North Philadelphia base and a deep knowledge of city government. He’d almost certainly have the invaluable political support of John Dougherty and the electricians, as well as legions of ward leaders and other elected officials.

Balanced against those and other strengths, though, are some significant weaknesses. Clarke is uncomfortable in the limelight. The PGW fiasco sowed doubt in the minds of at least some business leaders — and others — about Clarke’s suitability as mayor. He can be very likeable, but Clarke’s default setting isn’t to charm. More than anything, Clarke seems genuinely uncertain whether he should run for mayor or stay in City Council. If he’s so ambivalent, won’t voters be as well?

Anthony Hardy Williams
Abraham may have the early lead in polls, but most pros consider State Senator Williams to be the true front runner. Of the announced candidates, Williams has by far the most institutional support; he’s championed by Congressman Bob Brady, District Attorney Seth Williams, and a clutch of Council members, ward leaders and other party people. Williams may have access to deep-pocketed donors who share his pro-charter, pro-voucher approach to public education. His largest advantage is his status as the highest-profile African-American in the race (so far). If that holds, and Philadelphians vote along racial lines, as they have tended to do when Michael Nutter isn’t on the ballot, Williams’s path to victory would seem to be a mile wide.

But from other angles, the Williams campaign looks quite fragile. His aggressive take on school reform is well outside Philadelphia’s Democratic mainstream. Given the deep frustration with the district, that could work to his advantage, but I think it’s more likely to hurt him, as public concern over the district’s financial woes — which are tied in part to charter expansion — mount. And the favorable racial math is only favorable so long as Clarke or another prominent African-American stays out of the race.

The Contenders

Alan Butkovitz
Yes, Butkovitz already bailed out, but he also left open the prospect of getting back in if Clarke stays out. You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of electoral overlap between Butkovitz, a white guy from the Northeast, and Clarke. But Butkovitz had hoped to win over Clarke’s supporters, including Doc and a lot of African-American ward leaders, which would have enabled a credible campaign. Clarke equivocated, though; his supporters stayed on the sideline, and Butkovitz’s courage failed him. He could get back in, but he’s likely damaged goods if he does.

Nelson Diaz
The éminence grise of Philadelphia’s large and growing Puerto Rican community, Diaz has an admirable résumé that includes past stints as a city judge, as city solicitor, and as general counsel at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Diaz is an impressive figure, and if he can rally the Puerto Rican community — which hasn’t turned out in strong numbers in past elections — he would have a reliable base. But that’s no given. The community is riven by political divisions, and Diaz isn’t the only Latino in the race: Ken Trujillo (who isn’t of Puerto Rican descent) is running as well.

It’s not clear how Diaz raises money for this bid, nor whether he can beat Trujillo or Terry Gillen in the battle for Center City progressive votes. Diaz says he plans to contend for black votes. That’s probably his only play, but it’s a challenging one.

Terry Gillen
There’s a lot to like about Gillen, but not a lot of reason to think she’s going to win this thing. An adviser to Rendell and a longtime Nutter confidante, she’s silly-smart and delightfully blunt. Her knowledge of how the city works, and how it doesn’t, is expansive. But her base is gaunt, she’s joined at the hip with Nutter at a time when a lot of voters want a change, and there’s a long list of powerful people who just don’t like her very much. A lot — make that everything — has to break Gillen’s way for her to have a chance. (Update: Gillen announced on January 2nd that she was officially leaving the race.)

Jim Kenney
A year and a half ago, I wrote dismissively of Kenney that “he seems to be in the mayoral mix mostly because he’s bored out of his mind on Council.” I might have been mistaken then; the assessment certainly is all wrong today.

In the past 18 months, Kenney, an at-large City Councilman for 23 years, has been the driving force behind marijuana decriminalization, the most sweeping LGBT equality bill in the nation, and urbanist chum like an ordinance that would fine developers $1,000 a day for blocking off city sidewalks during construction. He’s paired that with pitch-perfect public commentary on emotionally wrought moments like the Center City gay bashing. (“If you are a homophobe or a racist, and you’re from the suburbs or from outside the city, we really don’t want you to come here.”) No politician in town is better at channeling the city’s id.

And now this longtime rep of rowhome South Philly is catching on with Center City progressives. Apart from Rendell, there may not be a political figure who better straddles the line between old and new Philadelphia. He can talk to a broader swath of the electorate than maybe any candidate in the race. Still, the obstacles are huge, and Kenney appears very mindful of them. He’s white, in a field with several white candidates. He has no factional backing and no clear path to raising a lot of money. He’s also prone to the occasional fit of anger. (Psst, Councilman: Will you unblock me on Twitter now? Thanks.)

Doug Oliver
Nutter’s former press secretary, now an executive at PGW, is exploring a quixotic mayoral campaign targeting younger, disengaged voters. He’s a charismatic figure and an ambitious guy, but he’s got no institutional support and no fund-raising base, and he’s flip-floppy, having registered as a Republican in 2012, only to change parties late in 2014 to run for mayor as a Democrat. Oliver said he’d use social media as shorthand for public interest in his candidacy. As of mid-December, he had 1,004 followers on Twitter.

Ken Trujillo
Trujillo checks a lot of boxes. He’s a successful businessman and lawyer (with, theoretically, access to generous donors). He’s wealthy enough to partially fund his own campaign. He served as city solicitor for John Street, and worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office. As a Latino, he might be able to rise above the old black-white calculus that still dominates Philadelphia politics. He’s got a strong team of advisers, and Rendell thinks enough of Trujillo to introduce him to some of his rich friends.

The cons? Nobody knows who he is. Trujillo has no clear base. And he’s an awkward campaigner. He’ll need to get much better, fast. At this early date in the race, Trujillo is a cipher with a killer résumé, an empty vessel for those dismayed by the alternatives.

Waiting in the Weeds

Sam Katz
Depending on who wins, and on how battered he or she is after the Democratic primary, Katz could well be waiting on the other side. If it’s Williams who emerges, I expect Katz will run as an independent, and for the race to be a dogfight.

The Distractions

Ed Rendell
It’s not going to happen. Move on, people.

Milton Street
No. Just no.

Originally published as “And They’re Off!” in the January 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.