10 Bold Predictions for Philly Politics in 2020

Finally, a year when politics as usual … aren’t.

politics predictions

Look ahead into the year with these 2020 politics predictions. Illustration by Israel Vargas; Debate, Kenney, Krasner, Harrisburg, Dougherty photos by: Associated Press; Gym by Jessica Vermeer Hawkes Webster; City Hall by Courtney Smyth/Visit Philadelphia; Brooks by Kendra Brooks Campaign

It’s a nod to fair representation enshrined in Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter: While there are seven at-large seats on City Council, parties can nominate only five candidates, and voters can select only five. In effect, this means two seats are permanently set aside for minority parties; in practice, it’s meant Republicans have been guaranteed at least two seats on Council since 1952.

But that cozy arrangement was shattered on November 5th when Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks won one of those seats, outpolling the nearest Republican competitor by 6,500 votes. This watershed moment — one that came with the help of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and a critical mass of progressive Democrats defying their party to endorse Brooks — signaled that “Philly politics as usual” might actually have an expiration date.

A strain of far-left politics that revealed itself in Larry Krasner’s surprise victory in the DA primary in 2017 is turning into a true progressive wave in the city, not just bolstering one third-party insurgency but also giving millennials their first elective foothold in City Council and propelling black women into the Sheriff’s Office and Office of the Register of Wills for the first time. And as we approach what is arguably the most consequential presidential election in modern history, there are signs that Pennsylvania is poised to turn to blue again.

Drawing on our close observation of the political scene as well as interviews with insiders and eager newcomers, here’s what we predict about the personalities and issues that will rock Philly politics in 2020.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Jim Kenney to run for governor.

The rumors leaked just before the November election: Mayor Kenney was mulling a run at the governor’s chair in 2022. But let’s be clear: Such a campaign would be orders of magnitude harder than Kenney’s second mayoral run, when he barely had to campaign. First, there’s the mixed track record of Philly mayors rising to higher office: Ed Rendell rode his 1990s renown to the governorship in 2002, but 1950s reformer Richardson Dilworth ran and lost twice — and Kenney’s statewide profile doesn’t compare with that of either man at his peak. Second, by taking on the Catholic Church and the Trump administration, likely candidate Josh Shapiro has been very effective in using his current post as attorney general to build name recognition.

While it would be interesting to see Kenney run — he’d have to resign, which would get him away from a job he’s never seemed to relish — we see him instead cruising through a low-key second term to the nice pension waiting on the other side.

Yes, Bob Brady is still running the Democratic Party. But not for long.

It’s fair to ask whether former Congressman Bob Brady, chair of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee, remains the big-party machine boss of yesteryear. When prominent elected officials, ward leaders and committee people publicly brush off your threats of expulsion for endorsing third-partiers (Brooks and fellow Council candidate Nicolas O’Rourke) in a general election, you have to look in the mirror.

“There are a lot of warring factions within the Democratic Party in Philadelphia and throughout the state,” says Joe Hill, a political consultant who worked on Governor Tom Wolf’s and Kenney’s reelection campaigns. “Younger, more educated voters who are moving to cities en masse are more politically engaged post-Trump, have grown frustrated with parochial politics, and demand more activism and accountability from their elected officials.” While Hill insists Brady can still “drive turnout in most areas of the city,” his days of wearing the mantle are clearly coming to an end.

Helen Gym won’t run for Congress. But mayor? You bet.

You aren’t talking politics in Philly if you aren’t talking about Councilmember Helen Gym. As one of only two candidates to garner more than 100,000 votes citywide in the last primary — Kenney was the other — Gym has earned the kind of clout that leads to talk of higher office. But the natural next step — mayor — isn’t necessarily the one politicos are focusing on.

“Wouldn’t she be the perfect addition to the Squad?” asks longtime political communications exec Larry Ceisler, referring to progressive freshman Congresswomen of color Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. “My guess is that she would love to be in D.C., but she would have to run against an incumbent to do it, and I don’t know if she has the stomach to take that on.”

Gym vs. Dwight Evans — who beat an embattled Chaka Fattah in the 2016 primary but hasn’t particularly distinguished himself — would be a buzzworthy matchup, but the better money has Gym right in the middle of a fierce 2023 mayoral race.

Darrell Clarke will remain City Council president.

For better (keeping the peace with the Mayor’s Office) or worse (allegations that his office went out of its way to help a North Philly developer), Clarke has been City Council president since 2012. But with many of his veteran colleagues either retiring or losing reelection, some insiders have wondered if this might be his time to step away from the leadership.

That doesn’t include Clarke himself.

“I’m absolutely running for reelection — what kind of question is that?” Clarke grumbled at us during an Election Day luncheon in the Northwest. “I’m running for reelection because I want the opportunity to serve again and because I know how to do the job.”

The most likely challengers had looked to be Cherelle Parker (who would be the first black woman to be elected City Council president) and Curtis Jones Jr. (who would be the first Muslim in the role), but the Inquirer reported in mid-December that the two had instead struck a deal to focus their efforts on unseating the indicted Bobby Henon as Council majority leader.

“I am told [Clarke] has the commitments,” says Ceisler, and as much as we would love to see a new Council leader, it’s become clear that Clarke is a lock.

City Council is going to skew more left, young and radical.

City Council’s four freshman members in 2020 include a first-time third-party representative, two millennials, and someone who ended a 45-year political family dynasty. You shouldn’t be asking whether change is coming — you should be asking how much and how fast.

“New people means new ideas and new ways of looking at things,” says Jamie Gauthier, who toppled Jannie Blackwell in the 3rd Councilmanic District. “And as a group, we freshmen trend younger than the current members. Together, these attributes will influence the way that Council approaches its work — I think for the better.”

With this much energy coming to City Hall, expect these newcomers to take on poverty and gentrification issues. Whether Gym will take these members under her wing or whether they’ll operate as their own progressive bloc is an open question, but like it or not, the influence of the moderates is on the wane.

But that doesn’t mean all of Philly is following along.

From Krasner’s victory in 2017 to Brooks’s insurgency, we’ve seen that unabashed progressivism can be a winner at the ballot box in Philly. But as we’ve seen with the backlash to many of Krasner’s criminal justice reforms, turning that electoral optimism into sustainable policy isn’t guaranteed. Further, candidates like Sherrie Cohen and Adrián Rivera-Reyes, who touted their affiliation with the Democratic Socialists of America — the country’s biggest progressive brand — have not won an election. (One exception: Elizabeth Fiedler, who took a state House seat in 2018.) “The Democratic Socialists have more influence nationally than they seem to have here in Philly,” says Melissa Robbins, a political strategist who has worked on progressive policy statewide.

And then there’s the question few progressives want to engage head-on: Just how much of a role are outside political contributions playing in Philly’s emerging progressive scene? When you take into account that Krasner was helped across the finish line by a large contribution from a PAC affiliated with George Soros, that Michael Bloomberg gave $1 million to a pro-Kenney PAC, and that the largest chunk of Kendra Brooks’s funding came from her national party, you realize just how far Philly is from being a true progressive standard-bearer.

Philly’s Harrisburg delegation is (finally) going to make us proud.

For a while, it seemed more likely that the Eagles would win back-to-back Super Bowls than that Philly’s state-level pols would get Harrisburg to take the city’s needs seriously. But with State Representatives Jordan Harris and Joanna McClinton serving as House minority whip and Democratic Caucus chair, respectively, our delegation is poised to get something done. “They are working together in ways we haven’t seen in years,” says Tony Payton, a former state rep and now a consultant. “They’re already racking up policy wins, and Jordan Harris has proven to be a masterful tactician who gets bills passed on difficult topics.”

With Governor Wolf coming out in support of legalizing cannabis, bipartisan support on some criminal justice reform measures, and efforts to modernize voting rights, City Hall isn’t the only place making major legislative moves. Look for this impressive pack of Democrats to take on gun violence and lead a collective push to win back the House in 2020. Harrisburg, a place of diplomacy and getting work done — imagine that.

We’ve only seen the beginning of what #MeToo advocacy will mean in Philly races.

In the past two years, Philly has elected a female city controller (Rebecca Rhynhart), sheriff (Rochelle Bilal) and register of wills (Tracey Gordon), and the suburbs sent three freshman women to Congress. We’re going to see more of that as #MeToo continues its trajectory from anti-harassment hashtag to all-encompassing equity movement. After all, while Rhynhart, Bilal and Gordon, the first women ever elected to their positions, all beat the odds as primary challengers who weren’t backed by the Democratic Party against longtime male incumbents, only one of their opponents, outgoing Sheriff Jewell Williams, had been ensnared in harassment allegations.

It has to be assumed at this point that women have a presumptive edge in any race they enter, including that for the 17th State Senate District seat currently held by Daylin Leach, the target of multiple sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. (He has adamantly denied the accusations and has sued one of his accusers.) “Linda Fields, who came within a margin of beating a lifelong Republican in Senate District 24, is running again against Leach, and she has a lot of support,” says Melissa Robbins.

The next big test after that? Whether a woman steps up to challenge Krasner in the DA primary in 2021.

The Johnny Doc/Bobby Henon saga will keep us riveted, but it’s ultimately not going to change Philly’s political culture.

Lately, the quickest way to get Philly politicians to stop talking is to ask their thoughts on the fates of John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and City Councilmember Bobby Henon. After the pair were indicted on embezzlement and corruption charges, Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez was the only high-profile city official to make a public case for consequences, calling on Henon to resign. (He didn’t, and went on to win reelection with 60 percent of the vote.)

The, shall we say, reluctance to speculate on whether Doc and Henon will be convicted of anything — they naturally deny any wrongdoing — shouldn’t surprise anyone, given IBEW’s massive financial largesse over the years. But the sad truth is that even if some charges do stick, Philly’s underlying culture of corruption and influence-peddling has already outlasted a number of bombshell convictions. Just ask Vince Fumo, Chaka Fattah and Seth Williams.

Pennsylvania is poised to go blue in 2020 — but the nominee is crucial.

Trump came, saw, and painted Pennsylvania red in 2016. In the aftermath, a new generation of Democrats statewide began to run and unseat Republicans. One of the most dramatic examples: Delaware County now has a Democratic County Council for the first time in … forever. All of these sea changes are interesting, but observers are still split on whether this will lead to an epic splash in November’s presidential election.

“It’s hard to imagine that Pennsylvania stays red,” consultant Hill says. “With buyer’s remorse among highly educated, more affluent women in the collar counties, coupled with increased voter participation in Philadelphia, that margin could be made up in the Southeast alone.”

“Pennsylvania is going to be tight,” argues Ceisler. “Blue Delco doesn’t make any real difference, since the county, like the other suburban counties, has been voting Democratic for the most part in national and state elections for several cycles. But who the Democrats nominate will be key. Biden and Klobuchar would almost be a lock. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders is another story.”

We agree. Democrats, you’ve got only one job. If you can focus on it, Pennsylvania will turn back to blue.

Published as “2020 Vision” in the January 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

This post has been updated to correct the list of charges on which union leader John Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon were indicted in January 2019.