Helen Gym Is the Most Popular Politician in Philadelphia
Which is either very good news or very bad news, depending on where you stand.
The day I spent with Helen Gym was the day after the New York Times endorsed two women, a moderate Democrat and a progressive, in the 2020 presidential primary.
It was the 1,096th day of Donald Trump’s divisive presidency (and a month after his impeachment, led by a woman); 14 days before a Super Bowl halftime show that was a political, bilingual, multicultural, semi-controversial display of women kicking ass; and — not coincidentally — 15 days before the Washington Post declared 2020 the Year of the Power Mom. It was a day when, after months of local headlines about asbestos poisoning our schools and furious parents holding rallies, the teachers union announced it was suing the school district. It was also the third day in a row I cried while reading the Inquirer — this time over a local eight-year-old with cancer whose mom was facing deportation. Oh, and it was also Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A day of service.
For all of these reasons, it was a perfect day to be with Helen Gym.
Gym, the second-term City Councilmember who blew everyone away in last May’s primary — she had 41,000 more votes than the next-closest winner, more votes than any City Council member has gotten in a primary in the past 30 years — is a tiny powerhouse. She stands maybe five-foot-three in heels, which she wears often; she’s an impeccable dresser, minimalist and stylish, with inky black hair she wears loose and a face so unlined that you forget she’s 52.
For decades, Gym was best known for her role as a counterbalance to traditional power. She was known for organizing movements. For school-crusading. For founding things — a news outlet, a school, a parents’ advocacy group. For talking (okay, yelling) about equality and social justice and a more inclusive democracy, and for just generally agitating, both in a global-change sense and a deeply personal sense. Which is to say, she really irritated some people in this city. This is still true.
The day we spend together, though, there’s nothing but love. We visit three public schools where volunteers are working on various beautification projects, then go to a church for a public hearing on bail reform. All these things are peak Gym: education. Children’s well-being. Racial and socioeconomic equity. And I will tell you this: Walking through a Philly public school with Helen Gym on a day of service is like walking through Hoagiefest with Ed Rendell, but with more hugs. People are psyched.
At Kensington Health Sciences Academy, the principal tells her students to gather around for a picture with the “future president!” At John Welsh Elementary, a school brimming with City Year volunteers painting murals, a voice reverberates down the hallway: “Helen, we looooove you!” At one point, we run into State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who’s there to paint and who tells me, unprompted, that Gym is “a doer.” They met when she was an activist, he says — “and I say that with utmost respect. She’s turned activism into real action, and that’s not something most people can do.”
A third stop is Overbrook Educational Center, newly designated as one of Mayor Kenney’s community schools. There, Gym shares the stage with Kenney and State Representative Morgan Cephas. She speaks after they do, beginning as they did by talking about love and King’s legacy. She borrows from King, saying: “Love is not the absence of hate. Love is the presence of justice.”
Then she digs in. It’s unjust that our state has one of the worst school funding gaps in the nation between wealthy and poor districts. That our young people have to fight for clean water in the schools. (Note: Gym co-sponsored a bill to get water testing in all schools and helped get new water stations, too.) That they have to fight to get nurses and counselors in every school. (Gym helped make that happen.) That it’s a fight to get a normal class size (she pushed successfully for that), to get access to arts and music (and that).
“After we’re done with this day of service,” she tells the auditorium, “I ask that you go out and you fight like hell for these kids.” Fight like hell for health care, she says. Fight for support services. Fight for a fair funding system so we don’t have schools “laboring with asbestos, lead and mold that prevents our kids from breathing.” Fight, fight, fight.
“This day is about more than volunteering,” she continues. “It is asking for justice for the kids of this city who absolutely deserve it.”
The crowd loves every word of this, in part because, well, is there anybody in 2020 who isn’t in a fighting mood? But also because this is peak Gym, too — giving passionate voice to a real shared fury.
Of course, while there are thousands of Philadelphians who’ve fallen in love with Helen Gym and her brand of change-now politics over the past several years, there’s another faction — namely, Philadelphia’s business and political establishment — with feelings about the Councilmember that aren’t quite so warm. This is partly because of disagreements over policy, but it’s also because of Gym’s gladiatorial style and, maybe even more than that, because of what she represents: arguably the biggest threat to Philadelphia’s status quo in a generation. And rattle the status quo she has — on Twitter, in person, on the campaign trail, in legislation.
Many of the powers-that-be are, to be blunt, none too happy about this. Democratic Party chair Bob Brady has taken aim at Gym ever since she endorsed a non-Democrat, Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks, in last year’s Council race. (Brooks won.) Council prez Darrell Clarke, at least if you believe City Hall scuttlebutt, withheld new committee chairmanships from Gym because she went against party norms. And the list of establishment types who either ignored or refused my requests to talk about Gym for this story includes Comcast’s David L. Cohen; Chamber of Commerce boss Rob Wonderling; schools superintendent William Hite; Drexel president John Fry; and a smattering of Gym’s fellow Councilmembers.
Gym doesn’t just seem unbothered by the ruckus she creates — it’s part of the point. “I think I’ve said very clearly that my role on City Council is not to be a megaphone for powerful interests that already have their connections here,” she says. Her politics are unabashedly progressive, but Gym will tell you she is, at heart, more of a populist.
Gym doesn’t just seem unbothered by the ruckus she creates— it’s part of the point. “My role on City Council is not to be a megaphone for powerful interests that already have connections.”
“Populism on its own has no moral compass,” she says, “but progressivism minus movements is hollow.” The challenge, she continues, is to make an issue matter “to a large swath of people, to have them not only know about it, but care enough to fight for it,” to “show up and say that it matters” and “tell a story that comes out of pain or grief or anger to be able to move people to action.”
If that sounds like pretty heady rhetoric from a member of a body not exactly known for its contributions to political theory, well, that’s Gym. And it’s working for her. After her primary victory last spring, she went on to get 205,661 votes in the general election — only 30,000 fewer than the Mayor. In both elections, a nice high ballot position likely worked in her favor, but even so, the numbers were a big deal. If they didn’t capture your attention, then maybe other Gym accomplishments have: There was Gym at the airport in 2017, leading a rally of 5,000 people against Trump’s short-lived Muslim ban. (And there she was tweeting: “Hey, @realDonaldTrump: Philly helped make sure your evil #MuslimBan didn’t even last 36 hours. Sad!”) There she was in a New York Times article about why the Frank Rizzo statue needs to come down. There she was in the December issue of Elle magazine, named as one of She the People’s “20 women of color in politics to watch in 2020” alongside political supernovas like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Congressional “Squad” member Rashida Tlaib.
In fact, Gym is often compared (favorably or not, depending on whom you’re talking to) to the most passionate Squad member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You can see it: Both came up through activism. Both slay on Twitter. Both embrace a progressive agenda based on certain moral convictions; both have endorsed Bernie Sanders; both have ended up shining a light on the chasms in their party (in culture, actually) since winning their elections. In December, upon receiving the Elle honor, Gym tweeted ebulliently to her followers and fellow winners: “Sisters: we were built for this moment!”
The question, of course, is just how long this moment will last. And just how big a dent in the status quo Helen Gym can make before the moment passes.
I can’t remember how it comes up, but somewhere on the road between school visits, Gym starts talking about her deep, abiding love of Mixed Martial Arts.
Wait, like … cage-fighting? I ask. Like cage-fighting, I’m told. Her voice raspy from a winter cough and all the public speaking, Gym launches into an animated 10-minute riff about the sport’s great anti-hero, Conor McGregor, who has just shaken the Ultimate Fighting Championship world by obliterating the favored contender, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, in 40 seconds — “He hadn’t even broken a sweat!” This is her escapism, she says. She and her family (with her husband, Bret Flaherty, she has three kids, ages 17 to 21) gather together with Gym’s sister’s family to eat and watch two guys beat the shit out of each other on pay-per-view.
Gym is herself an accomplished martial artist, and she likes the practice especially “for the weapons,” she says. Between that tidbit and the cage-fighting, you can understand the temptation a writer might feel to really run with this metaphor. (“You know our photographer is going to want to shoot you in the ring, right?” I tell her.)
But more than one person who knows Gym well has told me that she’s wrongly characterized as truculent, as always spoiling for a fight — someone who can’t play well with others. “I think people are sometimes surprised when they meet her and she’s friendly and warm and giving,” one associate says. And even if she is a “little fireball,” adds LeRoi Simmons, a minister who worked for years with Gym in schools advocacy, the fire is rooted in compassion: “Her eyes are on low-income people. Working people. Children.” Of course, then he tells me about the time he and Gym almost got arrested for crashing a Philadelphia Parking Authority board meeting to make noise over money the city agency owed Philly schools.
In any case, you really don’t get the sense that being characterized first and foremost as a fighter is something that bothers Gym. For one thing, there’s her résumé, which is filled with actual fights. Secondly: Have you seen her Twitter feed?
When the Chamber of Commerce, which has long argued that the city puts too many growth-hampering restrictions on job creators, rallied against Gym’s Fair Workweek bill requiring more advanced scheduling for some 130,000 Philly workers, she immediately reminded the Twitterverse that the head of the Chamber — the aforementioned Rob Wonderling — makes $586,126 a year, a salary “1,400 percent higher than the median income of an entire Philadelphia household and 38 times the minimum wage (to which he and they are opposed).”
Gym has also tweeted that U.S. Senator Pat Toomey is a sexist. That the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron is a “goddess of journalism and afflicter of the too comfortable,” while former columnist Stu Bykofsky is a “racist sexist caricature troll.” That Mayor Kenney and the city should be embarrassed for freaking out over tax subsidy reform “while residents are being displaced and schools crumble.” After her primary sweep last spring, Gym took aim at a nameless “Philly icon” who had once warned her the far left would ruin the Democratic Party. Her agenda wasn’t far left, she tweeted; her wins have been powered by what the people wanted, and if that felt like a threat, well then, everyone should take note and “expect us.” Meanwhile, around the time a furious Bob Brady berated Gym’s endorsement of Kendra Brooks, Gym let it be known that “it’s time for a bolder vision for what our future as a DEMOCRATIC party looks like.” She punctuated this statement with a super-sized “108,604” — the number of votes she received in the primary election.
One also sometimes hears stories from people inside and outside of politics who’ve felt burned by Gym’s demeanor — who’ve felt dismissed or steamrolled or painted with a bad-faith brush. The thing is, says one critic who spoke, nervously, on background about a negative experience with the Councilwoman, “I’m totally down with the essence of what she’s been trying to solve for.” But disagree with the agenda, the strategy, he says, “and it’s ‘I’ll bash you on Twitter, I’ll bash you to your face, I will scream and yell about how bad you are and how evil you are.’” It reminds him, he adds, of Donald Trump.
Disagree with Gym’s agenda, says one critic,“and it’s ‘I’ll bash you on Twitter, I’ll bash you to your face.’” It reminds him, he adds, of Donald Trump.
One political insider expresses a similar concern on a strategic level. “I just don’t think that the way to see meaningful change happening is to win and wipe the floor with the other side,” he says. “In the short term, you normally win when you’re the squeaky wheel. But in the long term? It really damages relationships and damages ability to achieve shared goals.”
So far, though, Gym isn’t exactly hurting on her ability to build wide-enough coalitions — both inside and outside of Council — to meet her goals. Quite the contrary. Anna Shipp, who runs the Sustainable Business Network, told me that in the run-up to the Fair Workweek legislation, she was deeply impressed by Gym’s “significant outreach” in terms of getting opinions and addressing concerns. And beyond the Fair Workweek law, the rest of Gym’s highlight reel includes incredibly popular wins like her Right to Counsel bill, requiring city-funded legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction, and bills protecting the rights of trans and non-binary youth after Trump rolled back federal protections. As mentioned, she helped get nurses and counselors back in Philly schools, and she blasted the closing of Hahnemann Hospital as a public health crisis alongside — literally, sharing a podium with — Bernie Sanders. That outcry eventually became a law requiring more notice and more planning from hospitals intending to close. In January, U.S. Congressman Brendan Boyle’s office announced he’d be pushing a similar bill in the House, based on Gym’s.
“The Councilwoman brought a skill set to that office, and it was unlike most freshman legislators we’ve seen in recent years,” says political consultant Mustafa Rashed. Specifically, Rashed notes, Gym has been able to marry a sophisticated approach to legislation with simple messaging that appeals to a huge chunk of the public. “It shouldn’t go without saying how unique that skill set is.”
Meantime, outside Gym’s legislative efforts, her knack for the bully pulpit and instinct for showing up — after last summer’s South Philly refinery explosion, say, or at Tuesdays With Toomey protests — is apparent to anyone with eyeballs. It’s another thing that sets Gym apart from the pack, says Mark Tyler, the pastor at Mother Bethel AME and member of the interfaith network POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild): She’d be doing this work, showing up, whether she was in office or not. As Tyler puts it, “She’s an activist who is using politics as a tool for her activism.”
If that blend rubs some people the wrong way, well, Gym isn’t daunted by a little friction. In December, I saw another tweet, this one from Jennifer Kates, Gym’s chief of staff, noting that she had just heard developers in the audience at a tax abatement hearing call her boss “a bitch.”
Gym’s tweeted response:
“Ha ha. Bitches get things done!” Then three emojis: a flexed bicep, a fire, a thumbs-up.
Gym has spent most of her career — and most of her adult life — in Philly, having first arrived as a Penn student. She’d been raised in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where, as the daughter of two Korean immigrants, she felt adrift in the sea of whiteness around her. She spent a lot of time in a bedroom closet that became her reading nook — an earnest kid in blue-framed Coke-bottle glasses, tearing her way through everything from historical romances (“My parents never talked to me about anything; lots of things unfolded in front of me in the closet at 3 a.m. with me going, ‘That actually happens?’”) to nonfiction (specifically, journalism and “the superheroes of the written word who would expose wrongdoing”) to classics like Invisible Man, which, she says, changed her life.
Did she imagine herself holding office when she grew up? Absolutely not, Gym says. Well, what did she want to be? She hesitates, because she knows how extreme the next part is going to sound. “I wanted to believe in something enough to put my life on the line for it,” she says. She gives a tiny shrug. “That’s what I wanted.”
After Penn (which she chose because it was the right geographical distance — far — from Columbus), she briefly moved back to Ohio to work as a newspaper reporter, then left again for Philly in 1993 to settle in with Flaherty, who’s a lawyer. Over the next few years, she spent time teaching at James R. Lowell Elementary, earning a master’s degree in education, co-founding and editing the Philadelphia Public School Notebook to cover the city’s public schools, and getting involved with Asian Americans United, a “scrappy” group of activists based in Chinatown and co-founded by Gym’s friend Debbie Wei.
It was in this time frame that the world began to see what it looked like when Helen Gym found beliefs she would, if not lay her life down for, at least build her life around. When, for example, government officials wanted to build a baseball stadium in Chinatown, it wasn’t just a traffic-clogging nuisance in a neighborhood of people who didn’t want it there. It was, Gym says, “the full weight of political power coming down on a hyper-marginalized community of individuals, many of whom don’t even speak English, who may or may not be citizens of the U.S. at that particular moment in time, but who are nonetheless called to take action that these are things that will profoundly impact their life in the city, their ability to live and work here.”
Says Wei: “Helen has always had an intriguing way of speaking truth to power.”
And so Gym and AAU organized — loudly, relentlessly, successfully — against that, and over the next several years, they would do it again and again. In 2008, it was a fight against a proposed Chinatown casino (they won); in 2009, it was a major crusade alongside the Asian American students at South Philly High, who’d been suffering racial violence while the school district failed miserably in dealing with it. Gym helped organize the campaign that led to a new principal, local anti-harassment policies, and a federal civil rights settlement. In the mid-aughts, Gym co-founded the school advocacy group Parents United for Public Education as well as a charter school in Chinatown, the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, a mile from her Logan Square home. Two of her kids would eventually attend.
The school provided much fodder for critics — was this not the picture of hypocrisy from the public-schools advocate? Gym will tell you, though, that she’s not against charters; she’s against the unchecked, duplicative expansion of them and believes they should be far more tightly curated than they have been by the district to date. Meantime, all the while, she was railing against the state-appointed School Reform Commission (“the state takeover body,” she calls it) that ran public education in Philly starting in 2001. She advocated longer and louder than anyone for local control, a change Mayor Kenney eventually ushered in in 2018.
What you notice, maybe, is that while the specific crusades changed over the years, the broad themes rarely did. “We were bottom-up people and thought real change should come from the community,” Wei says. They built everything around “the people most affected by inequality, people who took leadership in fighting for their rights.”
Raging against these various machines, Gym developed a reputation for pugnacity and for absolutely torching her opponents when given the opportunity. (Once, while watching a panel, I saw her lay so hard into a popular charter operator that I, an inactive audience member, started sweating.) But she also developed a rep as a fearless change-maker. In 2007, she was the Inquirer’s Citizen of the Year; seven years later, this magazine listed her as one of the city’s 75 most influential people. The same year, the White House named her a César E. Chávez Champion of Change.
Here’s what happened next: The earth shifted beneath us, and the winds that brought Donald Trump and whatever MAGA is to the fore also brought Bernie and Warren and the Squad in direct opposition, along with a whole shift in the progressive mind-set. It’s like Wei says: “For a long time, a lot of progressives pooh-poohed electoral politics. We thought you could never get anything done; it was all bureaucratic hacks.” Better to be on the outside. But then, she says, “There was suddenly a confluence of progressives around the country who thought that maybe it was time to take back some of the political space.”
Here’s what else happened: Philly arrived at its own crossroads. The city was enjoying a period of growth still new enough that nobody knew quite where to head next. And yet there remained as much entrenched poverty as ever, huge problems in our justice and school systems, and a new pack of urbanists, millennials and transplants who had no fealty to or admiration for old-school Philly politics or politicians. Suddenly, there was a lot more conversation about who would make progress and what that progress should look like. Suddenly, the whole freaking world felt freshly, weirdly uncertain. Unscripted.
And there was Gym. Propped up by the activists, parents, educators, unions, and community leaders that had been her world, and appalled by a recent spate of public-school closings, Gym ran for Council. She ran on education — not just education as a platform issue, she says, but education as a big-picture “nexus of community values” in which the decision-making could directly pursue “a racial and economic justice agenda” — or not. A nexus where our neighborhoods and parents and school leaders would have a role in shaping the policy ideas and the future of the city — or not. She was more passionately, vocally pro-public schools and anti-SRC than anyone else, and just anecdotally, every mom I knew was voting for her.
She won her first election by a sliver — and started her first term at the exact same time a different breed of populist was getting settled in the White House.
Mark Tyler’s take on Gym — that she’s an activist who simply uses politics as a tool — is a popular one, but not everyone means it as a compliment. Some of the methods that make her a successful activist — showing up with a bullhorn, laser-focus on her agenda, speaking candidly rather than diplomatically — have struck a sour note amongst some of her peers in Council. Longtime Gym super-critic and former Councilmember Bill Green — who, as former SRC chair, feuded bitterly with Gym for years — told me he’s heard current members complain about “mic-jumping,” a charge that one Council insider I asked flatly dismisses. “I think there’s a sexist and cultural component to that,” the insider says, but then affirms that Gym’s seeming non-transition from activist to legislator has alienated some of her colleagues. How can anyone expect to be both insider and outsider — a critic of the bureaucracy and a part of it?
I wish I could expand on the people who suggested this could be trouble for Gym in the long run, because success in her job ultimately relies on getting colleagues to support your bills. I also wish I could tell you about the people who suggested to me that this reaction is simply rooted in fear and in jealousy. But as you may have guessed by now, it’s very hard to get people to speak on the record about the city’s most fascinating, fearless, terrifying, resonant City Councilmember.
Meantime, while infighting (or not infighting) and the calculus of vote- whipping might very well be how the sausage gets made, it’s not where Gym’s greatest power lies.
Maddie Luebbert, a popular teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, looks at Gym and new Councilmember Kendra Brooks and observes a shift happening: “Seeing these women of color — who have made names as activists and not as lobbyists or government wonks, but as people who are out there on the streets with the community — makes me feel hopeful.” By the by: Luebbert likes that Gym is willing to make the “honest and extreme statement of whatever opinion it is that she supports. I like that approach more than the back-door, back-channel, quieter or more polite methods.”
Over the course of reporting, I hear this statement — or something like it — so many times, I lose count. I hear it from neighbors and friends who like Gym’s focus on public schools and how she feels so “accessible” and who are just mad as hell about all that’s wrong and want someone in power who is, too. I hear it from people Gym has worked with in the past — lawyers and preachers and teachers and organizers — who speak about passion and work ethic. I hear it from Dena Driscoll, who co-chairs the urbanist PAC 5th Square, who tells me she thinks Gym’s power comes from “not caring about what someone in power thinks, but caring about what people on the street think; from people feeling like she has their backs, not Bob Brady’s.” I hear it from a colleague who notes how much of the resistance to Gym seems to come from the mainly male old guard with fixed wisdom about The Way To Get Things Done:
“I don’t know if their perspective is right or wrong, to be honest. But at the same time, where has it gotten us? Maybe what we really need is someone who’s different, who can break the norms.”
Ever since the primary numbers came in, the predictions about what comes next for Helen Gym have been flying: With this type of momentum, she’s obviously going to run for mayor, the chatter goes. Or actually, maybe Congress is more her speed. She could join the Squad!
Gym is fairly mum on this talk for now. “I think that when people focus in on the titles of offices I want to hold, they miss why I’m in politics in the first place,” she says. But the conjecture has only brought even more scrutiny to someone who was always going to be under the microscope by virtue of her outspokenness and the fact that no single human in Philadelphia has come to embody the wider cultural push-pull moment between progressivism, populism, status quo and, well, whatever else is out there quite the way Helen Gym has.
As much as either of the two women the Times endorsed, as much as Bernie or Biden or even Trump, Gym is a Rorschach test for how you see your change agents. Or your legislators. Or whether those two things might be one and the same.
People’s takes on Gym are as crazily at odds as those regarding anyone in politics right now. Do you believe, as a CEO told me, that all this “progressive nonsense” is standing in the way of city growth and vision? Or that Gym is, as Tyler says, “a visionary trying to build a different vision in a city entrenched in status quo”? Is she a “demagogue,” per Bill Green? Or is she, as Wei describes, extremely good at reading the issues that matter to people?
That Gym has arisen as a sort of symbol of a brand of politics also helps explain the extreme interest in what she does … and what she doesn’t do. In December, the Inquirer devoted a whole story to why Gym — “the face of all that’s new in City Hall” — didn’t denounce Councilmember Bobby Henon upon his indictment for alleged corruption. (Henon has denied the charges). In fact, Gym was one of 15 Councilmembers who didn’t call for his resignation — the only one who did was Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. But the general feeling was that Gym’s close relationship with Henon (and with the building trades union that backed them both) was distinctly off-brand. The Philadelphia Citizen’s Larry Platt (disclosure: I worked for Platt when he was my editor at this magazine) expounded on the “incongruity,” particularly given Henon’s “subpar gender and racial diversity record,” suggesting that the defining political battle in our one-party town these days is between idealistic-but-not-above-politics-as-usual Progressives and more pragmatic Reformers focused on local accountability. He argued in favor of the latter.
Another insider puts it slightly differently. “It might be a savvy political move on her part,” he says. “Philly doesn’t actually care about corruption, so there’s no blowback for not saying something.” But it rubs him the wrong way: the “outsider” suddenly behaving like your average Philly pol. “If she took corruption as seriously as she took the Rizzo statue, I’d have a lot more respect for her.” (Note: Gym hasn’t won the Rizzo fight — yet. In fact, the lone window in her City Hall office directly overlooks the statue.)
In the face of the criticism, Gym’s statements about Henon — and, later, Kenyatta Johnson (who was indicted in February; he’s also denied the charges) — have been coolly consistent. The allegations are “concerning and deserve to be heard in court,” she says. But she was elected to deliver on other issues. Schools. Neighborhoods. Youth. “That’s why I work hard to have a good working relationship with all my colleagues and to focus on the work before us.”
In other words? This isn’t her fight. She’s focused on other things — and you can’t say she hasn’t been clear about what matters most to her, what’s always mattered most. She ran because she felt that certain voices weren’t getting heard. Because it was time to make a “seismic change in how we’re going to leverage our voice and power to really transform the city.” Because that change would have to be bottom-up and would revolve around reclaiming public schools and housing as human rights, and job quality (not just job quantity), and stopping “evil shit” when she sees it. It’s okay if people critique her; she knows that the body she’s part of is trying to open up “a future that does not currently exist.” And that means sometimes disagreeing. It also means standing by your guns. This is what she’s doing.
Our last stop on MLK Day — a bail reform hearing at a church in West Philly — is a wild mix of justice-reform activists, politicians (no fewer than five Councilmembers, including Gym, plus DA Larry Krasner, city managing director Brian Abernathy, and State Representative Chris Rabb), and a group of speakers with heartbreaking stories to tell about how they sat in prison for minor offenses for days, weeks, months, because they couldn’t afford their bail. If you’ve never been to a gathering of this sort, it’s almost impossible to grasp the enveloping energy of the crowd, the expansive joy in the call and response (“I! I believe! I believe that we can win!”), the pain in the stories, and the sort of motivational high that comes from these things all stirred up together. But you can imagine, maybe, that all of this makes it far easier to understand Gym when she tells me afterward in the car that the real tension between activism and legislating is “how you hold these communities together as we, like, go through the experience of governance together.”
Policymaking isn’t separate from the people’s movements, she says: Good policy arises from those voices. The challenge, she says, is to continually work “with the communities who feel like you’re going to sell them out at any given moment, and to try to exhort people to continue to be active and engaged.” She doesn’t want them to think she can handle change on her own because she’s in office. She can’t.
There’s another tension, too, and it’s one reason she’s not talking about what comes next. If it feels like Helen Gym is going hard at everything right now, well, that’s partly on account of time. “I don’t know how much time I have in this political world,” she says. “And so it feels like we’re sprinting towards something.” It may be her moment to shine, but moments can be fleeting. The winds can shift; political urgency can mellow; backlash can wane; voters and ballots are unpredictable. Who knows? She could run for new things, or not. Tomorrow we could move further left, or shift further right, or fall into one giant sinkhole. (It is Philly we’re talking about.)
And so if she’s everywhere, showing up and making news, it’s because she feels the weight of accountability for this moment, a need to show people — the communities, the city, all the cities — that local politics can make a difference in people’s lives. Although I suppose it’s also because she’s Helen Gym, and there is no other way for her to be.
Published as “Helen Gym Is The Most Popular Politician in Philadelphia” in the April 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.