Can Ryan Boyer Change How Philly Unions Do Politics?

The first Black leader of the Philadelphia Building Trades has set his sights on diversifying our unions, modernizing the way they wield power and tipping the scales in the city’s most consequential mayoral election in decades.

Ryan Boyer / Photograph by Justin James Muir

May 17th was supposed to be a political coronation for Ryan Boyer.

Boyer is the business manager of Laborers’ District Council, the umbrella organization that represents the region’s predominantly Black and brown unions (such as Laborers’ Locals 57, 135, 332 and 413), and late last year became head of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, the organization that represents more than 50 unions (including IBEW Local 98, Teamsters Local 107 and SEIU 32BJ) that are largely responsible for building the modern Philly skyline. Following the conviction of longtime union power broker John Dougherty on corruption charges in November, he is also undisputedly the most powerful man in union politics in the city.

Boyer was hosting his annual primary-­day gathering in Northwest Philly, the epicenter of Black political power. It was a packed house, with frantic politicos, candidates, and elected officials hovering over a soul-food buffet, jockeying for photo ops, and working off nervous energy while they waited for results. This longtime convening at Relish, a Black-owned restaurant in West Oak Lane, began as counterprogramming to the storied primary-day meetup at Famous 4th Street Delicatessen in Queen Village, long the Election Day hub of white political power. 

As a heat wave swept through Philly, you could feel temperatures rising inside the restaurant, which is something of a home base for the vaunted Northwest Coalition, a group of Black establishment Democrats. I was there as a guest correspondent for WURD Radio, broadcasting live. The room was packed with establishment Dems — Governor Tom Wolf, Congressman Dwight Evans, Philly Democratic Party chair Bob Brady, City Council majority leader Cherelle Parker, State House minority leader Joanna McClinton, and State House Democratic whip Jordan Harris, to name just a few. 

Political pundit Charles D. Ellison and I interviewed the heavyweights, lots of whom Boyer had backed, as they entered the restaurant. Those supported by Boyer tend to be squarely in the moderate camp, including gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro (who couldn’t attend due to contracting COVID-19) and U.S. Senate candidate Conor Lamb, a Congressman from Western Pennsylvania backed by Boyer over Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman and Philly State Rep Malcolm Kenyatta. The progressive elected officials and candidates who did attend — including Kenyatta, City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart — made cameos, then dipped. 

Except for Chris Rabb. The ideologically fiery new-school progressive, a three-term incumbent in Philly’s 200th House district, was running against Boyer-backed Isabella Fitzgerald, the three-term incumbent in the 203rd. Because of redistricting, the two had been drawn into the same territory and a scrum for the nomination. Rabb showed up at Relish — the proverbial lion’s den now sits in the redrawn 200th — ready to disrupt. 

“Unbought, unbossed,” Rabb said live on-air when asked about repeatedly being challenged in his primaries by candidates from the Northwest Coalition. “I don’t kiss rings, and I’m not going to start. I represent 65,000 people. I don’t represent politicians.”

Rabb railed against literature pushed out by supporters of Fitzgerald (who was also at Relish) that suggested he didn’t have the backs of Black women, called out the city’s infamously crony-driven ward system, and distanced himself from the party’s power dynamics, saying he’s “in it, but not of it.”

“I don’t need to rig the system in order to win,” Rabb proclaimed of the status quo. “If I gotta cheat, lie and steal to win — I’ve already lost.”

Translation: Change was coming, and Rabb was there to deliver the message to Boyer and the rest of the establishment. 

 “No one is going to bully me out of being anywhere in my own district, talking to the people,” Rabb added before departing. “Not gonna happen.”

The room was tense as Rabb left. Ellison and I had begun to interview the next candidate when Boyer interrupted. 

“I heard that Chris Rabb got on here, and I want it to be clear,” Boyer said sternly. “The Laborers’ District Council and the Philadelphia Building Trades are fully endorsing Isabella Fitzgerald. … You have a right to run, but you don’t have a right to sneak on the program and then say things about people that I don’t like. I don’t like the messiness.”

It was a sentiment as old-guard (stay in your lane; don’t speak out of turn) as Rabb (a social media star who rose to prominence through crowdfunding platform Crowdpac) is new-school.

“I’d like to handle it in a different way, but I like to be more diplomatic,” Boyer said of Rabb’s abrupt appearance. “I’m going to talk to that young man” — Boyer is 51; Rabb is 52 — “when I leave here. I gotta go find him. I’m not a Twitter guy; I’m not a phone guy.”

Boyer delivered the line for laughs to the establishment crowd. It would be the last laugh before their world came crashing down. 

In the end, Rabb crushed Fitzgerald, 63 percent to 37 percent. Other candidates backed by Boyer and/or the Philadelphia Building Trades — such as Lamb and Mike Giangiordano (who challenged South Philly State Rep Elizabeth Fiedler) — lost by huge margins against progressives. The victorious establishment candidates Boyer did back — such as State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams and West Philly State Rep Amen Brown — eked out their wins.

It was a wake-up call — a less-than-stellar debut that’s made Boyer, the first-ever Black leader of the Philadelphia Building Trades, rethink his approach to future election cycles. “We won some, we lost some — but something’s definitely going to change now for sure,” he’d tell me in his office a month later. “The city’s Democratic Party isn’t prepared for modern-day campaigning. But we are.” 

Ryan Boyer in his office at Laborers’ District Council on July 29th / Photograph by Justin James Muir

The “we” is the labor community that Boyer says has given him everything he has in life. Democratic Party insiders, labor leaders, and elected officials have hailed him as the region’s best bet at giving more people of color access to high-paying union jobs in the poorest big city in America. Insiders also believe that with the multi-million-dollar political action committee Boyer is now forming, he’ll have an even bigger war chest with which to urge elected officials to prioritize diversity in tangible, immediate ways.

“Ryan is one of the most powerful political figures that we have in the City of Philadelphia,” says Chris Woods, the former leader of District 1199c, the city’s hospital and health-care employees union, who worked closely with Boyer for several years. “His influence is very key to moving our city in the right direction.”

For Boyer to do so, he’ll have to navigate the more traditional trenches that got him to said power while also embracing the demand — the need — for change. 

“This work is not easy,” Boyer says. “But I was called to do it, and I believe now is the time to act.”

So far, the road has been bumpy. Boyer’s first election cycle as Philly’s new kingmaker produced few monarchs, and the city’s political climate is more polarized than ever. Longtime relics of the establishment are either fading or simply disappearing as progressives emerge as a force — a challenge for a labor leader whose power was amassed the old-school way. Is Boyer up to the task of marshaling union power in a new way while enacting change in the famously hidebound trade unions? With an open mayoral primary in less than a year, he’s officially on the clock. 

“Forget the ‘rising star’ nonsense,” former Building Trades leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty tells me via email about the attention being focused on his successor. “Ryan Boyer is a star and has been for years.”

Born in North Philly into a working-class family, Boyer attended Roxborough High School and says that “labor chose me” following a “slow burn” in entrepreneurial pursuits after he dropped out of West Chester University in 1993. At first, Boyer didn’t want to do labor, as his father did; he wanted to “be someone different.” After having his first child while in college, he flipped rehab properties with the hopes of getting rich fast. When those ventures soured, he turned to his dad.

Boyer’s father, the late Nathaniel “Nate” Sabir, was a longtime laborer (union shorthand for those who do unskilled manual work) from Local 332 who was able to move his family from the Richard Allen projects to Overbrook. Boyer would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps and become a union laborer with the Philadelphia Housing Authority for five years. It wasn’t until his father was appointed to be, and later re-elected as, Local 332’s secretary-treasurer that Boyer got a wider perspective on the full power of labor; starting in 2000, he served as his father’s assistant and observed the inner workings of Philly politics as few do. 

“One moment you’re in big meetings with heads of state from Pennsylvania and D.C., and then later you’re taking out the trash,” Boyer recalls. “It was a test of ego and humility. It prepared me for what to expect as I climbed up the leadership ladder.”

After his father died in 2002, Boyer worked his way up the ranks of labor leadership. By 2008, he’d become business manager (the highest position in a union) of the Laborers’ District Council of Philadelphia, where he advocated for 6,200 mostly Black union members. It was in this role that he honed an ability to build coalitions among polarized political figures on tough issues. 

“Ryan is first and foremost a ‘doer,’” says his brother, Omar Sabir, a City Commissioner. “Sometimes that means getting directly and personally involved, and other times it means bringing together the right people to come up with solutions and a path forward.”

Boyer showed that in 2016, when he championed the Kenney administration’s push for the controversial soda tax — just a year after he’d endorsed Kenney’s rival, Anthony Hardy Williams, for the top job. In 2019, Boyer endorsed Kenney in his rematch against Williams when the two squared off again — then backed the latter in his hotly contested state Senate race this year. 

When I ask Boyer how he maneuvers these complicated political entanglements, he gives a very simple response. 

“I’m focused on the issues, not the individuals,” he says. “There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies in politics.”

Boyer makes it clear that loyalty is imperative to him: He’s unshakably true to his family, his Muslim faith and his union members — but not to politicians. Though he does have his people. He’s been a major backer of the main players in the Northwest Coalition (Congressman Dwight Evans and Councilmembers Cherelle Parker and Derek Green have benefited from his support) as well as other Democratic powerhouses, including Kenney and state senators Williams, Vincent Hughes and Sharif Street. He’s stood by unpopular incumbents, such as former Councilmember Jannie Blackwell and former sheriff Jewell Williams, during failed reelection bids. And he notably didn’t endorse District Attorney Larry Krasner for reelection, siding with the Democratic establishment in not endorsing anyone. Boyer says his decisions are deliberate because he’s often looking at “the bigger picture.”

It’s hard to find people in politics to go on record criticizing him. According to one city government official who asked not to be named, “Boyer has the ability to effectively make things better but often chooses to push the same ol’ party machine.”

“He’s a passionate individual who truly gets the real issues impacting the city,” the official says. “But a lot of his past endorsements regurgitate the same problematic candidates that have set us back for decades.”

If you ask Boyer whether taking such stances makes him a machine loyalist, he counters that he’s a “free thinker” within the Democratic Party, albeit one who has always voted blue because, on a national level, “Republicans have now become the party aligned with racism and insanity.”

“After Trump, there’s no way I would ever identify as a Republican, but the Democratic Party definitely needs to get its act together,” Boyer says. “We have to become more united over real issues impacting real families and lower-income communities.”

But it’s hard to do that in a city where the Democratic Party is repeatedly rocked by scandal and controversy. For years, Boyer worked toward these goals in the relative obscurity of his own union circles. He was never the man in the spotlight.

All that changed on November 15, 2021.

“I watched the trial carefully, but I didn’t think they would ever be convicted,” Boyer says of Local 98 leader Johnny Doc and then-Councilmember Bobby Henon, who were both found guilty on multiple federal bribery charges last fall. “What they did wasn’t anything different than what corporate CEOs and other white-collar executives do to get what they want. It was a double standard against blue-collar labor.”

The fall of Johnny Doc was an earthquake in Philly politics. For years, Dougherty was not only the leader of Local 98, but also the head of the Philadelphia Building Trades — making him the face of one of the largest independent sources of campaign funding in Pennsylvania. (Two IBEW 98-connected PACs have a total of more than $10 million in cash donations on hand.) Boyer told me that several union leaders and advisers were caught off-guard by the guilty verdict but that the moment the news broke, phone calls were made, and he “stepped up.”

Boyer says he was contacted about the possibility of replacing Dougherty the day after the verdict during a phone call with Building Trades assistant business manager Wayne Miller. At first, Boyer says, he wasn’t interested because of the demanding schedule and expectations that came with the job. A call later that evening with Sam Staten Jr. — business manager of Laborers’ Local 332 and son of the late Black labor titan Sam Staten Sr. — quickly changed his mind. 

“I had my dream job already as the leader of Laborers’ District Council. I didn’t have any more ambitions for a role outside of that,” Boyer says of his initial mind-set. “But after speaking with Sam and reflecting with my family, I saw an opportunity to create a better pathway for people who come from the same background as myself who want to live a better life. I felt a sense of social responsibility to bring more stability to the Building Trades for the labor community’s legacy.”

The next day, Boyer attended a private meeting with Building Trades’ 23-member executive board at which he was chosen as its new leader. There was no election — no campaigning or backdoor lobbying.

That’s how Boyer became the first Black business manager of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council — a predominantly white organization with a complicated history of racial segregation and bias. Though the city is predominantly of color, only about one-third of Building Trades members identify as such. And efforts to change that have been contentious. As recently as May 2018, Dougherty’s public clashes with City Council over diversifying Building Trades imperiled Mayor Kenney’s $500 million Rebuild public works initiative.

That’s only one of several challenges Boyer now faces in the role, which will last for the three years Dougherty had left on his term. Another big one is establishing his leadership style with his distant-yet-still-present predecessor looming. (Dougherty still hasn’t been sentenced, as he awaits two more trials.) 

“Leading the Building Trades is a difficult job,” Dougherty says of a role that requires making sure all the unions the organization oversees — more than 50 locals representing everyone from bricklayers and steamfitters to Teamsters and riggers — are fully paid and advocated for. “Everyone in that boardroom is a CEO, so it’s not like you lead them. Your job is to inform them, make yourself accessible, and be there for them the few times a year they may need your help. From a political perspective, [Boyer] has to ensure a united front that doesn’t allow an ‘elected official to be named later’ to get in the way.”

For those who worry that this is a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss — well, Boyer is reverent toward Dougherty. But he’s determined to show he’s his own man.

“He’s definitely a confidant of mine,” Boyer says of his continued contact with Dougherty. “But I definitely understand what I bring to the table and how my caliber of expertise can lend itself to making our unions more diverse and modern.”

For starters, Boyer is striving to reshape how the Building Trades do outreach — part of his plan to make labor a “better bridge to the community.” In the past, the organization was known for recruiting and appealing to white and immigrant populations in the suburbs. Today, Boyer says, he’s working to shift its efforts toward Black and brown neighborhoods in the city, where laborer jobs and opportunities aren’t currently “connecting with those who need them the most.” 

To that end, Boyer is working on enhancing the Building Trades apprenticeship programs to engage those it hasn’t done a good job with in the past. He’s formulating deeper partnerships with Penn, Drexel and the Sixers for resources and sponsorships for his career-training initiatives. And then there’s a groundbreaking venture with Philly public schools: For the first time ever, the school district has agreed to partner with Building Trades and commit several of its career technical-education­ schools to becoming Pennsylvania-­certified union pre-apprenticeship programs. Participating students will be guaranteed access to apprentice programs for trade jobs upon graduation — a pretty damn big deal for a city facing chronic racially disproportionate unemployment. 

On the political front, Boyer isn’t chastened by May’s results and will continue to throw union muscle (and money) into races. While some politicos assumed unions might hang back following Dougherty’s and Henon’s convictions, the new leader had different plans. Boyer rallied very early union support of Attorney General Josh Shapiro in his bid to clear the field in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. And his support of Allegheny County State Rep Austin Davis over Philly candidate Brian Sims in the lieutenant governor’s race proved that Boyer wouldn’t be beholden to regional politics. 

But the wins stopped there. He rallied union support behind Conor Lamb for U.S. Senate — an endorsement that went against several Black legislators across the state who backed Philly State Rep Malcolm Kenyatta, a Black candidate from Boyer’s own backyard. (It also went against fund-raising and polling juggernaut John Fetterman.) According to Boyer, the Building Trades gave roughly $5 million in in-kind (such as volunteers and free space to host events) and uncoordinated donations to Lamb’s campaign and super PAC. Boyer also backed establishment incumbents he felt were better for his membership but were largely despised by progressives (including State Senator Williams, who got a run for his money from educator Paul Prescod, and State Rep Amen Brown, who edged Working Families Party candidate Cass Green).

The primary proved humbling, given the big bets Boyer’s unions placed. Political insiders say this spelled trouble for the establishment, though none of them pointed much blame at Boyer. 

“I thought Ryan’s endorsement [of Lamb] was as much personal as it was an organizational endorsement,” says communications executive Larry Ceisler, who also supported Lamb. “Ryan, like others, was comfortable with Conor and was able to view his record in Congress as very pro-labor, in addition to his ability to win elections in a district that supported Trump. So his endorsement was natural and understood.” 

Then Ceisler adds, “Prominent people endorse candidates who are not successful every election cycle; it’s part of the responsibility of those who hold positions of trust. I have not heard anyone question Ryan’s judgment, and it is not even a blip on how he is perceived.”

Even so, Boyer’s primary debut was lackluster, and one he knows he can’t repeat. 

“We lost badly with Lamb, and there’s no denying that,” Boyer tells me. “You win some, you lose some. But we’re not going to make the same mistakes again.” 

A month after the primaries, I meet up with Boyer at LDC headquarters on North Broad to discuss what went wrong — and how to fix it. The building is symbolic of Boyer’s personality — a towering industrial standout, but not too fussy. The labyrinth of checkpoints — at the front door, at the elevator, at the front desk of his office — would be a metaphor for our conversation. When I finally make it to the spare private meeting space connected to his office, we get to it.

“Why did you all take such a huge risk in backing Lamb when polls and fund-raising reports showed that Fetterman was going to win big-time?” I ask.

“We backed Lamb because he supported our industries,” Boyer responds, with just the slightest hint of agitation. “The voters made their decision, and I look forward to meeting with Fetterman and discussing the midterms.”

Boyer tells me he wasn’t certain during the primary season that Fetterman’s values were aligned with those of his unions. A lot of Boyer’s concerns centered on Fetterman’s “electability” — his purported lack of engagement with party leadership and brash demeanor. Boyer cited Lamb’s track record of earning statewide endorsements and having Trump-backed opponents. But he admits that in the end, Fetterman was simply “unstoppable.”

When I ask about Boyer’s relationship with the local Democratic establishment and how he felt about the fact that it placed many of the same bets that Building Trades did — Lamb, Williams, Fitzgerald, Brown, Giangiordano — his tone becomes more reflective. I get the sense he feels beholden to the party out of a sense of political obligation but that the relationship bucks his sense of how things should run. 

“The Philadelphia Democratic City Committee needs to embrace new thoughts or become extinct,” Boyer says after a pause. “There are things they’ve done that are completely outdated. They aren’t currently prepared to run a modern-day campaign that can secure major victories in important races.” 

His response takes me by surprise. Given that he backed many of the same candidates, was this critique also directed inward — or was it the confession of a leader having an epiphany about Philly’s politics-­as-usual? After all, beholden or not, he was following the playbook set by his predecessors. His remarks have me wondering: Was Boyer contemplating a bold departure from the norm? 

“There’s a lot of apathy among moderate voters who are now moving out of the city,” he clarifies. “They feel like progressives are often paternalistic and don’t provide tangible deliverables. But moderates also have to step up and appeal to them better as well.” 

Okay, not quite. What Boyer is looking for is a sort of bold new moderate — and a bold new plan for electing such candidates. Right now, he believes the Democratic City Committee has fallen down when it comes to engaging moderate voters, vetting candidates, and creating succession plans for longtime incumbents. Improvements there would, he believes, prevent “do-nothing” progressives from challenging the moderate candidates he believes are better suited to serve. 

When I ask for an example of this during this cycle, it doesn’t take too long for him to call out Williams’s challenger, Paul Prescod. “He thought he knew how to speak to the issues, but he couldn’t articulate how to do anything about them,” says Boyer. “A lot of progressive groups, like Reclaim and Working Families Party, often tout what the issues are without proposing any real ways to fix them. This city needs problem-solvers, and Anthony Hardy Williams won because the voters knew his hard work.” 

When I push back on the notion that all progressives can be described that way, he concedes on a few, including Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, recent state House candidate Andre Carroll, and Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, with whom he’s developing a relationship and who he thinks “legitimately cares about the issues.”

But I still want to know why he thinks the city’s Democratic Party is out of touch. 

“Do you think Bob Brady should remain the chair of the Democratic City Committee?” I ask.

Boyer is reserved. He takes a moment.

“I’ll say this without referring to anyone in particular: Sometimes party leaders stay in power too long, like African dictators,” he finally says. “Some of these leaders were great in their day, but someone should tell them they lost their fastball.” 

(Brady didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Boyer’s frustrations with the party become clearer when we discuss the state Democratic Party’s fumbling in the Northeast’s special election for state senator. Democratic ward leader Shawn Dillon, a Boyer-backed candidate, was forced to withdraw after his statement of financial interests wasn’t filed with the state ethics commission. But Dillon, whose brother Jimmy would eventually replace him on the ballot (and win the seat), did give the paperwork to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to previous reports. It subsequently fell into the hands of Jason Henry, then the executive director of the state Democratic Party. 

According to Boyer and party leaders, Henry dropped the ball. 

“That was completely unacceptable — that man should be fired,” Boyer says of the paperwork gaffe that ultimately sank his candidate. “It doesn’t sit well with me at all.”

A few days after we spoke, State Senator Sharif Street, a longtime Boyer ally, was elected the first Black chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. With Street in power, Boyer now has a direct (and loyal) line to the state party’s leadership. Three minutes after Street was elected, he tells me, Henry tendered him his resignation. 

Street tells me that Boyer spoke with him about Henry beforehand.

“The Dillon situation was an unacceptable error that not only offended organized labor but put our democracy at risk,” Street says. “The party’s leadership will be decisive and respectful of our friends in labor. As a result, those responsible for that error have been relieved of their duties.”

(Henry, now a senior adviser for the Josh Shapiro/Austin Davis campaign, did not comment on the paperwork flap. He says that “executive directors serve at the pleasure of the chair. As the new chair, Senator Street is within his right to have whomever he wants as executive director.”)

The debacle sparked in Boyer a desire to have a bit more control over how Building Trades wields its influence, with a focus on grassroots campaigning independent of the local party. In upcoming election cycles, Boyer intends to back candidates through a new under-development PAC. Boyer tentatively calls it the Union PAC, and it will have an independent expenditure of between $3 million and $5 million geared toward the upcoming Philadelphia mayoral and City Council races. This super PAC, which will be largely funded by the 50-plus unions Boyer represents, will support candidates aligned with the Building Trades. 

And he’s building coalitions outside of labor’s traditional allies, going so far as to tap into the business community, a strange-bedfellows approach that could have big payoffs. Boyer has notably teamed up with deep-pocketed finance exec Michael Forman of the Navy Yard-based FS Investments and other civic-minded regional power players on an effort called the Philadelphia Equity Alliance, a coalition devoted to addressing issues ranging from violence and education to employment and health outcomes. 

“We’re not cutting ties with the Democratic Party, but we’ll be working with them when we can,” Boyer says. “We’re going to start doing our own thing in a big way, creating the infrastructure that we think is lacking around us.” 

Boyer says this decision is about giving his unions more agency to back candidates they prefer, separate from the political coalitions around them. For example, it will no longer be a surprise to see them endorse and fund a local candidate that the Democratic Party might not be in favor of — an act we’ve rarely seen from them. 

Since former Congressman and longtime Democratic City Committee chair Bob Brady has run the party for more than 30 years, labor unions have often been squarely in lockstep with those the committee endorsed. Brady, who was a laborer before politics, formed tight relationships with the likes of Dougherty. But now that Dougherty’s no longer sitting on the throne, a new leader has the opportunity to re-envision how that power should be leveraged for the future. 

The timing is crucial as Boyer — along with the entire city — sets his sights on May 16, 2023, when Philadelphia will elect its 100th mayor. 

Boyer says he wants to see “history” made in the next mayoral race, but he’s also clear that it has to be “the right person.” 

“I want to see someone who will be a better cheerleader for the city than Kenney has been,” he says. “I think people have been too hard on the mayor, but the next one needs to have a bolder vision for Philly.”

The seven individuals most observers­ currently predict will run for mayor comprise four women — Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and Councilmembers Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez — and three men: grocery CEO Jeff Brown and Councilmembers Allan Domb and Derek Green. It’s hard to pin Boyer down on whom he’s going to back. But it’s also not difficult to make some guesses.

“So you’re looking to endorse a woman this time around,” I say. “That’s the only way I can see history being made in this lineup of potential candidates.”

“Well, I’m very close with both Cherelle and Derek,” Boyer says. 

“History wouldn’t be made if Derek got elected, because the city’s elected Black men three times,” I respond. “Are you endorsing Cherelle Parker?”

“The Building Trades will be vetting everyone,” he counters.

Still, lots of signs seem to point to Parker, an established moderate who’s burnishing her centrist credentials as the 2023 race heats up. In January 2021, a month after Boyer abruptly stepped down as chair of the Delaware River Port Authority — the regional transportation agency that operates four toll bridges between Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as the PATCO rail line — Parker was appointed the first woman in the position. Boyer says he left because he had done “all that I felt I was able to offer” in the position. I press him on whether he influenced Governor Tom Wolf to appoint Parker. 

“If I am going to consider someone for mayor, I want to see them in an executive role,” Boyer says, deflecting the question. “Cherelle is doing a good job thus far, and it’s a great opportunity for her.”

When I ask Parker if Boyer is positioning her for a run, she, too, answers artfully.

“In my life’s journey, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am, doing what I do, without the support of Ryan Boyer,” Parker says. “In every opportunity that I have had to be a servant leader — the state House, City Council, DRPA — Ryan has been a prime sponsor. He is the big brother that I never had.”

Even if Boyer hasn’t yet made up his mind, it seems he’s getting there. With just months until the midterm elections and the mayoral primary, the father of five is finding balance between an even busier work life and home — while pondering what kind of legacy he’s building. 

“I don’t want to be one of these old-heads that hold on to too much power,” Boyer says. “My son works for me now. I’ve been letting go of a lot of board positions and getting serious about mentoring the next generation. What’s the point of building a legacy if there’s no one out there to follow after you? That’s something in the city that needs to change.”

But change is only possible with action, and Boyer’s time is ticking. The next mayor of Philadelphia, and his or her accompanying City Council, will be facing one of the most fraught times here in decades. Political heavies like Boyer can no longer place big bets on personal favorites. They need to run with those who can win — and make change. Boyer’s first go was an audition — one that showed the limits of labor’s power in real time. 

Next May’s primary will be the main event. So much, from Boyer’s legacy to the future of the city, hangs in the balance. But given that Boyer is quickly recognizing that the old way of doing politics might not work for him as it did for his predecessors, the next go-round will be different. This time, it’ll be his way. 


Published as “A More Perfect Union Boss?” in the September 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.