It’s Time for the Gloves to Finally Come Off in Philly’s Mayoral Race

The race is crowded. Everyone's being way too collegial. The result is that nobody's standing out. These candidates need to start making some noise.

mayoral candidates

The crowded field of Philly mayoral candidates

Last week, petition day for the upcoming municipal primaries came and went — and nobody blinked. Everyone who’s anyone is still in the running for mayor, contrary to what I presumed would be a moment of elimination. At this point in an open mayoral primary, it’s not uncommon for a few viable candidates to have dropped out. Not so this cycle. Perhaps that’s because it’s hard to say who, if anyone, is in the lead at this point.

In 2015, mayoral candidates Terry Gillen, Keith Goodman and Ken Trujillo pulled out of the race well before the final leg — which led to a primary that became a showdown between former Councilmember Jim Kenney and State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, with former DA Lynn Abraham, Doug Oliver and Nelson Díaz further back in the pack. (Fun fact: Trujillo’s early exit opened the door for Kenney to jump in and challenge then-front-runner Williams.)

Today, we’re still looking at 13 candidates vying for the city’s top job. Of those, eight are broadly considered viable based on the money they’ve raised to finance their campaigns and get their messages out: Amen Brown, Jeff Brown, Allan Domb, Derek Green, Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, Rebecca Rhynhart, and Maria Quiñones Sánchez.

I’d prefer a narrower field. Since we don’t have that, fine. But I’ve got a request: Can we at least make it spicy? 

Everyone’s been so damned collegial to this point, and the result is that voters aren’t getting a sense of what really separates the candidates. That has to stop. I don’t need to see another ad with Jeff Brown or Allan Domb introducing himself to voters; I want to hear why the candidates think they’re better than the others.

Translation: It’s time for the gloves to come off! The voters deserve a battle royale for the undisputed title of Philly’s Next Mayor!

I’m not suggesting that our politics should take a turn for the rancor of our national politics. But it’s high time we get to hear directly from the candidates not only why they think we should vote for them, but why we shouldn’t vote for the others. These candidate forums have been boring and uninspiring. With so many candidates answering the same questions with so little time, the answers sound redundant or overly brief. I miss 2019, when there were only three candidates — Kenney, Williams and Alan Butkovitz — and there were more spirited debates in which rhetorical jabs were thrown. Many of these candidates seem afraid to take tough positions (such as what to do with our faltering sheriff’s office), and they often agree with each other across the stage.

Everyone’s prioritizing public safety. Nobody supports cutting back the police budget.  All express interest in increasing the number of officers on the ground — they only disagree on exactly how many more are needed. They all agree on increasing funding for the arts and culture of the city. They quibble over petty things, like if they would ban TikTok from city devices.

If everybody is just running to get along, why not simply coalesce behind one candidate and spare us the suspense? Right now, I can’t distinguish many of these aspirants beyond identity optics and the pretty broad lanes some have chosen.

For example: What is the difference between Northwest Coalition mates Derek Green and Cherelle Parker, beyond gender? They’re both pro-business, tough on crime, and calling for more opportunity and access for Black and brown voters. Who’s more progressive, Helen Gym or Maria Quiñones Sánchez? Neither has a problem calling out the establishment, prioritizing public education, or aligning with the social justice leanings of District Attorney Larry Krasner. Outside of political experience, what separates Jeff Brown and Allan Domb? Both are entrepreneurial heavyweights seeking to appeal to the diverse communities they’ve helped out in the past. All of their surrogates would beg to differ, but I don’t think anyone has cut a distinctive profile on the campaign trail.

If voters begin to assume that candidates are lumped together on ideology and issues, they might simply gravitate to the most charismatic figures. In 2015, Kenney and Williams were the two to beat, because they presented two very different visions for Philadelphia, and voters were able to discern which platform best fit the moment. Kenney successfully presented himself as a Philly-focused leader in City Council and painted Williams as an out-of-touch Harrisburg bureaucrat. Williams, a longtime Black politician who often challenged Kenney’s alleged insensitivity on race, argued that he was better equipped to serve a diverse city facing further marginalization. I’ve not seen much like that in this race yet, where just a few candidates stand out to me based solely on their energy and presence, not necessarily on how they’ve articulated their vision. That alone doesn’t mean they should have my vote.

What will win my vote is a candidate who isn’t afraid to call opponents to the carpet and make bold declarations. Although he lost, I could appreciate that in 2019, Williams had no problem running again and speaking directly to the ways he felt Kenney the incumbent wasn’t living up to the promises of Kenney the candidate. Williams didn’t focus the race just on his agenda; he made it a point to compare and contrast. What will win Philadelphians’ votes right now is someone who can do both — distinguish an agenda and poke holes in everyone else’s.

I’d like to see candidates stop trying to find “common ground” and instead stake claim to their own slices of it. Right now, we need more stunts, callouts, speeches and press conferences. More, dare I say, politicking. It would be nice to see more personality as well (maybe a little Michael Nutter “Rapper’s Delight” type of flair). We need to see these candidates take on tough topics beyond group forums. Get in front of that damn camera and speak your truth! It’s time to name names and challenge your peers.

The mayor’s race is still wide open. It’s time to figure out which of the candidates is ready to be a closer.