Philadelphia Mayoral Candidate Guide: Helen Gym

The Unflinching Force

Helen Gym

Helen Gym / Photograph by Jared Piper/PHLCouncil

This profile of Helen Gym is part of our Ultimate Voter’s Guide to the 2023 Philadelphia Mayoral Race. For the full guide and to read more profiles, go here.

Long before Helen Gym, 55, won (handily) her first Council election in 2016, she was already a well-known Philly player: longtime public-­schools crusader, fierce community organizer, relentless activist —­­ a résumé she wears well as a candidate, positioning herself as “a tough Philly mom who’s never backed down.” Her mayoral run, she says, “comes out of a 30-year track record in Philadelphia communities, taking on some of the city’s biggest problems.”

In Gym’s two terms as a Councilmember at large, her spotlight shone even more brightly, partly thanks to her skill in “branding herself, creating media moments, and generating headlines,” as senior principal of public strategies for Cozen O’Connor Joseph Hill puts it, but also due to some big legislative and civic wins — for example, eviction protections (her Philly legislation is now a national model), the Fair Workweek ordinance for hourly workers, and helping get full-time nurses, counselors and clean water in all Philly schools.

Along with a host of endorsements — the Philadelphia teachers and hospitality workers unions, for starters — Gym has one more thing going for her, says Mustafa Rashed (president and CEO of Bellevue Strategies, a Democratic government relations, advocacy, and strategic consulting firm): “She’s the leader of an actual movement, a progressive movement.” That means helpful campaign support from progressive city, state and federal legislators, he notes, but also a devoted constituency, which “is immovable and has been with her for decades.”

Thanks to all this, more than one insider uses the f-word with Gym (that’s front-runner) — though it still “remains to be seen whether she can expand her coalition beyond her base of supporters, who tend to skew younger, whiter and more progressive,” Hill says. And vocal supporters seem pretty well matched by vocal critics, including those who argue that Gym pursues buzzy progressive policy at the expense of local economic and business growth. Efforts in some power circles to rally against her, however, might not have the desired effect: “In their opposition, they elevate her,” Rashed says. “Historically, whenever you coalesce against one person, that person wins.”

Candidate Crib Sheet

Latest Gig
City Councilmember at Large

Key Advantages

  • The only ideological base in the primary, Katz says — and a very organized one.
  • Like Rhynhart and Domb, Gym has won citywide elections.
  • Name recognition. See: much-publicized legislation, a knack for media, longtime community networks, high-profile endorsements.

Highlight Reel

  • Big policy wins, including Fair Workweek, ban the box, Eviction Diversion Program, Right to Counsel.
  • Pushed successfully over the years for school funding/safety as well as for the removal of the Rizzo statue and against Chinatown stadium projects. And more.

Achilles’ Heels

  • “As many detractors as people who believe in her, if not more,” says Joann Bell, director of the Philadelphia Government Office of lobbying firm Pugliese Associates. And critics point to some decisions (e.g., not denouncing indicted ex-Councilmember Bobby Henon; opposing charter–school expansion despite having co-founded a charter school) as hypocrisy.
  • Moderates. More than one insider questioned her appeal to constituencies — like the crucial African American female vote, for instance — outside- her base.

Notable Endorsements
AFSCME DC 47; Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; The 5th Square, which also endorsed Rebecca Rhynhart; American Federation of Teachers; Philly Neighborhood Networks; Reclaim Philadelphia; Amistad Movement Power; AFT Pennsylvania; Make the Road Action; Teamsters BMWED; Unite Here Locals 274, 634 and 54; Working Families Party; Dem Wards 1, 2, 18, 24 and 39A; Grid Magazine; Faculty & Staff Federation of Community College of Philadelphia; Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance; Sierra Club; the Jane Fonda Climate PAC; Free the Ballot; Temple Association of University Professional; Temple University Graduate Students’ Association; Teamsters Local 623; Conservation Voters of PA; Riverward Area Democrats; State Senator Nikil Saval; Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks; Congressman Jamaal Brown; State Representatives Rick Krajewski and Elizabeth Fiedler; Boston mayor Michelle Wu; Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley; activist/attorney Michael Coard; Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo.

Three Big Questions

Who and what is holding Philly back right now, and what will you do about it?

GYM: Cynicism, apathy, and the belief that nothing ever changes in this town. That is the “what.” I think the “who” is a lot of individuals, whether they’re establishment electeds or individuals anointing themselves, feeling like they’re the only ones who can pick and choose who has a voice in shaping the future of Philadelphia. I have seen that, certainly, in this election. And you know, I saw it before I ever got into office.

I think that this campaign is about going directly to people and working with communities and movement builders who have never taken “no” for an answer, who have never been constrained by what we were told was politically possible. We’re here to deliver a message that comes out of Philadelphia’s communities, out of people who have long demanded change in our government’s approach and the competency with which we deliver our services, and an end to the racism and hostility against Black, brown and immigrant communities and youth that has long held Philadelphia back.

What is your number one priority as mayor?

Well, I think there’s short-term and long-term. What I’ll say is, my number one priority for the city is to make Philadelphia the best city in America to raise your family, to afford a home, to start a business, and to age gracefully. And that means that in the short term, public safety is a top mission. I don’t think there’s any question that my job as mayor is to make sure that every Philadelphian is safe and feels safe in our city.

Being effective on this strategy is about being able to pull together a broad group of entities to agree on smart, data-driven strategies and pay relentless attention to implementation and outcomes. That’s just the bottom line. We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an assorted set of programs without any real strategy and oversight about how they’re executed.  So that’s why on day one, I have said very clearly, I’m going to enact a state of emergency on gun violence, because we can’t solve problems that we don’t identify, prioritize, and convene all agencies for an all-hands-on-deck effort. Especially to solve violent crimes. Pick illegal guns off the streets, intervene for those who are in the path of violence, and support victims.

I believe on the latter front, I’m the only candidate in the race to focus in on this one core area of violence prevention that’s poorly understood. Shooting victims are at high risk for becoming perpetrators themselves. And I’m disgusted with how victims of crime are treated in the city. Often, I think, victim services are wholly dependent upon prosecution, and not on their experiences as survivors of violence. Everyone in the neighborhood knows who’s been harmed, even if they don’t know who has done the harm. If we don’t show up and support victims — and that includes plenty of things: housing, employment, educational support, therapy, health care that’s essential to their recovery — well, if we don’t show up and prove that we value life, then we don’t actually value life. And too often, the city sends that message, over and over again. Victims are not valued; specifically, Black life is not valued. So my plan for a safer, healthier Philadelphia makes support for victims and survivors of violence, who are overwhelmingly Black and brown, an absolute top priority from the Mayor’s Office.

I think, again, that we don’t have interventions for those who are in the path of violence. As a Councilmember, I wrote a youth anti-violence agenda that centered on protecting young people who are in the path of violence. As Mayor, I’m going to finish that work. More than 4,000 young people cycle through Juvenile Justice Services Center every single year, with little support beyond probation, house arrest and referrals. We are going to deliver an actual plan that includes developing alternatives to placement, guaranteed employment and paid programming for high-risk youth — because many of these young people are completely disconnected from school, employment, and often, stable homes and families. So we add them into stable programming, and paid programming as well, and then we have to expand services for families: universal access for mental health and addiction treatments, in-home family support services, relocation when necessary, health care. That is multiple agencies. Not just one agency.

And I’m going to call out some of the plans that have been proposed by other individuals, including people who are more focused on a district attorney than on actual criminals — you know, people who are harming others. People are talking about things like hiring officers, rather than my plan, which is to deploy more officers. Hiring officers when we’re down 1300 police officers, doesn’t get us to the fact that even if you do hire these officers, you actually have to retrain people. We’ve also got to get police out of cars and onto foot and bike patrol; we have to recognize that certain practices like stop-and-frisk are illegal. But we can absolutely do legal search and seizure. We need to be focused on those things.

I’m very clear that people’s lives need to be very different. They should see more visibility of police officers, but also community-based violence interrupters on the ground. We want 911 response times to be improved. I started non-police mobile mental health crisis units; I advocated for the initial pilot effort so we could take cases out of 911 and out of police hands, and put them into the hands of trained professionals. Denver and us started on that. We both piloted non-police mental mobile crisis units; now, in Denver, something like 25 percent to 30 percent  of their calls are now rerouted through the non-policing mental health crisis response unit. And that’s an enormous amount of time — a way for us to improve 911 response times.

And I’m a big believer of how in neighborhoods deeply impacted by violence, you can see immediate interim relief by focusing on blight, doing cleanups, brighter street lighting, the towing of abandoned vehicles, dealing with vacant lots. This is a community and all-agency approach.

There are many other things as well. So if there was a secondary area that I’m going to focus in on: The Fair Funding lawsuit that was upheld by a Commonwealth Court Judge this month proves what we always knew — that everything was rigged against the success of children and families. And we need a mayor who is going to take this ruling, and deliver an actual vision for education and the caring keeping of young people that is going to transform not only the lives of families, but also help grow our city. It is, to me, still one of the most important factors in the growth of Philadelphia, in the health and wellbeing of Philadelphia, and then the economic and business prospects of any business entity or new business that would want to see Philadelphia as a place to call home.

I think there is no other candidate in this race that has a vision, a track record, and an actual set of plans to get the school system moving in the direction of academic achievement, child health and wellbeing and safety. And those will be my primary, you know, those are going to be the things that I’ll be leading towards. I’ve already been able to show what happens when we have, you know, resources set in for infrastructure improvements and modernization. I’m here to make sure that everybody knows that Philadelphia is open and welcoming to you if you are a nurse, a teacher, a social worker, an educator and a supporter of child health and achievement and well being. I think that is critically important here in our city.                                                           

How do you bring people/power in this city together and build consensus in order to get things done?

Only the mayor can convene the core group of entities and control the city agencies that are sort of the backbone of any real cavalry effort to rescue and equitably deliver resources. The best intentions of external actors can’t actually realize what needs to be done unless all city agencies are working in concert with our public and private entities, civic actors on the ground, neighborhoods and communities. And then I think we can really see things roll.

I’ve demonstrated how we do that on eviction prevention. You lead, first and foremost, by clear vision of what we’re trying to get to. Then we retrain our city agencies so they feel good about the support and services we do. And the third thing: I attract talented, good people to work for me — visionaries and deputies working in concert with one another.

I spend a lot of time on mission. I come out of community organizing, and that is mission-driven. We do work over years; we can’t always pay people; we convene multiple entities together for a common mission. That’s my skill set. I am a turnaround specialist.  I’ve spent a lot of time with dysfunctional institutions and labored to turn them around, to show them how to do it and be very visible and present with people each and every step of the way on the ground. Not in a way that micromanages, but in a way that leads and shows people, this is what it must look like. And I’m the one who’s accountable for execution. I’ll take all the heat. I often joke that there are a lot of people who run for office who think of themselves as the quarterback of a football team. But I’m no glass-jawed Tom Brady; I’m the offensive line. I’m blocking and tackling. I’m taking all the hits so that my team — the city of Philadelphia, young people, educators, neighbors and health-care professionals — can cross the line and win. That’s how I see the role of the mayor, and I think that’s very different from a lot of people who think that it is the top seat in Philadelphia.

I see leadership, as, yes, of course, showing people the way to go, leading it with a charge, but also doing the hard work that’s necessary, taking some of the hits that are necessary, so that the people of this city can actually make it, and see some tangible change in our lifetime, not 20 years from now, not 10 years from now, but tomorrow. And the next week. I think I’ve led that effort from small spaces to large.

When I entered into one of the most dangerous high schools in Philadelphia [Ed. Note: South Philadelphia High School, in 2009], it had been on the state’s “most dangerous” list for four or five years in a row. I had no political title or power. I wasn’t the head of the school system. I wasn’t an agency within city government. It wasn’t just about a certain group of kids. Everybody was being hurt at that school. We lead from with a clear vision. We emphasized retraining; we brought smart policies — like a new bullying and harassment policy and protocols — to the table, and the weight of the Department of Justice, because I won’t quit when people actually say that things have got to change. And in less than two years, the school isn’t on the state’s “most dangerous list.” We led a transformation.

Same thing with the School District of Philadelphia. Imagine: The Mayor vocally exhorting, you know, saying on national TV that you just have to accept this, that this is what grown adults have to do, to make tough decisions like this — walking away from 30 public schools closing down, and not solving problems of education, disinvestment, or caring keeping of young people. And we turned that around within the first term, amending the 10-year tax abatement so that more money could go towards schools; making sure that we put nurses and counselors back into every school building; talking about what it would look like to do a real infrastructure campaign. We even helped win an investment from the University of Pennsylvania on mold repair, because everybody knew what the mission was. The mission was to see a real investment and a turnaround of the physical space where kids are being educated. And when we lead on that — when that is unapologetic, and clear and mission driven — people get on board. Because these are not progressive ideas. They are not radical ideas. They are what the majority of people want. And the most radical thing that I do is fixing those problems and making people realize that we don’t have to live like this.

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Published as “Helen Gym: The Unflinching Force” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.