Philadelphia Mayoral Candidate Guide: Jeff Brown

The Community-Boosting CEO

jeff brown mayoral candidate

Jeff Brown / Photograph via Facebook

This profile of Jeff Brown 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.

Jeff Brown, 59, is the only candidate in the race who’s never held an elected office — more on that momentarily — though the founder (and former chairman, president and CEO) of Brown’s Super Stores grocery chain has long worked on civic and political issues, including as chair of the state’s Workforce Development Board.

His initial claim to fame was mobilizing public-private partnerships to put high-quality grocery stores in “food deserts,” neighborhoods mostly populated by Black and brown Philadelphians — efforts that won him national accolades and now “give him a unique connection to Black Philadelphia,” as senior principal of public strategies for Cozen O’Connor, Joseph Hill says. His stores — holdings include 10 ShopRites and two Fresh Grocers in and around Philly — have continued to break new ground with walk-in medical clinics for the uninsured, credit unions, small-business incubators for local entrepreneurs, and more; he’s also a committed advocate for and employer of Philly’s formerly incarcerated and the founder of a nonprofit that supports and trains them on a national scale.

Why the pivot now? “My work has been to serve people in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia, and a lot of my locations are in places where people suffer,” he says. “Deteriorating growth, people stuck in structural poverty — it’s not like this mayor made this whole problem. It’s been a deteriorating situation. We need a bigger change.”

That Brown isn’t a career politician “is refreshing for a broad segment of the electorate,” Hill says, though many insiders consider a lack of experience in city governance his biggest liability. “You can’t take the tenets of being the CEO and think that transfers to being in the Mayor’s Office,” Joann Bell — director of the Philadelphia Government Office of lobbying firm Pugliese Associates — says. Most voters, she adds, “can tell the difference between ability and likability.” But Brown, who’s locked down endorsements from two of Philly’s mightiest labor unions, sells himself not just as a CEO, but as a real-world leader with a proven skill set for change, someone to “push us to consider things we’ve never considered before,” as he says.

Candidate Crib Sheet

Latest Gig
Founder, chairman, prez and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores

Key Advantages

  • Name recognition, particularly among Black and brown Philadelphians who know his stores. Also, notes Mustafa Rashed, president and CEO of Bellevue Strategies, a Democratic government relations, advocacy, and strategic consulting firm: Hiring those with conviction records in a city where 20 percent of people have one resonates.
  • Per Hill: “a big personality and a plainspoken, direct persona that screams Philly.”
  • The only candidate “who could say he’s not been part of the problem as an elected official,” Rashed says.

Highlight Reel

  • 12 grocery stores, many in food deserts; advocate for returning citizens; founded the national nonprofit Uplift to train and support formerly incarcerated/returning citizens.
  • Publicly opposed Mayor Kenney’s sugar tax.
  • Board roles focused on workforce development and Philly youth; helped launch COVID’s PA 30-Day Fund to get forgivable loans to small businesses.

Achilles’ Heels

  • Demographics. (see: Allan Domb)
  • Inexperience in campaigning (see: ads that left him open to charges of “white saviorism”) and municipal government. “Brown is really smart,” says Sam Katz, public finance expert and three-time Philly mayoral candidate. “But I think he’s delusional thinking running a grocery-store operation has any bearing on running a city.”

Notable Endorsements
More than a dozen local pastors, AFSCME DC 33, RWDSU 108, Teamsters Joint Council 53, TWU 234, UFCW 1776, 360 and 152; Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5; Temple University Police Association.

Three Big Questions

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

BROWN: Structural poverty is our biggest problem. It’s grown over time, and it grows every year. There are systems that are brown, and that need to be reimagined.

One of them is K-12 education. Most of our students — somewhere around 75 percent — don’t plan to go to college and don’t go to college. They need career technical training to get a really good job after high school. We’ve diminished that over time; we went in the exact opposite direction we should have gone in. And we’re measuring things wrong. We’re measuring our success on testing for getting into college and not Did we help the young person get a $50,000-a-year job? We’re being completely insensitive to our customer, the student. We’re not asking them what they need to be successful in life. We’re telling them, “You’re going to do it this way.” We’re acting elitist. We’re saying there’s only one path to success, and that’s to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree. And because we’re that way, more than half of the 75 percent who don’t go to college drop out, don’t get any high-school degree — and that fuels our poverty.

I think the problem is none of the things that anyone else discusses. The problem isn’t whether we use a district school or a charter school; that has a relatively indistinguishable difference in outcomes. The problem is the curriculum not based on what the student needs, it’s based on some idea that’s proven not to be really effective. That’s the reform that’s needed there. Besides that, we also have really old, shitty buildings that are half full. The whole physical plant needs to be reimagined. And no one has come up and said, “This is how we’re going to do that.” But I think there’s a way to do that–and I think there’s a way to do it that the savings of having a full building that’s modern, will help create the capital to do it.

The second thing: Our workforce system is outdated. In my career in the grocery business, I’ve hired 60,000 people — often their very first job. You start as a bagger, or maintenance, or cart person — and taught them how to work. They’re all over the place in the city now, in professional jobs. And this was the first job that sent them on their way. I did the same thing at the Philadelphia Youth Network; I was there for 17 years, the chairman for about five or six years. In my tenure, we helped 200,000 young people from the neighborhoods get their very first jobs and learn how to work. And I see them everywhere — insurance companies and banks and … you know, they’re not a poverty statistic. But I also recognize that we never had enough money to serve everyone. I probably didn’t serve 200,000 kids that we didn’t have the money to serve. That was a decision by the state, a decision by the city, that it wasn’t worth it to serve all of them. Something else was more important. It was a bad decision. That fuels our poverty. They invested in the continued growth of poverty, instead of in fixing the problem, which is killing us. Because every person who is in poverty, instead of being in the middle class, is a cost that keeps on growing. They made a “save a penny to spend a dollar” type of decision. And that’s how we run the city consistently.

And the final thing is, I think we’re too obsessed with doing things to please the media, and doing things that please the media — getting a front-page article that you got this second Comcast building or the Chubb headquarters, when our biggest problem is poverty. The things we should take pride in are investments that take lots of people out of poverty. And we really don’t get that excited about that in this city. And I think part of the reason is we lack any vision of what we want to be and how we want to get there. And nobody that I’ve seen that’s running has presented any kind of vision for that. It’s straightening up the lounge chairs on the Titanic while it’s sinking.

What is your number one priority as mayor?

We have a crisis in violence. And the first answer we just talked about is about the long-term solution there. Because if you have a $60,000-a-year job, you’re not killing people. But in the short run, we can’t let people die every night here. We’ve got to stem the violence that’s been overwhelming. There are different ways to do that.

We’ve created our own problem. This is not like, “Oh, it happened to us. And we did everything right.” No, we didn’t. We allowed the police force to shrink dramatically, due to retirements, due to people quitting, due to heart-and-lung. You know, when people are out on workers comp — if you have 500, 600 people out — management did something wrong. They didn’t all have a catastrophic injury all at one time.

We are poor managers in the city, outdated managers. We have a very unprofessional, negative workforce. People don’t want to work for us. Our starting pays, in many cases, are very low. Starting pays have gone up in society. We had to face it in our own business — competing for talent. And the city has done like next to nothing to improve their work force or to be competitive. I mean, it still takes the city over a year to onboard a new employee. And we do it in 24 hours in my business.

You don’t hear the other candidates talking about this because they’re not from — they don’t have experience out in the real world. If I don’t have enough cashiers, I can’t check you out. If I don’t have a person working in seafood, I can’t sell you seafood. I have a different sense of urgency, because I won’t operate if I don’t make a payroll, I don’t have a business.That’s a different sense of urgency than a person who has been in Council and has no consequences for their decision.

So to me, the crime problem is more leadership and management than anything. I don’t think that we’ve led the police in the proper way. We sort of have a complete no-risk policy — never do anything that has a risk — and they’ve accommodated us, and they’re taking no risks because that’s what they were told to do. And you know, it’s dangerous, police work. There are some risks inherent with that. And I don’t think we can run it that way. I think we have to be more clear what risks we need to take to save lives and which ones we’re not going to take.

I think there’s a training problem. We need to train our officers to de-escalate. Sometimes, and I’m not just talking about Philly officers, but globally. Sometimes officers come in too hot. I’m in violent neighborhoods; we come in to de-escalate, and we almost never have violence problems. Someone’s violent, we calm them down. We talk it through. We take a situation that could be violent and we make it not violent. That’s a skill I’d like our officers to be armed with that they’re not.

And we under-utilize technology compared to other cities: the cameras, the forensics, AI software to predict where crimes are happening, to study social media and look at where they’re planning crimes. There’s a whole host of investments that we should have made but did not make to address crime, and to address other related things like dumping. The city is a dumpy mess. And a big part of it is people are dumping all over the city; there’s no consequence. Why? Because one, we don’t have the evidence. We don’t have the cameras working, or we don’t have the cameras where they should be. So we don’t prosecute the dumpers. So we created our own problem. When there’s no consequence, you have chaos. And you don’t want to incarcerate everyone, but there still has to be some progressive consequence. It’s bad leadership [otherwise].

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

Well any idea, any by itself, will meet a lot of resistance. Because you’re asking people to change, and people don’t like to change. And in some cases, you’re asking them to sacrifice, and they definitely don’t want to sacrifice. And the way you lead this kind of big change — which is what I do; it’s my skill set — you have to have the vision of where we’re going and what the benefit is to all of us to get there. Then you have to lay out the whole plan: This is what I need to get us there, out of a bad situation that is just getting worse and worse. And we don’t want to be like this — none of us want to live in a city like this. To be a city we all want to live in, we’re going to have to change some things. That’s what this election is about. I’m pretty sure no one’s signing up to just leave it the way it is.

What I’ve tried to do in a lot of things is set the vision of what I’m trying to accomplish — what it looks like, what the interventions are to get us there. You let people simmer, let them take it in to see, you know, can they live with that. And you’ll listen to feedback. Some of the feedback will be helpful, and very legitimate, and you tweak it a little. Some of the other feedback will be “I just don’t like any change.” Well, that’s not acceptable — the platform is burning, we’re going to change some things.

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Published as “Jeff Brown: The Community-Boosting CEO” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.