The Narrative About Philly’s Progressive Setback Is Wrong. Isaiah Thomas Is Proof.

Black progressives have been winning big in Philadelphia. It's time for them to lead the movement.

Isaiah Thomas, the City Council at-large candidate who received the most votes in the 2023 Philadelphia Democratic primary. / Photograph courtesy of Thomas’s campaign

When it comes to the state of the progressive movement in Philly, two things can be true at the same time: Voters didn’t want a progressive firebrand like Helen Gym for mayor. And voters overwhelmingly wanted a Black progressive like Isaiah Thomas at the top of the City Council at-large slate.

Last Tuesday’s Democratic primary results revealed not just the political divides of our city, but the racial ones as well. On the surface, it appeared that the city’s progressive movement — one that strongly backed non-Black candidates such as Gym, Amanda McIllmurray, Alexandra Hunt, Andrés Celin and Erika Almirón — took a major hit when all of them lost in their respective races. (Seth Anderson-Oberman, the Black progressive candidate who took on incumbent Cindy Bass in the 8th Councilmanic District, lost, too, by the narrowest of margins).

Gym, the former City Council at-large member who ran a mayoral campaign that spoke directly to addressing poverty and systemic inequality in marginalized communities, saw the city’s most privileged (and white) largely vote for her. She and Rebecca Rhynhart, a more pragmatic progressive, seemed to split votes among some white liberals.

At first glance, it would be easy to assume that Cherelle Parker, the Democratic primary winner for mayor, reflected the complete sentiment of Black voters. The tough-on-crime moderate, who took full advantage of her deep labor ties and establishment support to secure a victory, overwhelmingly benefited from Black, brown and working-class voters. But to presume this means Black voters are more moderate than their white peers would be intellectually dishonest.

Meet the candidate who flips this narrative on its head: Isaiah Thomas, the Black incumbent who ran on a progressive platform that was endorsed by Reclaim, the Working Families Party, SEIU and others, was the top vote-getter in the super-crowded City Council at-large race, with over 107,000 votes — not far from the much-ballyhooed 108,000 Gym received in 2019 when she ran for re-election.

You’d think progressives would make a big deal of staunchly progressive Thomas becoming the first Black candidate to lead the Council vote since Derek Green in 2015. But that’s not what happened. While Gym was instantly touted as “Philly’s AOC” and celebrated as a future mayoral front-runner in the immediate aftermath of her 2019 triumph, there’s been little buzz about Thomas’s impressive feat. Rather than celebrate his moment, many progressive commentators have spent more time coming to terms with Gym’s loss than trumpeting Thomas’s promising win.

What these results say to me is that Democrats want to elect Black progressives. Since at least 2019, when Black progressive candidates have run for office in Philly, they’ve either won or gotten closer than their non-Black counterparts. Across municipal and state House races, Black progressives including Jamie Gauthier, Kendra Brooks, Rick Krajewski and Chris Rabb won seats with the support of far-left coalitions. Black progressive candidates such as Anderson-Oberman, Nicolas O’Rourke, Andre Carroll, Cass Green and Paul Prescod, who challenged establishment-backed incumbents, gave their opponents real runs for their money.

Alongside Thomas, these individuals should be front and center representing the progressive movement as it moves forward in Philadelphia. Many of them ran on platforms similar to those of Gym, McIllmurray and Hunt. The only difference is that those platforms seem to resonate more when they’re touted by progressive candidates who look like the diverse voters needed to win. The outlier here, of course, is District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has had the unique ability to appeal to diverse citywide voters as a white progressive. There have been a few more non-Black progressive candidates beyond Krasner who’ve won their races, such as State Senator Nikil Saval and State Reps Elizabeth Fiedler and Tarik Khan, but these candidates won against white incumbents in areas with larger white populations than their Black progressive peers.

Philly voters continue to demand something different from the slate offered by the Democratic establishment: They will show up to the polls and will strongly back Black progressives. It’s time the movement actually listens.

It starts with white progressives reading the room and acting accordingly. Along with shifting the face of the movement to more Black representation (less centering of Gym and Krasner; more visibility for Thomas, Brooks and Gauthier), far-left groups such as the Working Families Party and Reclaim should concentrate on driving their huge white liberal donor/volunteer bases to support Black candidates running citywide and in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Philly election results continue to show Black progressive candidates (such as Anderson-Oberman, Carroll, Green and O’Rourke) losing in winnable races — a problem that’s also happening nationwide.

It’s long overdue that progressives in this town actually walk the talk they preach to the establishment. You can’t reclaim a city without prioritizing the Black candidates and voters who make up a plurality. You can’t promote a party for working families without recognizing that many of the voters you’re championing live in predominately Black neighborhoods and want leadership that reflects them.

Translation: Philly doesn’t have a progressive problem; it has a non-Black progressive problem — one that should be easily fixed by those who already claim to desire said progress across the board.