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The Philadelphia mayor’s primary is the latest showdown between progressives and moderates

Polls show a close race in Tuesday’s election, which features prominent candidates from different wings of the party.

A young Asian American woman wearing a red suit jacket smiles, looking past the camera and raising her right arm in a wave.
Helen Gym, a progressive former city councilor, is among the candidates vying for the Philadelphia mayoral seat.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Editor’s note, May 17: Former city council member Cherelle Parker has been declared the winner of Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral primary and is expected to be the city’s next mayor. The original story, published on May 16, follows.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia voters will cast their ballots in a crowded Democratic mayoral primary that won’t just decide who’ll be the city’s likely next mayor, but will also offer national Democrats new data on which ideological direction is resonating most with the party’s voters.

Given the city’s blue skew, whoever emerges triumphant on Tuesday is expected to win the general election this fall. Going into the primary, polls show a tight race between five top contenders, including former city council members Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, and Allan Domb, former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart, and grocery store owner Jeff Brown. The narrowness of the polls and the high number of undecided voters indicate the race could be especially close — and it could even take days to determine the winner, depending on how long it takes to count mail-in ballots.

The election is so close that it’s likely the winner will only pick up a minority of votes. Because of that, experts have cautioned against taking the result as too definitive a signal about which Democratic factions have the most momentum heading into the 2024 elections. Progressives hope, however, that the race will indicate strong support for their candidates, and are angling for another local win as they prepare to challenge more moderate figures next year.

National progressives — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — are backing Gym, a former city council member, teacher, and community organizer who has championed funding for schools as well as a jobs guarantee for people under 30. They’re hopeful that Gym can continue a string of progressive mayoral wins in major cities including, most recently, former education organizer Brandon Johnson in Chicago.

“If the most progressive candidate in the race, Helen Gym, wins by a significant margin and if she brings out many young voters who have traditionally sat out municipal primaries in Philadelphia, that would say something about an energized, activist-oriented left,” says University of Pennsylvania political science professor Daniel Hopkins.

Turnout is a big factor Democrats will be watching, as they try to keep voters energized going into the 2024 elections when Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey’s Senate seat is up and President Joe Biden seeks reelection. Whoever wins on Tuesday will have a major role to play as a 2024 surrogate, due to Pennsylvania’s status as a battleground state.

Key issues for voters in the city include gun violence, public safety, and education, all of which have risen to the fore during the pandemic. High gun violence rates in the city, which saw a record number of 562 homicides in 2021, have been top of mind for voters, local experts say. The physical infrastructure of schools and the effects of Covid-19 on students’ academic success and mental health are other concerns.

Notably, the winner of this election could make history as well. Depending on the outcome, Philadelphia could be on track to elect its first woman mayor, its first Asian American mayor, or its first Black woman mayor.

The city’s consequential mayoral primary, briefly explained

Philadelphia’s Democratic primary marks the latest big city match-up between different factions of the party, and will offer clues as to which one voters in the city feel more aligned with. Along with Johnson, other progressives like Michelle Wu and Karen Bass have also won major mayoral races in Boston and Los Angeles in recent years, while moderate Eric Adams defeated his more progressive rivals in New York City.

As Hopkins noted, Gym is seen as the most progressive option, while Rhynhart is seen as liberal, and Parker, Domb, and Brown are viewed as more moderate. Crime and public safety are among the areas where the candidates’ ideological fault lines have been evident.

Parker, Domb, and Brown have indicated an interest in increasing the number of police in the city and a return to a version of “stop and frisk” policies. Gym, meanwhile, has said she backs more first responders who respond to mental health emergencies, more detectives for violent crimes, and moving existing police to bike and foot patrols, according to the Wall Street Journal. Rhynhart has said she’s focused on ensuring there’s a presence of beat officers and that police can respond more quickly to 911 calls than they currently do.

Gym, a former elementary school teacher endorsed by teachers’ unions, has also been a longtime activist advocating for more funding for public schools and against the state takeover of Philadelphia schools. Rhynhart has emphasized her experience making the city’s budget more efficient and effective as controller, while Parker, a longtime legislator, has garnered support from a number of elected officials, including the city’s Black establishment, and stressed her “tough on crime” credentials. Domb, a former city councilor also known as the “condo king” for his large stakes in property in the city, has urged investments in entrepreneurship, while Brown, an owner of multiple Shop Rite franchises, is associated with bringing businesses to food deserts and advocated for adding police officers in the city.

“In general, what [the race] says about the Democratic Party is that it’s highly fragmented,” says Drexel University political scientist Richardson Dilworth, of the candidates’ wide-ranging ideological positions. “There’s a struggle between the traditional Democratic Party and the more progressive, democratic socialist wing.”

Beyond the ideological message the race could send to Democrats, it also has important implications for the 2024 presidential election, when Pennsylvania is once again set to be an important swing state.

Historically, Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs have been central to Democrats’ victories in the state, so maintaining high voter enthusiasm and energy is crucial. The race will be an important test of what type of messaging is resonating with the area’s voters as statewide candidates prepare their campaign strategies. In 2022, Philadelphia saw its turnout decline significantly, a potentially bad sign for Democrats who rely on the city’s voters.

Philadelphia’s mayor is expected to play an important role in keeping voters enthused next year, while also acting to defuse ongoing Republican attacks on Democratic city leadership. As they do so, they’ll have to confront the local issues on voters’ minds Tuesday — housing, taxes, crime, and gun violence, as well as lingering challenges its public education system has faced because of underinvestment.