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With no one out in front, upcoming Philly mayoral election will be a nail-biter

Eight viable Democratic candidates are vying for the seat, setting the stage for the winner of the race to get only a quarter of the vote.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — A little more than two weeks out from the Democratic primary that will determine Philadelphia’s next mayor, a nonprofit poll released Friday showed no clear frontrunner among the top five contenders.

“The results of this poll showed that 20% of voters are still undecided. And of those who actually did pick a candidate, we have a dead heat between the top four candidates,” summarized Lauren Cristella, interim president and chief operating officer of Committee of Seventy, which put out the first public, independent poll of the race.

No woman has ever served as mayor of the city that proudly touts its slogan of brotherly love, but the Committee of Seventy numbers showed three female candidates at the front of the pack. Former Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is leading with 18%, followed closely by former City Council members Cherelle Parker (17%), Helen Gym (15%) and Allan Domb (14%). 

“As the former president of the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia, I am very excited by the strength of the fields in general,” Cristella said in a phone interview. "And that three women are vying to be the 100th mayor of Philadelphia is very exciting.”

While the initial numbers ostensibly favor Rhynhart, the nonprofit leader emphasized that they still reflect a toss-up among the top four.

“They are all tightly within four points and the credibility interval is 3.8%,” Cristella explained, using a statistical term that can be thought of similarly to a margin of error. “So it really is anybody's game.”

ShopRite proprietor Jeff Brown trailed slightly behind the top four, garnering 11%. The three remaining candidates included in the poll, State Representative Amen Brown, pastor Warren Bloom Sr., and retired municipal court judge James DeLeon trailed behind — all garnering 2% or less support. 

The High Stakes of Low Turnout

As Temple University associate professor of political science Michael Sances explained, the May 16 primary will likely decide who will act as Philadelphia's 100th mayor.

“In a city with so few Republicans, it’s the primary that’s really going to decide who the next mayor is going to be,” said Sances in a phone interview.

Registered Philadelphia Democrats outnumber the city's Republicans 7 to 1, making it all but certain whoever wins the primary will win the general election in November against the uncontested Republican mayoral candidate, former City Council member David Oh.

That means the winner of the primary election will likely be the official tasked with leading the charge against major issues plaguing Philadelphia like poverty, opioid addiction, gun violence, aging infrastructure and education inequality.

Despite the stakes, turnout for the city of 1.6 million is likely to be low. Only 27% of voters turned out in 2015 for the last mayoral primary that elected now-outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney. If just a quarter of Philadelphia’s 775,000 registered Democrats show up for the 2023 primary, and election numbers echo poll results, the winner could be determined by as few as 2,000 votes.

“Primary elections at all levels tend to be unpredictable,” Sances noted. “There's lots of candidates involved and a small number of votes. You can receive well below majority and still win.”

As Kenney has neared the end of his two-term limit, Sances points out that outgoing mayor has received a good deal of criticism, and that residents are hungry to reimagine what Philadelphia could be with different leadership.

“This is really a chance to set the agenda for the next four to eight years for the city,” Sances said, pointing to citizens concerns about public safety, trash pickups and education.

“If you have five or six Democrats, how you how do you distinguish between them and find the one that's closest to you on policy positions? That's a pretty hard thing to do,” he says. “Even if you go to the candidates websites and read the information.”


The Leading Candidates

Rhynhart, who came out on top in Friday's poll from the Committee of Seventy, is also the candidate who has chalked up the most former mayoral endorsements, specifically those of Michael Nutter (2008-2016) and John Street (2000-2008).

Talking to WHYY on his endorsement in March, Nutter called Rhynhart a “very smart person” who “pays attention to details,” and noted that, as one of 99 men who have held the office, he thinks it’s about time a woman took the seat.

“Not just because of gender-related issues, but also a different style of leadership,” he told the outlet. “She will bring, I think, more of those qualities to the position.”

Rhynhart, 48, has already broken the glass ceiling in another Philadelphia role — she was the first woman ever elected Philadelphia city controller in 2017. Coming into this role with a background in budgeting, she set her sights on the city’s transparency issues with police budgeting and overspending in City Hall. Prior to this, she’d served as budget director under Mayor Nutter and chief administrative officer under Mayor Kenney.

She presented herself at the Philadelphia mayoral campaign TV debate on April 25 as “the only one on this stage with city executive experience.”

“I can hit the ground running on day one to fix the city’s issues,” Rhynhart said on the debate stage.

Before working for the city of Philadelphia, Rhynhart worked on Wall Street in public financing and investing.

“I have pragmatic solutions to the problems we face, because I spent my tenure as Controller examining the issues and making recommendations to solve them,” Rhynhart told Philadelphia Magazine in March.

She’s also advocated for tax cuts and for revamping the Philadelphia Police Department’s systems for data collection, patrol, and 911 response.


The poll’s next leading candidate, 50-year-old Cherelle Parker, is a former City Council majority leader and the only Black candidate to crack the top four. 

Considered highly connected in the Democratic Party, Parker has the endorsement of current Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke, Council member Curtis Jones Jr., and former mayoral candidate and Council member Derek Green. She’s also gained the endorsement of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. 

Parker was formerly a state representative in Northwest Philadelphia (2005-2015), and, having secured the seat at just 32 years old, holds the title of the youngest Black woman elected to the Pennsylvania House.

A lifelong city resident who grew up in Northwest Philly, she’s made it clear one of her top priorities as mayor would be to preserve established Black and Brown neighborhoods against gentrification in Philadelphia.

“My lived life story is closest to the people feeling the most pain in our city,” Parker told The Philadelphia Tribune in April. “That’s why you hear me talking about putting people on a path to self-sufficiency. That’s why closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots is so important.”


Known for her passionate, activist support base, 55-year-old Helen Gym, holding the poll’s No. 3 spot, has distinguished herself from other candidates by placing herself farther left.

Gym won her first City Council election in 2016, making a name for herself as a champion for public schools and community organizer. Education reform remains an important issue for the candidate, who has earned the endorsement of the Philadelphia teachers and hospitality workers unions.

Prior to entering politics, she worked as a teacher and a journalist.

She has tagged her campaign as a grassroots movement with plans to knock on 300,000 doors before primary day.

“This type of distributed organizing model where Helen’s campaign acts as a central hub for volunteer efforts of our partners is unique to only our campaign in this race,” Gym’s spokesperson Maggie Hart told Billy Penn in April, calling the campaign a “people-powered movement.”



The fourth of the top candidates tagged by the Committee of Seventy Poll, former City Council member Allan Domb, 67, is the only one with notable private-sector experience in real estate. Often called the “Condo King,” for his $400 million portfolio of real estate properties in downtown Philadelphia, Domb is a highly successful real estate broker as well as a city politician. The founder of Allan Domb Real Estate has campaigned as a centrist Democrat who supports tax cuts for businesses and is tough on crime.

“I’m doing this cause I love Philadelphia,” he said at the TV debate. “And I know we can do better.”


While he trails behind the top four candidates according to Friday’s poll, ShopRite and Fresh Grocer owner Jeff Brown, 59, is still within reach of the mayoral seat — a mere 7% behind Rhynhart, the top contender.

Comparatively, Brown is the only candidate who has never held elected office. The former chairman, president and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores grocery chain is known for his work putting in grocery stores in high-poverty neighborhoods with reputations as food deserts, occupied primarily by Black and Brown Philadelphians.

As mayor, Brown has emphasized that one of his top goals would be to reduce poverty, which he sees as a major underlying problem for the city.

While an internal poll released by Brown once put him at the front of the mayoral race, he faced accusations in April from the Philadelphia’s Board of Ethics of illegally coordinating with an outside spending group to raise millions of dollars. The accusation came one day before the TV debate, where his rivals quickly seized on the charges.

Brown touted himself, however, as a change-maker, with a love for making Philadelphia a better place.

“We need change in this city in the worst way,” he said at the debate. “And I don’t believe anyone else running is prepared to make the kind of changes we need.”

From One Poll to the Polls

Political professor Richardson Dilworth’s first observation of the Philadelphia mayoral election’s first poll is that those 20% of undecided likely voters may not be as "likely" to vote as people who have chosen favorite candidates at this point.

“Given that almost half of those polled who said they were undecided are either in South or Northeast Philly, I’d say these folks are most likely to vote for either Domb or Brown — which makes this primary even more of a crapshoot than it otherwise looks,” Dilworth, who heads the Department of Politics at Drexel University, said in an email,.

Dilworth, the author of “Reforming Philadelphia, 1682-2022,” is more familiar than most with the last few hundred years of Philadelphia politics. Talking over the phone, he said most of the issues that the next mayor of Philadelphia will have to deal with can be traced to the “incredible level of poverty in the city” alongside its “incredible unequal distribution of wealth.”

“There's a clear distinction between those candidates that are more progressive, like Helen Gym, and those that are sort of more somewhat more, for lack of better word, conservative, in terms of Domb and Jeff Brown, and then somewhat more middle-of-the-road, like Parker and Reinhardt,” Dilworth said.

One thing that has struck Dilworth is the the extent to which the race has brought out so many qualified people who are excited about being the mayor — many of whom come from City Council.

“Turnout is obviously crucial for this election, and on that score I would guess that Gym, Parker, and Rhynhart have the greatest advantage," Dilworth said in an email (punctuation in original). "Gym and Rhynhart have an advantage for turnout in terms of the socioeconomic status of their respective supporters; Parker has the greatest advantage in terms of the support of older voters (good turnout) and support in locations where I think the wards will be quite helpful for turnout — in addition to the unions.”

Dilworth noted that turnout is always impacted by money, education and passion, and so the greatest turnout is usually in the higher income areas, but he said he’s not sure if that trend could be reversed in this election if there's a tremendous level of sort of passion for any given candidate. 

“I am not at all good at forecasting and I don’t gamble but if I had to bet on this election I would put my money on Rhynhart,” he says.

The Committee of Seventy poll interviewed 1,500 Philadelphia adults via phone and text between April 21-25, 2023, asking them about their voter registration status and likelihood to vote. The city’s ninth mayoral candidate, Delscia Gray, who has no online campaign platform and has not been campaigning, was not included in the poll.

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