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27 Apr 2023

Philadelphia’s ‘neighborhood’ prepares to choose its next mayor

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April 27, 2023 Category: Commentary Posted by:
George Burrell

By George Burrell


In Philadelphia, 25% of the Black population lives in the ‘neighborhood’, poor and homeless with unfulfilled promises from Blacks and whites alike. Children are born into embarrassment and hopelessness, attend underperforming schools, and are introduced to drugs and gang leaders who become role models. 

The ‘neighborhood’ makes Philadelphia the poorest big city in America, while three generations of leaders have accepted the status quo. More debates are focused on the city being open for business, rather than the ‘neighborhood.’ 

The problem of gun violence is an example. When confined to the ‘neighborhood’ whites paid little attention. After gun violence skyrockets, there is outrage and demand to protect the city. When the dust settles, Center City will be protected — but what about the ‘neighborhood’? 

White conscious and unconscious bias accept responsibility by providing corporate citizenship and philanthropic help but makes no investments to transform the ‘neighborhood’ that supplies meaningful revenues and essential workers. 


When will CEOs make the internal business and institution changes necessary to accelerate Black participation in employment, procurement, and leadership? Tours of work environments would confirm affirmative action has failed. 

Black leaders and leadership organizations must aggressively, but respectfully, challenge and leverage white behavior. 

Vision and core values

The National Urban League’s latest State of Black America report communicates that Black America is under attack. In that context, those sponsoring mayoral forums should ask candidates for their visions, core values and specific strategies to address poverty, education and the safety and security of the Black community. 

That Helen Gym and Rebecca Rhynhart have not lived the experience of Cherelle Parker or electing the first woman mayor would break a glass ceiling is not the intent of an election, it is a consequence. Breaking glass ceilings provide role models, but not visions, core values or solutions.


Jeff Brown is under attack for an alleged ethics violation and anonymous tips about the Philadelphia 76ers contributions to an independent expenditure fund. 

The ethics will play out in court, but no media or political veteran can believe self-interested players are not spending mega dollars, directly and indirectly, to support more than one candidate. Every serious candidate receives financial support from contributors protecting, promoting, or pursuing self-interests. Candidates should meet the Sixers, Flyers, Comcast, Chinatown and Fashion District — not to would be negligent, given the question is asked nightly.

The white business community and many Blacks have targeted Helen Gym when she visited the Union League — which Black members continue to do without criticism —  and when she did an about face on charter schools. Criticisms should have integrity. I was anti-charter schools, until I worked for a charter school company.  In City Council and in the Street administration, I changed my mind several times on important issues. 

Most of her critics, directly or through paid representation, work to change elected official minds daily and celebrate when they do. This memo calls on Black leaders to work to change white behavior with respect to the ‘neighborhood.’ 

Criticizing Gym for being endorsed by the PFT, because they are singularly responsible for failing schools, is Trump-style yellow journalism. 

Black power: individual or collective

Black leaders must aggregate power, create a new leadership paradigm and laser focus on the ‘neighborhood,’ with Black equity and transformative outcomes. Black power is not about the mayor. When Blacks operate in silos, the mayor cannot be a change agent, and unless white behavior is leveraged, why would they change? 

Black voters increasingly believe politics is about party and power, not people. The ‘neighborhood’ is losing confidence, and unless they are energized, frustration and gentrification will fuel the Urban League concern.   

White power: partners or quick step

White leaders must decide if they are committed to the status quo or partnering to transform the ‘neighborhood’ and the Black experience across the economic spectrum. No local major business or institution has proportionated Black participation in employment or procurement. More than 100 signatures were affixed to a Chamber pledge, but no outcomes have been reported. The Chamber organized a $100M loan fund for Black and brown businesses but made no call on contributing banks and financial institutions to create responsible Black access. Black progress, going back to slavery, has never resulted from voluntary white engagement.

Candidate oversights

No candidate has: 

• addressed how they will partner with City Council. 

• called for a written democratic platform to address the economic and social issues challenging the city. 

• highlighted Paul Robeson High and Masterman schools to demonstrate how great education can be provided while infrastructures and safety are resolved. 

• noted that private sector demographics are dominant contributors to Black inequities. 

• made clear the mayor must ‘walk and chew gum at the same time.’ Reducing gun violence in isolation will not improve the ‘neighborhood.’

The horse race 

Jeff Brown has taken an ethics gut punch and made self-inflicted misstatements. As a rookie, he has experienced how above and below the belt contact sport elections are. He needs more discipline in messaging. He can recover because diverse voters are looking for change. The suspended independent expenditures will create a hole.

Assuming his early momentum was accurate, his campaign missed an opportunity to build his lead, which would have helped over this rough patch. However, the trauma will show who’s on Brown’s team through thick and thin.  

For the businessman, politics is broken, and the “together we can fix the city” message is not enough to win. Brown was a new face that, fairly or unfairly, has been connected to old style politics. If he can recover, this will test his team.  

Allan Domb, by scheduling private meetings with the principals in fighting gun violence and committing to those meetings as the mayor, gives credibility to his campaign message. Showcasing the ability to convene and listen sends an important leadership message. 

Domb’s challenge is that he has no distinct history in the Black community, and no legislation or leadership that speaks to the ‘neighborhood.’ Not having been a gentrifier himself does not tell how he will manage the gentrification that threatens the ‘neighborhood’. 

Although life stories are relevant at the beginning of campaigns, but they are not relevant in the ‘neighborhood.’ 

Domb has defused self-funding, but financial literacy and four-day school weeks do not address underperforming public schools. Also, Domb’s early messaging did not target Black voters; however, a current spot with an emerging Black leader could get traction.

Cherelle Parker has a lane for victory, but her path forward must be accelerated. It is hard to leapfrog over the candidates. Her wide support in the Democratic party and labor are huge assets but given that the party has not endorsed or activated ward leaders will be expensive. The campaign has generated considerable free media, but it did not accelerate early polling numbers. Given limited polling data public, it is safe to assume no campaign has streaked into a commanding lead.

With 43% of Black voters undecided, an accessible base exists, but the number of undecided Blacks indicate that no candidate has yet connected or inspired confidence. Insiders question why Black women, as a collective, have not yet endorsed Parker. They could provide an important TV presence and surrogates down the stretch.  

Rebecca Rhynhart has climbed steadily, but can she close? She shoes the leap frogging challenge and has ridden two former mayors [Nutter and Street] to the max,  but they had contrasting styles of governing. 

She needs a closing message stronger than ‘budget expert,’ getting things done but working in administrations that failed the ‘neighborhood.’ Black voters want to know how budget dollars will be prioritized, allocated and spent. 

Rhynhart needs a significant portion of the 43% to win. Her message must be more specific. Black voters are looking for transformative thinking, and to date each candidate has fallen short. 

Helen Gym has a clear, but not assured path to victory. There is a growing progressive constituency attracting Black voters and candidates. The increasing Black members provides access to the 43%.  Philadelphia Magazine once called her the most powerful City Councilmember. 

But while there’s hardly a ‘Helen’ movement, this could serve as an advantage, given her critics. Progressives have an aggressive field operation with incumbents on the ballot, and Gym has a reputation as a fighter, often leading protests outside of City Council. 

Her vision of investing in people and the issues impacting Philadelphia’s most endangered citizens resonates in the ‘neighborhood’ — sounds like John Street turning attention to neighborhoods. 

The critics, who argue the vision sounds like a safety net, have ignored the ‘neighborhood’ for 25 years. The city, School District and state project deficits for the next couple of years and still, the critics will not focus on the ‘neighborhood.’ 

However, Gym, like others, relies too much on her record. For example, local control of the School Board has not improved public education. It is time for them to roll up their sleeves and do the work necessary to transform the ‘neighborhood.’ Blacks are tired of having to read between the lines and guess what the candidates mean. 

The candidates and their teams who make the smart bets and take strategic risks will be the next mayor. Black voters are not sitting on the edge of their chairs, and unless inspired, a significant number of the 43% will stay home on Election Day.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, The Philadelphia Sunday SUN, the author’s organization, committee or other group or individual.

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