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Philly Asks: Do You Need Government Experience to Be Mayor?

Jeff Brown is labeling himself as the anti-politician ahead of the May 16 primary for Philadelphia’s mayoral race. If elected, he will be the first person in a century to become mayor without having worked in government.

(TNS) — More than 500 people crammed into a West Philadelphia ballroom on a Wednesday morning in November to see a grocery store owner.

It was the day Jeff Brown announced his bid to be the first person in a century to become mayor of Philadelphia without ever having worked in government. With live music and a cheerleading squad, Brown got a celebrity's welcome to city politics.

"We are here for something that we need desperately," the Rev. Marshall Mitchell said to open the event. "We need leadership."

Brown, a longtime ShopRite proprietor, is billing himself as the anti-politician ahead of the May 16 Democratic primary, running in a crowded field of people who have been elected officials during some of the most turbulent times in generations. Brown is betting — with some evidence — that Philadelphians are so frustrated with city government that they'll take a gamble on a grocer.

The question now: Is a government outsider qualified to run a city of 1.6 million people?

Philadelphia's next mayor will have to navigate a host of issues, including an urgent gun-violence crisis, a possible economic downturn, and governmentwide short-staffing.

Brown admits: He's still learning the intricacies of the municipal government. He irked former Mayor Michael Nutter earlier this year when he said he hadn't read the city's governing document from top to bottom, and he sees memorizing statutes as the pastime of technocrats, not visionaries.

For someone who wants to run the city like a business manager and sees the mayor's role in part as cheerleader-in-chief, perhaps the details don't matter as much.

What he offers, he argues, is a fresh vision as a moderate Democrat who has spent years helping Philadelphians by building stores, and offering jobs, in underserved neighborhoods.

The city's political class is split on his pitch.

Some are offended that he has bashed their leadership while he and his allies have poured $2.3 million and counting into making him a contender. Ensuring the city is safe and clean, his rival Cherelle Parker said recently, "is not like stocking supermarket shelves."

Others say no one is really prepared to be the mayor before they do it, and there's no reason an outsider can't figure it out.

What's clear is that — despite a campaign that has included an ethics investigation around campaign finance and a public rebuke from Michelle Obama's office — Brown has resonated, according to limited polling showing him among the early front-runners.

To supporters, Brown is the guy you want to get a beer with — a back-slapping, gregarious type who could have a conversation with a wall. He likes hugs. And he'll tell you to your face when he thinks you said some "political bullsh—," a phrase he's using a lot lately.

Brown, 59, is also tapping into dissatisfaction with the status quo. He says Philadelphia has "deteriorated," and his campaign slogan is "Pick up the damn trash." He doesn't tell people he understands why they're frustrated — he says he's frustrated along with them.

"The people who built this system? The ones that are this system? They're not going to change this system," Brown said the day he launched his campaign. "It's just the way it is."

A Rise to Prominence

Much of Brown's political story traces to his grocery business.

Born in the Northeast, Brown spent part of his childhood in West Philadelphia, where his father owned the New Central Market grocery store. His family moved to Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County, when Brown was in elementary school.

He graduated from Abington High, and then studied entrepreneurship at Babson College, a private business school in Massachusetts. Brown met his wife, Sandy, one summer at the Jersey Shore, and they put down roots in South Jersey, where they raised four boys. The couple moved back to Philadelphia in 2015, into a towering rowhouse in Rittenhouse Square.

But Brown says he spent much of his life in the city. He acquired his own store in 1988, taking over a struggling ShopRite in Roxborough. Wendell Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, said Brown "was there constantly."

"I watched them literally raise their family in that store, kids in playpens in the office and everything," Young said.

Brown opened four more ShopRites in the suburbs, then, in 2004, rehabilitated a store in Eastwick. He had help from public-private subsidies that encouraged grocers to open in neighborhoods lacking access to healthy, affordable food.

He hosted town halls, and then incorporated suggestions, like stocking shelves with halal food or ingredients sought by immigrant communities. Perhaps foreshadowing his future interest in government, he earned a reputation for creating spaces that offered more than groceries.

Brown remembers a customer who came in nearly 20 years ago after her bus stop was vandalized with a list of cleaning supplies that totaled $127. He said he gave them to her, then went back days later to see a clean, inviting bus stop. He never forgot it.

"That's the role I've played in the city," he said. "It's so inexpensive, and so simple, but actually no one plays that role."

He sold goods prepared by Black entrepreneurs, and hired people who were formerly incarcerated. Brown worked with and won praise from the Obama White House for his work in underserved neighborhoods (praise he subsequently used in campaign ads, drawing pushback from the former first lady's office, which said the ads implied an endorsement she hadn't made).

Brown's footprint expanded to 12 stores — 10 ShopRites and two Fresh Grocers.

But he gave up one.

In 2019, he closed a West Philadelphia store, blaming the city's sweetened-beverage tax, Mayor Jim Kenney's signature legislation. (A different grocery opened in its place.) Brown was a leading opponent of the soda tax, which Kenney championed to fund pre-K and upgrades to parks and libraries.

Some of Brown's rivals have latched onto his opposition. Last month, Helen Gym's campaign said in a statement that Brown is running because of his "personal grievance about a tax that pays for thousands of our city's children to get quality pre-K education."

Brown says that while he believes the tax disproportionately affects the poor, he supports the initiatives it funds and that eliminating it "wouldn't be a priority."

Others have questioned how he speaks about his work in majority- Black communities, saying that he appears to suggest he rescued people of color to score a political talking point.

Brown said in an interview that those critics were employing a "distasteful" political strategy.

'A Depth of Understanding'

Brown's profile continued rising through the pandemic, and he's said his work amid the crisis qualifies him to lead.

In April 2020, he teamed up with Jeff Bartos, a Main Line real estate developer, and other civic leaders to create the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, which gave microgrants to small businesses. Bartos, a Republican who's made several runs for office, said the idea was to raise capital, then provide businesses one month of operating expenses amid the pandemic. (Bartos featured the fund in his own run for U.S. Senate last year.)

Mitchell, the pastor at Salem Baptist Church of Abington, talked to Brown about the proposal — and was initially unimpressed. He told Brown that COVID-19 could last longer than anyone thought. Brown took his suggestions, Mitchell said, then returned with a more sustainable plan.

"You're not required to get everything right on the first pass," Mitchell said. "People normally do things because they have an angle and an agenda. And I have found Jeff to have neither, other than helping people."

Through 2020, the 30 Day Fund disbursed more than $3.5 million to 1,000 Pennsylvania businesses.

At the same time, the city was gripped by protests and unrest after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Two of Brown's stores were burglarized — one for 15 hours straight. Bartos said he called Brown, who was surprisingly calm. Brown told him that they had insurance, and that they were focused on getting the store open so customers could eat.

"He showed a depth of understanding and engagement and true sense of purpose and mission that I, candidly, don't have," Bartos said.

Brown worked with District Attorney Larry Krasner's office and advocated for people who burglarized his stores to be diverted from the criminal justice system. Last year, he spoke at a District Attorney's Office event about progressive approaches to law enforcement.

So it surprised some that he has at times criticized Krasner during the campaign, questioning his office's approach to prosecuting retail theft and illegal gun possession.

A 'Cheerleader Job'?

Brown says he's a moderate Democrat who has done progressive things. He favors incremental reductions to the city's wage and business taxes, and while he's bullish on criminal justice reform, some of his messaging has taken a tough-on-crime tone. His primary goal is to address poverty, which he sees as the driver of the city's problems.

The bigger question for many is whether he's qualified to run the government, lead its 25,000-member workforce, and negotiate with City Council. The last outsider to helm the city without ever working in government before was W. Freeland Kendrick, a philanthropist elected in 1924.

Brown has touted work adjacent to government — such as leading a state workforce task force — but he's the only serious mayoral contender who's never held elected office.

Nutter, who has endorsed Rebecca Rhynhart for mayor, said in February that Brown demonstrated a "complete lack of understanding of the structure of the government" after grilling him in front of a live audience. During the conversation, Brown suggested the job is "more than 50 percent external," describing it as a "cheerleader job" and saying he would delegate some management responsibilities to deputies.

"The public deserves someone who actually knows and understands government," Nutter said after the event.

Sam Katz, who was twice the Republican nominee for mayor, had worked in finance and on campaigns but not government when he ran. He said government experience isn't necessary, but he takes issue with the idea that City Hall can be run like a business.

"Anyone who thinks that's a relevant comparison is obviously someone who hasn't spent any time in government," said Katz, now a Democrat.

But he sees positive qualities in Brown.

" Jeff Brown is a guy who decided he wanted to be mayor and has done everything that he can to make himself the mayor, and he has been relentless," Katz said. "Those are good qualities in a mayor."

Brown said recently that he'll "bring in all the talent that's necessary, including people that have experience in Philadelphia government to navigate what I don't know."

"I'm not suggesting I'm going to be my own lawyer, my own finance person, my own accountant," Brown said. "But what they need is someone to inspire and lead them to a better answer, and I think I'm very qualified for this."

(c)2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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