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Philly Might Elect Its First Female Mayor This Year

Four of the 10 candidates running for the position are women and have viable paths to victory with a city government background. Here’s what the candidates said about their potential to make city history.

Former Philly City Councilmember Cherelle Parker (left) and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart talk
Former Philadelphia City Councilmember Cherelle Parker (left) and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart talk before a mayoral candidates forum on Jan. 15. Both have said they would issue an emergency declaration. (Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
(TNS) — Philadelphia has never had a female mayor, but this year's diverse field of 10 candidates features four women, all of whom have served in city government and have viable paths to victory.

The Inquirer interviewed each about what the potential to make history means to them, how gender and identity are playing out in the campaign, and their relationships with each other.

None have so far placed a huge emphasis on gender in a campaign dominated by public safety, economics, and development. But for each, identity — whether their gender, race, or status as a parent — has become a part of their pitch for why they're most qualified to lead the city.

Here's what each of the four female candidates said about this moment in Philadelphia history.

Helen Gym

Former City Councilmember Helen Gym's campaign mantra is rooted in being a "tough Philly mom."

"I've led a women's-first agenda before I ever got into office," she said. "I did it with an army of moms and caretakers who were looking for safer communities, women trying to hold onto their homes, fighting for the education of their kids, because it's moms who are up in the middle of the night trying to find solutions."

Gym, 55, notes many of the issues she's championed have been largely female-led, like advocating for public-education funding and against a proposed Chinatown casino.

"Moms get up in the morning and do everything they can to fix a really broken world," she said, "and we need that tenacity in City Hall."

Gym — who would be the city's first Asian American mayor — said while gender and racial identity are always a part of anything she does in politics, she's felt supported by a matriarchy of other female activists and organizers.

"It really grounded me in, you know, who I was and a different approach to solving problems," she said.

Asked about the other women in the race, Gym said the women formerly on City Council made "a conscious effort" to work together.

"I think all of us are very clear about who we are, what skill sets we bring, and I think it's about showing leadership," she said.

Cherelle Parker

Cherelle Parker has been a state representative and a Council member, but she's made her personal story — she was raised by her grandmother and is now a single mom to her 10-year-old son — a central part of why she's running.

"Some folks told me early on the trail, 'You don't have to talk so much about where you've come from,'" Parker said. "I have to share that. That's where my passion comes from. ... It's what my purpose comes from. This is why closing the gap between the haves and have-nots means something to me."

All four of the women running are mothers. Parker is the only Black woman running.

Parker, 50, said she has had to fight against being pigeonholed on certain issues. When she first arrived in Harrisburg with a background in teaching, her colleagues assumed she'd wanted to be assigned to committees related to education and human services. But she was interested in appropriations, finance, and the pension system.

"When you are a Black woman who cannot take your race on and off depending on the audience that you are in, you have to be very intentional about making sure no one is allowed to put you in a box," she said.

Parker wasn't surprised Philadelphia had never elected a female mayor, despite having lots of female role models who ascended to leadership years ago, including Marian Tasco, the city's first Black city commissioner.

Representation really matters — "you can't be what you don't see," Parker said. But she also stressed that it's secondary to her ideas for leading the city and her political resume.

"As a Black woman," she said, "I am not accustomed to and have never been fortunate enough to think that something would be given to me."

She hopes this election makes it less abnormal in the future for women to run.

"No more glass ceilings; we need the concrete pavers to lay a smooth path," she said, gesturing to her black pumps, "especially when you wear these kind of shoes."

Maria Quiñones Sánchez

When former Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez first ran for office in 1999, men in city politics on multiple occasions asked her husband: "Why are you letting her run?"

"It became really clear to me that I had to overcome a lot of the machismo in my own community," she said. "There's nothing going on that I haven't faced."

Quiñones Sánchez lost her first bid. But she ran again in 2007, beating an incumbent and the Democratic political establishment to represent the 7th Council district. She was the first Latina Council member in city history, and would be its first Latina mayor.

She said she intends to draw a contrast between the women and the men in the race, saying women tend to seek more equitable solutions because of their personal perspective.

"Not only are we better qualified than most of the men," she said, "but the perspective is hugely important."

She said she's disappointed in some men in the race, who may believe their path to the Mayor's Office is through courting male voters they think won't cast a ballot for a woman. But she said her experience on the campaign trail thus far has been that men have told her "it's time for a woman."

Quiñones Sánchez, 54, said she's talked with Parker and Rebecca Rhynhart about uplifting one another, but she said Gym, one of her former Council colleagues, "doesn't play nice in the sandbox." She said Gym has claimed credit for legislation that curbed evictions and required a "fair workweek" — bills Quiñones Sánchez says wouldn't have gotten across the finish line without herself and Council leadership.

While Gym authored the bills, she said there's "no question" they required coalition building to pass. Both bills passed near unanimously.

Rebecca Rhynhart

Being the first woman to hold an office would be nothing new for Rebecca Rhynhart, who in 2017 bucked the Democratic Party establishment and ran as a reformer against the incumbent City Controller, Alan Butkovitz. She beat him and became the first woman to hold the office.

After two terms as the city's fiscal watchdog, Rhynhart is touting her government experience — she worked for two different mayors before becoming controller — but has not leaned much on identity.

"I am proud of what I did as controller," she said, "and now I'm running for mayor because I'm the best person to lead the city. And that's where my focus is: on me being the best leader overall."

Rhynhart, 48, said that while women bring a different lived experience to leadership, she's focused on being "a leader that can unite us."

"I have support from women and men across the city," she said. "I have support from people of all ages, gender, race, and ethnicity, and that's, to me, how we build our city moving forward."

She has emphasized her identity as a mother, and said it's powerful that girls — like her 12-year-old daughter — can see women in positions of power.

"I'm a woman and I'm a mom, that is a part of me," she said. "Being a mom and having my daughter in public school and raising her here in Philly and calling Philly home does shape me. And it contributes to who I am as a leader."

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