Unprecedented Coalition Leads To Progressive Wins In Philadelphia

Isaiah J. Poole

Get ready to add the name Jim Kenney to a growing list of progressive populist mayors who seek to put their cities in the vanguard of economic change for working people.

Kenney won the mayoral nomination Tuesday night in Philadelphia’s Democratic primary. He won in what Philadelphia magazine called a “historic landslide” and a “shellacking of the first order” against a well-financed and politically powerful challenger, state senator Anthony Williams.

Will Bunch, the veteran political writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, wrote that Kenney won “with a coalition this city has never quite seen before: from union guys from the old neighborhood in South Philly to high-tech millennials, from black ward leaders in the Northwest to gay activists and fired-up schoolteachers.”

The win marks a major victory for the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, which endorsed Kenney. The endorsement lauded Kenney for his work on Philadelphia’s City Council “supporting efforts to raise wages, improving Philly’s schools, increasing access to housing, ending the discriminatory practices of the criminal justice system, and limiting corporate power in politics.”

Kenney’s victory speech echoed some of those themes. “We all must work together if we expect all of Philadelphia to move forward together,” he said. “That means fighting for universal pre-(kindergarten), community schools, a real living wage and the end to stop and frisk, and by giving every working family the opportunity to succeed, no matter what neighborhood they live in.”

Kati Sipp, the executive director of Pennsylvania Working Families, issued a statement today that noted that Williams “got $7 million from out-of-town corporate billionaires – more than the war chest of all the other mayoral campaigns combined – and still lost. … We just showed that it doesn’t matter how much money you have: grassroots organizing beats corporate special interests hands down.”

The fate of the city’s public schools was a key issue in the Philadelphia primary. Public schools in the city were under siege under the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, targeted for state aid cuts that forced school closures and teacher layoffs, until he was succeeded this year by Democrat Tom Wolf. Corbett had wanted to boost the role of charter and private schools in Philadelphia as an antidote to poor-performing public schools. But in rejecting Williams the city’s voters resoundingly rejected a candidate with deep roots in the effort to charter-ize and privatize the city’s school system.

The Philly Voice reported that Williams was “a longtime proponent both of charter schools and private school voucher programs” and “has accepted substantial — almost monolithic, at times — donations from groups promoting those agendas.” His campaign manager, Dawn Chavous, worked for the Susquehanna International Group and the Students First PAC, which the group funds. Students First PAC is a “school choice” advocacy organization chaired by Joe Watkins, a Republican political analyst and former White House aide under President George W. Bush.

Another Working Families Party candidate, Helen Gym, won an at-large seat on the City Council in part on the strength of her fight for public schools and against the effort to push privatization and charters as “reforms.”

“I started becoming a big fan of Helen Gym in 2012 when Philadelphia, after New Orleans and Milwaukee, emerged as another prime exemplar of the harm education reform policy was inflicting on urban communities of color,” said Jeff Bryant, who runs the Education Opportunity Network and is an OurFuture.org contributor. “She was rallying parents and activists to oppose budget austerity, school closings, and charter school expansions. For years, she’s been a relentless advocate for what school districts should be enacting instead: full and equitable funding of schools, new efforts to support struggling schools rather than punishing them and closing them down, and ending the surge of privatization. Her win is not only a victory for progressives; it’s also a big win for the children, parents, and citizens of the City of Brotherly Love.”

The reaction from Gwen Emmons, a Philadelphia activist, reflected the feelings of a lot of residents who admire the progressive leadership of Bill de Blasio as New York City’s mayor and how he is building a national platform. “I’m very excited for Helen and Kenney’s wins because it’s about time we got some ‘de Blasios’ of our own,” she said.

Philadelphia’s general election will be held on November 3, so there still remains a summer and fall of campaigning. But what counts now is that we have yet more examples of how grassroots progressive people-power can triumph over big money and entrenched interests – by building a big-tent coalition on the foundation of economic justice. The hope is that Kenney as mayor, along with Gym and her progressive allies on the City Council, are able to make Philadelphia a leader in showing the nation how to create a more equitable economy and society.

This post has been updated.

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