With just over two weeks to go before Philadelphia's all-important May 16 primary, we finally have our first independent poll of the race to succeed termed-out Mayor Jim Kenney. These new numbers from SurveyUSA show five different contenders within striking distance of capturing the Democratic nomination.
- former Controller Rebecca Rhynhart: 19
- former Councilmember Cherelle Parker: 17
- former Councilmember Helen Gym: 16
- former Councilmember Allan Domb: 15
- businessman Jeff Brown: 12
- Others: 6
- Undecided: 15
Each of the top three candidates in this poll would be the first woman to serve as mayor of one of America’s oldest cities. Gym would also make history as Philly’s first Asian American leader, while Parker would be the first Black woman to hold the post. Whoever wins the primary should have no trouble in the November general election against the one Republican in the race, former Councilmember David Oh, in a loyally blue city that last elected a GOP mayor in 1947.
The survey was conducted for the good-government organization Committee of Seventy in partnership with several other nonaligned groups including FairVote, which promotes ranked-choice voting. While Philadelphia does not currently employ RCV—only a plurality is needed to win—the poll also asked respondents how they’d vote in a hypothetical scenario where they could rank their choices. The first first-round results were very similar: Rhynhart leads Parker 22-20, while Domb squeaks ahead of Gym 20-19. But in the seventh and final round, Rhynhart would lead Parker 55-45 after a simulated instant-runoff process.
The only other poll that was released in all of April was a GBAO internal for Domb conducted April 16-19, and it also found Rhynhart leading in a tight field. The former city controller this time edged out Gym 21-19 with Domb and Parker just behind at 17% and 16%, respectively; Brown was also in fifth with 13%, while another 14% were undecided and minor candidates took the rest. The memo, though, argues that Domb has improved by 4% since earlier in the month to help make its case that he can prevail in a “fluid” contest.
Indeed, quite a bit has happened in this contest over the last several days. Parker and Rhynhart, as we recently wrote, earned endorsements from Rep. Brendan Boyle and former Gov. Ed Rendell, respectively.
But Gym got some unwelcome news Thursday when a group called the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth launched what the Philadelphia Inquirer reports is a $200,000 ad buy attacking her for opposing an unsuccessful 2019 bill that would have put restrictions on pharmaceutical sales representatives at a time when her husband worked as an attorney for a pharma company. The paper notes that Gym had consulted with the city’s Board of Ethics the previous year and was informed that she did not need to recuse herself in the matter or disclose her spouse’s position.
It’s not clear who's funding the group behind this ad campaign, but the Inquirer says that we should know by May 5, which is the deadline for PACs to submit updated financial reports. Gym’s team, though, has already suggested that Republican megadonor Jeff Yass is orchestrating the offensive, saying the charter school advocate and his allies “want to tear Helen down because they know she stands up for public education, and for everyday people over their narrow and greedy special interests.” Gym, for her part, has the support of the American Federation of Teachers, which has financed its own super PAC to help her.
Until now, most of the negative ads have come from Domb, targeting another self-funder, Brown. A month ago, Domb debuted a commercial going after his rival over old ads that seemed to imply that Michelle Obama had endorsed him (an Obama aide made it clear she hadn't). Brown, who is the only major contender who has never held elected office, ran an ad of his own showing images of Domb, Gym, Parker, and two former city councilmembers who have since dropped out to argue, “We've all seen how crime got worse while these candidates sat in City Hall,” but he didn’t single any of his rivals out.
Brown also experienced a rough week that began Monday when a judge approved a deal between the Board of Ethics and a super PAC allied to him. The PAC agreed to finance only general get-out-the-vote efforts rather than specifically aid him. The agreement came two weeks after the board filed a lawsuit alleging the group had improperly coordinated with Brown, something both they and the candidate deny. In a debate the next day, Brown falsely insisted that the ethics board “settled the case because they didn’t have a case,” even though the agreement wasn’t a settlement at all: The case remains active, and the head of the ethics board said that any claims otherwise are “false and misleading.”
One of the board’s allegations is that a “former candidate for federal office” last year helped Brown meet with potential super PAC donors, and while it didn’t name names, the Inquirer reported on Thursday that the individual in question is a Republican, businessman Jeff Bartos. Bartos, who was the GOP’s 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor and lost last year’s Senate primary, confirmed he was the person being described, though he added, “I don’t recall that I was able to get anyone to do anything.”
Can we have fairer, more representative elections in the U.S.? Absolutely, says Deb Otis on this week's episode of "The Downballot." Otis, the director of research at FairVote, tells us about her organization's efforts to advocate for two major reforms—ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—and the prospects for both. RCV, which is growing in popularity, not only helps ensure candidates win with majorities but can lower the temperature by encouraging cross-endorsements. PR, meanwhile, would give voters a stronger voice, especially when they're a minority in a dark red or dark blue area.