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Philly's Working Class Black Neighborhoods Choose Tough-On-Crime Mayoral Candidate
cherelle parker, a defender of stop-and-frisk policing, swept the majority-black neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence, beating a bernie-backed progressive and high-spending moderates
“The Progressive Takeover of Big Cities Is Nearly Complete,” announced New York Magazine a day before stop-and-frisk-defending Cherelle Parker beat Philly’s progressive darling Helen Gym by ten points in a crowded mayoral primary. After closely scrutinizing voting data at the precinct-level, the Philadelphia Inquirer concluded:
Parker’s victory in Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral primary was powered by Black voters and residents of the poor and low-income neighborhoods hardest hit by the city’s gun violence crisis.
Parker absolutely cleaned house in precincts with populations over 75 percent black. She was also by far the best-performing candidate in majority-Latino precincts, and her support was strongest in precincts with the lowest income levels.
Gym — who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Philly’s Working Families Party — finished third among precincts with an average annual income of under $50k, securing just 11 percent of the working class vote. She also finished third among precincts with strong black and Latino majorities. Meanwhile, she secured her largest proportion of votes from any income group — nearly 30 percent — in the 100k+ range.
Strong Gym Campaign Falls Short
With hindsight bias it’s easy to roll our eyes about NY Mag’s headline, but in real time, it actually wasn’t ludicrous. The polling data was tight, appearing to indicate a three-woman race between Gym, the technocrat Rebecca Rhynhart, and Parker, with largely self-funded moderates Allan Domb and Jeff Brown lagging behind but in striking distance. And it felt like Gym had the most momentum.
As soon as the Inquirer called the race for Parker, the takes started flying — the most common, because most obvious, has been, essentially, “Twitter isn’t real.” Gym’s apparent momentum was nothing but a mirage, we’re supposed to believe, now that we know it didn’t propel her to victory. Except it wasn’t a mirage. True, her supporters were the loudest on Twitter, which no doubt distorted people’s perceptions of the race — but they weren’t only loud online. The Gym campaign mounted an impressive ground canvassing game, turning out over 700 volunteers to knock nearly 200,000 doors, including over 40,000 just the weekend before the primary.
Gym had the most small donors of any candidate. She had the most energetic campaign rallies. And she had a team of young, sharp staffers who worked their asses off IRL to get out the vote. The question is not “why do we stupidly continue to think Twitter is real?” That’s irrelevant, because Gym’s team worked harder IRL than they did online. The better question is “why didn’t their impressive ground game pay off?”
Why Parker Won
The answer, I think, lies here:
Philadelphia’s working class black neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly for Cherelle Parker, the field’s foremost tough-on-crime candidate, who has promised to hire 300 new police officers, greatly increase ground and bike patrols, and implement constitutional stop-and-frisk policing. Those same neighborhoods have (twice!) voted overwhelmingly for Larry Krasner, our Soros-backed, soft-on-crime, tough-on-cops District Attorney.
Inquirer opinion columnist Daniel Pearson has long been arguing that “people should spend more time thinking about the fact that the median Black voter in Philadelphia both wants more police in their neighborhood AND supported Krasner. This position is unpopular on Twitter but obviously exists in the real world.” Further, University of Pennsylvania political scientist Dan Hopkins has pointed out that the majority of Philadelphians simultaneously want to increase the size of the police force, and are at least somewhat favorable towards Black Lives Matter.
This may seem confusing at first, but it’s not. It’s not difficult to understand why a black mother would simultaneously want leaders to protect her son from police abuse, and police to protect him from street violence. This dual-impulse is what drives someone to vote Larry Krasner for DA and Cherelle Parker for mayor. A vote for Krasner ensures bad cops will be prosecuted, the thinking goes, and a vote for Cherelle Parker means the thugs from down the street will soon no longer have free reign to terrorize the neighborhood.
Tough on crime, and on cops.
Helen Gym was too weak on crime to carry the median Philly voter. Her community safety plan flowed from the commonplace progressive position that poverty causes crime, and so hinged first and foremost on a stronger social safety net. She talked a lot about mental health crisis response teams and violence interrupters, a little about mobilizing more detectives to solve homicides, and not at all about hiring more cops or boosting police funding. In a city where nearly 1600 people have been murdered in the last three years — making it one of the deadliest in the nation — this wasn’t going to cut it, no matter how many doors Gym’s people knocked.
Moderate Challengers Rebuked by Machine
That said, Cherelle Parker was also the inertia candidate. She had the backing of Philadelphia’s Democratic party machine, including its most powerful labor unions. It’s possible she would’ve won even if she didn’t run such an effective tough-on-crime campaign. Gym — and the other candidates — were pitted against a powerful establishment, and it may have inherently been a losing battle.
Two candidates with effectively all the money in the world couldn’t even crack the top three. Allan Domb and Jeff Brown, both independently wealthy and largely self-funded candidates, outspent the competition immensely, to no avail. Domb, in particular, was consistently tough-on-crime much like Parker was, and maybe even better on policy specifics in that regard, though he denounced stop-and-frisk whereas Parker did not. He personally spent $5 million to fill the local airwaves with anti-crime campaign ads, and he came away with 10 percent of the vote.
Rebecca Rhynhart — a technocrat with the full backing of Philly’s most powerful urbanist organizers, two of its former mayors, and the Philadelphia Inquirer — finished a distant second, even with a well-publicized and compelling plan to break up the city’s notorious open air drug market in Kensington.
What to make of the lackluster performance of Philly’s well-funded moderates? An anecdote from politically active resident Sean Blanda gives some insight:
We have to give Gym credit where credit is due. Her ground game was fierce, and not just on the numbers. She energized a young, sharp base of supporters. The people knocking doors for her were heavily invested in the cause, whereas the same doesn’t seem to be true for several of her more moderate competitors. Why?
The premise of her campaign, while not resonant with Philly’s median black voters, was incredibly inspiring to young progressives. She gave voice to their deepest convictions about justice and progress. If you sincerely believe crime is caused by poverty, and as such the neighborhoods where gun violence is worst are suffering primarily from disinvestment, then Gym’s stump rhetoric was music to your ears. Likewise if you sincerely believe overzealous policing and mass incarceration are among the gravest threats to black prosperity. Gym awakened people’s passion.
The technocratic Rhynhart, the moderate Brown, and the tough-on-crime but otherwise moderate Domb — there was nothing fundamentally moving about these campaigns. They weren’t filling massive concert halls with screaming supporters looking up at a stage stocked with national political superstars. Their message was simple: the incumbent mayor has been a dismal leader; his effete administration has let quality of life issues spiral out of control; we need a strong leader to step up and fix things. One of Brown’s main slogans was “pick up the damn trash.” Domb aired ads about potholes. These things are sensible. But they’re not going to electrify a room, and so without the support of the city’s establishment, the campaigns were doomed.
It remains to be seen whether much will change in Philadelphia under Parker’s administration, if she goes on to win the mayoral race. Those skeptical of the political establishment are decidedly not optimistic; the safe bet is probably more of the same. Time will tell.
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