Updated 11:05 a.m.
In Council chambers on Thursday morning, Councilwoman Helen Gym was speechless — literally. She was sick, she said, but you’d think her vocal cords were spent from enthusiastically screaming on election night
That revelry wasn’t without justification. Philadelphia’s 2019 primary had plenty of clear winners, but Gym won harder than most. She finished first in the uber-crowded race for City Council’s five at-large seats with 16 percent of the vote. She claimed nearly 40 percent more votes than her closest competitor, Councilman Allan Domb, whose campaign spent four times more than Gym’s this year.
When she first ran in 2015, the longtime education activist barely ranked fifth with 49,200 votes. Four years later, her popularity with Democratic voters has seemingly doubled. She took home 107,000 votes on Tuesday from nearly every neighborhood in the city, according to unofficial election returns. Of the city’s 66 political wards, she finished first in 55.
“If anyone said they saw that coming, I’d like to take them to Vegas tomorrow,” joked political consultant Mustafa Rashed.
Others hedged that Gym’s third-spot ballot position may have helped boost her numbers. Some 17,800 people pressed the button for the name right beneath hers — which wasn’t even for a valid candidate. Willie Floyd Singletary had been removed from the ballot by court order, and there was clear signage noting that votes cast for him wouldn’t be counted.
No at-large councilmember has performed as well as Gym in recent memory — and the last time one came close, they went on to become mayor.
In the 2007 primary election, Mayor Jim Kenney claimed 95,389 votes, though the number isn’t directly comparable. Voter turnout that year was a full 10 percent higher than it was on Tuesday.
The Gym effect?
In a humble-brag tweet thread on Thursday, Gym framed her substantial victory as an affirmation of the “far left” policies she’s brought to City Hall.
Her first term’s biggest legislative win was the Fair Workweek law, which, beginning next year, will mandate consistent scheduling for the city’s 130,000 service industry workers.
“I’ve spent my life building movements and that’s what we saw on Tuesday: I earned the most votes of any City Council at-large candidate in decades,” Gym said in an email to Billy Penn. “That’s a mandate for our vision of justice and equity.”
Asked for specifics on legislation she might advance, Gym has laid out some priorities for her second term.
Ending the 10-year tax abatement is one of them. She has also introduced a bill that would require city-funded attorneys to any renter facing eviction. And the first-term lawmaker is backing an environmental wishlist for a “Green New Deal” in Philadelphia.
Rizzo statue ‘doesn’t belong in the heart of our city’
Gym’s first term hasn’t been without scrutiny. She recently invited questions of conflict when she voted to nix a bill that would track pharmaceutical companies’ gifts to local doctors — despite that her husband, lawyer Bret Flaherty, works for Conshohocken-based AmerisourceBergen, one of the largest drug distributors in the country.
And while using her legislative seat as a bully pulpit, she has earned a number of vehement detractors.
On Thursday, she said she’d be willing to revisit her push to bring down the Frank Rizzo statue outside the Municipal Services Building. She had first proposed ousting the controversial cop-turned-mayor from the plaza in 2017, which raised her profile among fans and critics alike.
“I believe in welcoming and inclusive public spaces,” Gym said. “I’ve been clear that I don’t think the Frank Rizzo statue belongs in the heart of our city. I’ll continue to push to make that happen soon.”
Since the numbers came in on primary night, the topic of Gym running for another higher office has resurfaced among chattery political types.
Several believe she would be successful in a run for national office, but the prospect of the next mayor’s race — in 2023, when there won’t be any incumbent — has been tossed out as well. Others on Council, including Domb, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, have also been rumored as potential mayoral candidates.
For now, Gym’s in wait-and-see mode.
“I’m excited to see what the future holds,” Gym said. “Right now, I’m focused on the next four years and bringing energy, hope and possibility to our local politics.”