What do four former city councilmembers, a former city controller, a former municipal judge, and a local grocery store magnate have in common? They’re all Democratic contenders for Philadelphia mayor in 2023.
Add another name to that list: Helen Gym has entered the chat.
A member of City Council since 2016 who rode a wave of popularity to an at-large seat, Gym on Wednesday afternoon announced her candidacy for mayor, following her Tuesday morning resignation from council. A run for mayor has long been expected from the former teacher and activist, who used her time as a lawmaker to focus on issues like education, housing, and labor.
“Thank you to every single Philadelphian who showed up and proved that we can build the city that we truly deserve,” Gym said in her message after resigning from City Council the day prior. “Whatever happens next, know this: I will be right alongside all of you fighting to make sure that Philadelphia is a safer, healthier, more prosperous, vibrant, and creative place for all of us.”
Here’s what to know about Gym, her rise to power, and how she’s made a name for herself as one of Philadelphia’s progressive standard bearers.
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A path to power through education and development activism
Gym, now 54 years old, was the first Asian American woman ever elected to Philadelphia City Council.
Born in Seattle and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Gym obtained her bachelors and masters degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation she worked as a business reporter in Ohio, and as a teacher.
Before she joined city government, Gym was best known for speaking out against it. In 2013, a Philly Mag profile dubbed her “Philadelphia’s preeminent public agitator,” a reference to her activism on education and Asian American issues in the city.
Gym’s work with Asian Americans United, of which she was a board member, included successfully organizing protests to stop proposed developments in Chinatown — in 2000, a baseball stadium, and in 2008, a casino — neither of which were built.
In 2006, she cofounded Parents United for Public Education, an organization focused on “engaging parents with the budget process in order to ensure a baseline level of resources, services, [and] staffing” in city schools, per the org’s website.
Gym also cofounded Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), a Chinatown school largely designed to serve Asian American and Asian immigrant students.
Her citywide popularity has been slowly building. Gym announced her run for a first term in Council in February 2015, with an endorsement from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. After coming in fifth in the at-large race in the Democratic primary — and only narrowly qualifying for the general — she came in first in November, but only by 750 votes.
By the time of her re-election campaign in 2019, however, Gym’s popularity had surged. She garnered more primary votes than any other candidate for City Council since the 1980s, winning all but 10 of Philly’s 66 wards in a field of 28 Democrats.
Now, Gym has resigned her seat with a little over a year left in her term. With her latest campaign announcement, she’s entering a crowded field, with several challengers vying for the position.
A legislative record that outlines her platform
On City Council, Gym was known for being a progressive voice on issues like housing, education, youth issues, and worker’s rights.
During her first term, she introduced a “Fair Workweek” bill that introduced new responsibilities for large chains, like compensating for last-minute schedule changes and notifying employees of available shifts that could earn them more money.
In 2019, she introduced “Right to Counsel” legislation that provides legal representation to tenants with low incomes facing eviction. She also spearheaded Philadelphia’s Eviction Diversion Program during the pandemic, which requires landlords to meet with their tenants and a trained mediator before they can file for an eviction, and has led to a reduced number of landlord-tenant disputes going to court.
Her education-related work on Council has included pushing for clean drinking water in schools, working with the School District of Philadelphia to place a nurse in every Philly public school, and probing the Philadelphia Parking Authority on whether it’s been meeting its obligation to fund the local school system.
Gym has also continued her activism streak while in office, prompting criticism from some over “grandstanding” rather than prioritizing lawmaking. She got arrested for trespassing in Harrisburg last year during a protest over school funding. She has rallied in support of better union contracts, in support of abortion rights, and against former Trump’s immigration ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries. She was also a proponent in 2017 for the removal of the city’s Frank Rizzo statue (something that ultimately ended up happening amid racial justice protests in June 2020).
Per public records, Friends of Helen Gym ended 2021 with around $327,000 in cash on hand.
That’s the most among the former members of City Council who’ve announced campaigns, but less than half of what former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart had available at the beginning of the calendar year.