Mayoral candidate Helen Gym is going to be on a lot of people’s doorsteps this spring. At least, her name will be.
The former Council member’s campaign and a contingent of endorsing organizations, like the Working Families Party and Reclaim Philadelphia, are aiming to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors leading up to May 16, which the campaign is calling “unprecedented” for a Philadelphia mayoral election.
Gym’s campaign expects over 1,000 volunteers will approach more than 300,000 addresses throughout the city. Volunteers are active in 46 of Philly’s 66 wards, according to the campaign.
At this point in the mayoral race, it’s become pretty clear which candidates have which major groups and political figures in their corner.
Union endorsements have been split between Gym, former Councilmember Cherelle Parker, and grocer Jeff Brown. Open political wards are mainly split between Gym and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. Parker has support from a solid cadre of the city’s current elected officials, and Rhynhart has the support of three former mayors.
Progressive orgs — local and national — have fallen solidly in line behind Gym, a former community activist prior to her time on City Council. And many of them are rallying their members to knock doors, phonebank, and talk her up within their neighborhoods and social circles.
The campaign says the whole operation is indicative of Gym’s grassroots support, and sets her apart from competitors.
“This type of distributed organizing model where Helen’s campaign acts as a central hub for volunteer efforts of our partners is unique to only our campaign in this race,” Gym spokesperson Maggie Hart asserted, calling it a “people-powered movement.”
‘We’ve known her for years’
Philly Neighborhood Networks, a progressive political organization that started in 2004, is one of several taking to the streets for Gym in the lead-up to the primary.
The group — which organizing director Tim Brown said is not coordinating with the Gym campaign — has around 150 volunteers this year, mostly active in Northwest Philly. It chose to endorse her in December, within a month of her (widely expected) campaign announcement.
For PNN, supporting Gym was an obvious choice.
“We’ve known her for years, even before she got elected to City Council,” Brown told Billy Penn. “She was always on the front lines in trying to get things done.”
The organization is focusing on a footprint it’s established over 18 years, he said, both in high-turnout areas where Gym already has strong support and in areas where other candidates are thought to have strongholds.
In a tight primary with nine Democratic candidates and five perceived frontrunners (not to mention little polling and a first-past-the-post winner system), it’s still unclear which candidate will come out ahead on Election Day. But Brown believes the “army of progressives” out talking to voters about Gym could push her over the top.
“It’s a matter of educating people at this point, and … pulling out your voters,” he said. “That’s the way we’re gonna win this thing. So fingers crossed, Helen can pull this off. I believe she can. I just think it’s gonna be a real tight race.”
‘Almost like a cult-like following’
Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive org founded by local Bernie Sanders supporters in 2016, is one of the groups working in concert with the Gym campaign. It has plans to visit tens of thousands of doors citywide, per political director Sergio Cea.
The energy among the canvassers this year is particularly high, Cea said. Gym’s base, he said, is “very, very enthusiastic — almost like a cult-like following.”
Even people who might typically feel apathetic about local politics are feeling energized, according to Cea, because of the opportunity to elect Gym alongside a slate of Council candidates who’d work with her.
“It’s a very big race … everybody is activated,” Cea said. “It’s a person that we know is going to fight for us. I think that people understand the possibility of change that can happen in this year, compared to others.”
Reclaim focuses on what’s called “deep” or “relational” canvassing, he said. The method involves members talking to people in their neighborhoods, starting by asking them what issues they care about, he said, “making a vulnerable space, to talk to them emotionally about these things that are impacting them.”
The org made its endorsement early on, in December, to get a head start on activating its member base, Cea said, which has strongholds in West and South Philly, as well as Center City, East Falls, Fairmount, Roxborough, and the Riverwards.
Turning out ‘progressive super voters’
Gym has also drawn support from national progressive groups. Our Revolution, a 501(c)(4) that grew out of Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, threw its support behind the Philly politician earlier this month.
Local races across the country are important in moving the progressive movement forward nationally, Our Revolution executive director Joseph Geevarghese told Billy Penn.
“At the end of the day, city governments, local governments are laboratories of policy experiment,” Geevarghese said. “And progressive ideas that get going in local jurisdictions that are successful get exported up to a state level, a national level.”
The organization is focused on turning out “progressive super voters” for Gym, per Geevarghese.
Our Revolution has 40,000 people in Philadelphia it considers to be “members,” he said, including people who participate in a “spectrum of engagement” like signing online petitions, canvassing, or organizing house meetings with neighbors. A poll among them yielded Gym as their top pick.
The group’s efforts involve mobilizing those 40k members by contacting them multiple times, through phone banking, peer-to-peer texting, email, direct mail, or social media — and then getting them to talk to their social circles about the election to multiply the effect. Geevarghese estimated that could result in over 300,000 voter contacts.
Our Revolution, which has paid staff and phone bankers in addition to both local and national volunteers, used similar tactics when they supported Brandon Johnson in Chicago’s recent mayoral race.
“Our theory of change,” Geevarghese said, “is if we can get that slice of the electorate out, through multiple contacts … that can be a game changer.”