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Illustration and photo by Danya Henninger/Billy Penn

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A big chunk of the money in what’s likely the most expensive race in Philly history isn’t going directly to the candidates. It’s going to political action committees — otherwise known as PACs.

So far the PACs supporting mayoral candidates have raised a combined $7 million, per the Inquirer, out of $31 million raised for the May 16 primary overall.

The figures reflect the growing role of super PACs after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. Also referred to as independent expenditure groups, these orgs can disregard contribution limits and accept unlimited sums from corporations and other donors, as long as they don’t coordinate with individual campaigns.

There’s a super PAC associated with each of the top five mayoral candidates except Allan Domb, as well as one anti-candidate committee. There are also PACs focused on the Council races, and numerous PACs funded by unions or organized by special-interest groups.

Who’s behind these groups, and what are their goals?

Here’s a look at some of the major PACs spending big to influence this spring’s election in Philadelphia.

Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth

This new PAC is one of two supported by conservative billionaire Jeffrey Yass with the aim of reducing progressive influence in city government. It primarily pays for TV commercials and mailers attacking mayoral candidate Helen Gym. 

The PAC’s materials criticize Gym for voting against a 2019 bill that would’ve required drug salespeople to register with the city. Her husband worked for pharma company AmerisourceBergen at the time; Gym sought — and received — Ethics Board approval before casting her vote.

Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth had raised $978,300 as of May 1, per its campaign finance report with the city. Most of the money, $750,000, came from Yass, director of a Bala Cynwyd finance firm and the richest person in Pa. He also funds the Philly for Growth PAC (see below) and various PACs promoting charter schools, among others.

CSEG’s other notable donors include Josh Kopelman, a tech investor who heads the Inquirer board; a PAC funded by the General Building Contractors Association; union group the Laborers District Council; and developer Mo Rushdy. Former mayor Michael Nutter also contributed. 

The release of the PAC’s financial outlays last week prompted an angry response from Gym, who criticized Kopelman and Nutter for “standing with Jeffrey Yass.” Nutter responded by calling her a “phony” and “political hypocrite.” Kopelman put out an explanatory tweet.

Fighting Together for Philadelphia

This PAC, which is supporting Helen Gym, has reported $735,000 in contributions. The largest was $500,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, while the Philadelphia teacher’s union gave $100,000.

Gym, a former councilmember, rose to prominence as an education activist, and has made the issue a pillar of her mayoral campaign. Teachers unions have been among Gym’s biggest supporters, giving more than $125,000 directly to her campaign last year, plus additional contributions this spring.

Fighting Together for Philadelphia reserved almost $400,000 in airtime for messaging during the final week before the primary, per The Inquirer. 

For a Better Philadelphia

This pro-Jeff Brown group is a dark-money PAC, meaning it’s keeping donors secret, or at least trying to.

For a Better Philadelphia isn’t raising or spending money at the moment, though it paid for millions of dollars of TV advertising earlier this year. Recently it’s gotten in hot water for allegedly having Brown help with its fundraising efforts.

PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate with individual candidates or campaigns, but the city Board of Ethics subpoenaed emails and bank accounts and found that Brown interacted with donors and spoke at a PAC fundraising event in 2022. The board sued the PAC, saying its activities constituted improper coordination with Brown, while the PAC’s lawyer argues it does not, since he hadn’t yet declared his candidacy at the time. 

The PAC reported a little more than $3 million in contributions last year, mostly from unknown donors. Most of that came through an affiliated 501(c)4 nonprofit, which isn’t required to report the original source of its funding. 

However, the ethics board’s lawsuit revealed that Brown’s grocery chain contributed $1.25 million, an unnamed professional sports team (possibly the 76ers) gave $250,000, and another entity associated with the team contributed $150,000.

Philadelphia 3.0

Philadelphia 3.0 is another dark-money PAC that uses a nonprofit to hide many of its donors. The pro-business group was established in 2015 to influence that year’s Council races. It was founded by Joseph and Robert Zuritsky, owners of the parking lot and real estate development firm Parkway Corp. 

The PAC is headed by Ali Perelman, a former City Council staffer and daughter of billionaire investor Jeffrey Perlman. Urbanist and frequent social media commentator Jon Geeting is its director of engagement. 

Some of its contributors give directly to the PAC, rather than through its nonprofit arm, so their names are available on campaign finance reports. They include Josh Kopelman, $50k; Leslie Ann Miller, a lawyer who served in Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, $20k; executive search firm owner Judith von Seldeneck, $10k; and restaurateur Avram Hornik’s Four Corners Management, $5k. 

Philadelphia 3.0 reports spending about $626,000 so far this year, most of it for mailers supporting some of the same business-friendly at-large Council candidates that are also getting help from the bigger Philly for Growth PAC (see below). 

It spent the most on behalf of at-large Council candidate Job Itzkowitz, with Eryn Santamoor close behind, and smaller amounts on mailers supporting candidate Donavan West and incumbents Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Isaiah Thomas. 

Philadelphia Leadership PAC

The super PAC backing Rebecca Rhynhart has received about $280,000 in contributions. 

The biggest donor is Richard Vague, an investment firm director and former banker who gave $100k in March. He previously headed the state’s Department of Banking and Securities, and was finance chair for Rhynhart’s successful 2017 run for city controller.

Philadelphia Leadership got $50k from Wawa — unlike candidates, super PACs can take contributions from corporations — and $25k from Richard Green, CEO of Firstrust bank in Conshohocken.

The PAC has spent some money on polling but still had about $228,000 in the bank as of May 1.

Philadelphians For Our Future

The super PAC supporting Cherelle Parker has taken in a little more than $1.2 million, most of it from building trades unions. Those unions have also made substantial contributions directly to Parker’s campaign organization.

Philadelphians For Our Future received some sizeable sums in April: $250k from the city’s carpenters union, $225k from the laborers union, $200k from the electricians union, $200k from a plumbers PAC, and $150k each from the Mid-Atlantic Laborers Political Education Fund of Virginia and Working for Working Americans of Las Vegas. 

Other major recent donors include Laborers District Council of Philadelphia & Vicinity, another plumbers PAC, the steamfitters, and individual givers Gregory Segall, Richard Vague, and Dennis Zatlin.

Philly for Growth

City Council races typically involve much less spending than the mayoral contest, but this year a pro-business PAC supported by Jeff Yass is pouring cash into ads promoting three at-large Council campaigns and two incumbent district councilmembers.

Philly for Growth has been around for a few years. It reports spending about $1.9 million in 2023, mostly on TV and radio ads and on door-to-door canvassers. It’s promoting at-large candidates Itzkowitz, Santamoor, and West, and the reelection bids of 8th District Councilmember Cindy Bass and 7th District Councilmember Quetcy Lozada. 

The latter two face energetic progressive challengers. Bass’s rival is Seth Anderson-Oberman, a labor activist who won an Inquirer endorsement, while Lozada faces social worker Andres Celin. 

Philly for Growth’s biggest recent contributions include $400k from Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund, a PAC that supports various conservative causes and politicians like gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain. 

The PAC received $50k each from several real estate interests: Aimco Properties, Building Futures PA, Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, and Pennsylvania Apartment Association PAC. Other big donors were developer Mo Rushdy, Rhynhart supporter Richard Vague, Swanson Street Associates of Blue Bell and Glenville Group of Plymouth Meeting.

Philly Progress PAC

While it hasn’t been active this year, this state-registered PAC spent $1.2 million in 2021 and 2022 to “educate” Jeff Brown — who has never held elected office — as he prepared to run for mayor, his campaign manager Jimmy Cauley told the Inquirer. 

Philly Progress raised eyebrows because it seemed to resemble a campaign organization, but under campaign finance rules was prohibited from acting like one. 

As a PAC it was exempt from the contribution limits candidates must adhere to and could not produce any reports or other materials that would be used in a future campaign.

It also seemed to blur legal boundaries by paying large sums to several staffers who later joined Brown’s regular campaign organization, including more than $400,000 to Cauley. It paid Brown’s son, Scott Brown, $75,000.

Some of the PAC’s biggest contributors were Westville Investments of Westville, New Jersey, $100k; Hotwire Communications LTD of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, $100k; Dietz & Watson CEO Louis Eni, $75k; former Aramark CEO Joseph Neubauer, $50k; soft drink bottling magnate and philanthropist Harold Honickman, $50k; and Josh and Rena Kopelman, $50k.

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Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...