Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker’s victory in Tuesday’s election was historic. She’s the first woman and first Black woman to ever win the Philadelphia’s highest elected position, and is riding into office on a tide of goodwill.
“My life is a textbook on how to turn pain into power,” Parker said at her victory party, thanking the “village” that helped her rise from humble beginnings to the top spot in Philly politics.
When she assumes office in January, things won’t be easy.
Steering the municipal ship is a complex job, even when the city isn’t scrambling to emerge from a series of crises. There’s still too much gun violence, too little affordable housing, and rising overdose fatalities, compounded by severe understaffing across nearly all public departments tasked with handling these things.
She’ll likely make moves in her first weeks and months on the job, following up on initiatives aligned with campaign promises and capitalizing on hopes that come with a changing of the guard.
The next four years of Philadelphia mayoral history starts in January. Here are 10 things Parker will be dealing with coming out of the blocks.
Choosing a police commissioner who can bring shootings under control
Shootings and homicides in Philly are down as compared to 2021 and 2022, some welcome news for the incoming administration. But they’re still much higher than five years ago, by double-digit percentage points.
On the campaign trail, Parker made clear she believes changes in policing are needed. She has pushed for a renewed emphasis on beat officers engaging with the community, and says a constitutional form of stop-and-frisk should be practiced on Philly streets.
Implementing those anti-violence strategies requires a police commissioner who sees eye to eye — and Parker has said she’ll act quickly to select a new top cop.
The search has begun — Parker’s had conversations “with hundreds of people in various industries” about the looming decision, she said. Potential candidates include Interim Commissioner John Stanford, who took over when Danielle Outlaw stepped down, but Parker hasn’t indicated which way she’s leaning.
She has talked about important qualities, telling NBC10, “Knowledge of the city of Philadelphia is extremely important, along with cultural competency, and quite frankly emotional intelligence.”
Adjusting the method of fighting illegal opioids
Helped by the proliferation of fentanyl in nearly all the opioids flowing through the city, overdose deaths in Philly increased 11% last year, with a 20% jump recorded among Black residents. The situation is worsened by the increasing infiltration into the drug supply of xylazine, or tranq, which creates festering wounds that can keep people out of drug treatment centers.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has taken a harm-reduction approach to the problem, promoting supervised injection sites and just last month launching a program where workers go door-to-door handing out free Narcan, fentanyl test strips, and info pamphlets.
Parker is expected to take a very different tack, one that involves more law enforcement — she suggested she might request the National Guard’s presence in Kensington, the center of the crisis, using an intergovernmental approach to “clean it up.”
For what it’s worth, Gov. Josh Shapiro would have to activate the guard in order for that to happen, and he may not yet be on board. “That’s not something I’m contemplating at this time,” he told the Inquirer on Election Day.
Crafting a housing strategy that encourages development without gentrification
How Parker plans to address this issue in an executive role remains to be seen, but as a councilmember in Northwest Philly she was not very supportive of projects that added density.
A fifth of the city’s units that rely on federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and Section 8 subsidies will expire in a decade, raising significant questions about how the city should sustain such affordable housing. Philly landlords have long been disinterested in applying for HUD subsidies, greatly complicating the search for housing for residents with Section 8 vouchers.
While responsibility for this pressing concern doesn’t fall on the mayor’s shoulders alone, it’s one of the top five most important issues, according to Philly voters.
Weighing in on 76 Place, the city’s biggest potential development in decades
The Sixers’ plan to build an arena in Center City has become one of the most divisive issues in Philly politics.
Unlike her general election rival and several of the mayoral primary contenders, Parker has been noncommittal so far, telling NBC10 that “we cannot afford to immediately say no to any economic opportunity.” She believes the decision should be made after a robust “cost benefit analysis.” When will she deem that has happened? Unclear.
With the team’s development arm, 76 DevCo, now aiming to get all needed approvals over the winter, and the city-commissioned studies set to be released in the coming weeks, there’s every possibility that the situation will come to a head as Parker enters office.
Dealing with severe municipal understaffing across sectors
The City of Philadelphia is staffed by more than 30,000 people, but over the past couple of years, 1 in 7 municipal jobs have remained vacant.
The understaffing crisis extends across sectors, and affects services for everything from construction safety to library access to managing the foster care system. A looming wave of retirees ensures this will remain a live issue as Parker settles into office.
Mayor Kenney and local unions joined forces to encourage residents to apply for city jobs, and hiring events are ongoing. How Parker will address this issue remains to be seen.
Establishing a new administration
There’s a loooong list of appointed officials who are chosen directly by the mayor, generally top managers of the city’s various departments.
From finance director to commerce director, and the head of the city law department to the person who runs planning and development, these powerful positions change with each new occupant of City Hall. Most of the appointees from Kenney’s tenure have already departed.
One of the biggest picks is for managing director — because that person appoints their own list of important commissioners (who then need final mayoral approval). These positions range from the person in charge of prisons to the ones overseeing Parks & Rec, the Streets Department, and Department of Licenses and Inspections
This is a large undertaking that is already being planned, which we’ll see unfold in an avalanche of announcements come 2024.
Getting a budget through newbie-filled City Council
A few months into her tenure, Parker will make her first speech proposing an annual budget for Philadelphia. It will be a pivotal moment that gives residents insight into what many of her campaign trail statements look like in dollars and cents.
As is typically the case, local tax rates and government capital spending will come into the picture in a big way as budget negotiations with City Council commence.
She’ll have to make the case for her spending priorities to a City Council with a lot of fresh faces — because so many people resigned to run for mayor, Parker won’t be working with many of her former colleagues.
Budget hearings will also serve as a public introduction for her many newly appointed department heads as they lay out their vision for the agency they’ve been chosen to steward.
Working with the school district on education challenges
Philly schools are also suffering with understaffing, as well as the continuing facilities crisis caused by aging school buildings with asbestos. The School District of Philadelphia is also looking at a potential fiscal cliff when pandemic relief money runs out.
Though the mayor doesn’t directly run the school district, they do have quite a bit of influence — most directly by appointing the school board. Members serve 4-year terms that start and end at the same time as the mayor, so Parker will have an opportunity to fill the board with people who hold similar views (she could also keep the current members in place).
A former English teacher herself, Parker has already floated the idea of year-round schooling — not “sitting in a classroom in a desk,” she told Chalkbeat, but ensuring youth don’t get cut off from access to programs during the summer. She’s also a proponent of career development programs.
Funding is another place the mayor has power over education, because the Board of Education has no taxing authority and must depend on the city and state for most of its budget.
On the upside, there should be more money coming from the commonwealth, after Pa.’s formula for funding public schools was deemed unconstitutional. A body of state officials is nearly finished holding hearings on how to ameliorate the issue, and Parker will be one of the stakeholders lobbying for and working with Philly’s school district as these changes are parsed.
Adjusting to a new level of visibility, scrutiny, criticism
Parker’s been an elected official for nearly 20 years, so she’s no stranger to the press. But taking the city’s top job opens even the most seasoned politicians up to a whole new level of accountability.
Candidates for mayor can simply duck questions (and questioning) with an ease which actual mayors cannot afford — not, at least, without more significant backlash.
A less-than-competitive general election campaign gave Parker somewhat of a reprieve from the press, a break from near daily engagements with the media and constituents. That will change in short order when she assumes the formal office.
Establishing a new vision for Philadelphia
As Parker engages with residents and reporters, it’ll be key that she makes her vision for the city clear. A significant part of that job will be differentiating herself from her predecessor and the status quo.
For nearly a year now, Parker has painted a picture of creating a Philadelphia that is the nation’s “safest, cleanest, and greenest” city. Building and getting Philadelphians to buy into that vision will be demanding, as voters have expressed some pessimism in the last year — 65% of voters polled during the mayoral primary said the city is “pretty seriously” on the wrong track.
That’s the perspective that Parker will contend with, hoping to restore a sense of hope around the city. It’s a pervasive task, incorporating each of the above points and then some.
But hey, it’s what a mayor’s gotta do.