How A Violent Crime Wave Is Shaping Philadelphia’s Mayoral Race
From left to right: Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, Rebecca Rhynhart and Allan Domb are leading contenders in Philadelphia's Democratic mayoral primary on Tuesday. The Democratic nominee is virtually assured of winning the general election.
PHILADELPHIA — As the pastor’s sermon reached its climax on Sunday, his firm tone resembled that of preachers across the country inveighing against the excesses of contemporary culture. He urged his Black and Latino congregants to embrace God and Jesus, instead of the lifestyle he believes is glorified on social media and in hip-hop.
“We can’t let society pressure us, let social media pressure us,” Pastor Carl Day Sr. said. “I don’t care who likes me — most important of all, I know God is pleased with me!”
Day, spiritual leader of Culture Changing Christians in North Philadelphia’s impoverished Kensington neighborhood, found his calling after doing prison time for a gun charge. Tattooed and muscle-bound, he spoke from the lectern in a black T-shirt and a black Daytona 500 baseball cap. And, unlike the aging flocks in many predominantly Black churches, the crowd there to hear him speak in a renovated warehouse was heavily millennial and included a disproportionate number of young men who, like Day, were formerly incarcerated.
“The moment … you bought into the idea that you’re supposed to aspire to become a real n***a, as opposed to becoming a real man, you already got life twisted,” he concluded, eliciting nods from many in attendance.
Pastor Carl Day Sr. urges his largely millennial congregants to embrace God instead of the violence he believes is encouraged in popular culture.
Day pairs his admonishments with a variety of social programs, including initiatives to interrupt violence, distribute charity to people addicted to drugs and provide summer trips for local teenage boys. His crown jewel is the privately funded Beat the Block nonprofit that pays at-risk young men $500 a week for four months to undergo job training and develop life skills. The program helps place them in jobs and start businesses and relies on graduates to recruit new participants from their old peer group.
Angel Utsey, a recent Beat the Block success story, was in attendance at the worship service on Sunday. Utsey, who is Afro-Latino and grew up near a part of North Philadelphia nicknamed “the Badlands,” completed a stint in prison for attempted murder about a year ago. His enrollment in the prison program New Leash on Life, which trains incarcerated people to take care of shelter dogs, helped him redirect his life and shorten his prison sentence to 18 months.
One of Utsey’s friends from prison subsequently recommended that he enroll in Beat the Block. He is currently working for Philadelphia’s animal control team, but Utsey’s mentors at Beat the Block are helping him obtain a commercial driving license and start a trucking company.
“The program helped me get my life on track and find my passion in my life and my purpose,” he said.
Across the country, cities are reeling from an uptick in gun violence and other types of unlawful conduct that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent crime wave has been especially acute in Philadelphia, which has the dubious distinction of being the poorest big city in the United States. (There are numerous medium- and small-sized cities with higher poverty and crime rates.)
Investigators work the scene where multiple people were shot when a SWAT team attempted to serve a homicide warrant in Philadelphia on Oct. 12, 2022.
There were 562 murders in the City of Brotherly Love in 2021, the most ever in recorded city history — and a dramatic increase from Philadelphia’s pre-pandemic total of 353 in 2019. For context, in 2021, there were 488 murders in New York City, which also experienced an uptick and has over five times as many people.
As in other cities, murders have since begun to trend downward in Philadelphia, but they remain far higher than they were in 2019. And property crimes increased by 38% from 2019 to 2022.
As a result, public safety has become a core theme of Philadelphia’s crowded mayoral race. Gun violence has even affected campaign workers: On Monday, a canvasser working for a progressive group supporting former City Council member Helen Gym’s bid shot and killed another canvasser from the same group while they were distributing literature in northwest Philadelphia’s East Germantown neighborhood. On the same day in another part of the city, two young men, one of whom is facing four murder charges, escaped from a city correctional facility.
People living in neighborhoods with high rates of violence told HuffPost that many law-abiding citizens have begun arming themselves defensively, contributing to a sense of tension and chaos.
“Everybody is on edge,” Day told HuffPost.
It hasn’t helped matters that residents widely see outgoing two-term Mayor Jim Kenney (D) as checked out. Numerous Philadelphians brought up Kenney’s deflating reaction to two police officers getting shot at a July 4th celebration last summer in which he declared that he would be “happy” when he is no longer mayor.
“For him to get caught on record saying he wants out … He put a tax on us. How you gonna quit and put a tax on us?” asked Ryan Bacon, a barber from North Philadelphia, who lamented that the revenue from Kenney’s soda tax has not all gone toward its stated purpose. “There is no accountability in the city – no accountability for the kids, no accountability for anything.”
Our people are tired of seeing a fist in the air and fiery speeches and people making promises about getting things done.Cherelle Parker, Philadelphia mayoral candidate
Frustration with the city’s public safety crisis and politicians’ failure to deliver solutions is shaping the crowded race to succeed Kenney in the Democratic primary this coming Tuesday. In a city as overwhelmingly Democratic as Philadelphia, whoever wins a plurality in the closed-party primary is all but certain to lead the city for the next four years.
In some ways, the contrast in approaches to crime and police is less clear-cut than in recent mayoral races in Chicago, Buffalo, New York City and Minneapolis. All of Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral candidates support some combination of enforcement and increased police patrols, as well as holistic policies designed to address the “root causes” of poverty and hopelessness.
But even in a world where progressive candidates have discarded the “defund the police” slogan and centrists embrace anti-violence programs, the details and emphasis of candidates’ plans speak volumes.
The leading contenders in the race have divergent approaches to public safety that reflect the diversity of views on the topic within the Democratic Party ― from movement-aligned progressives who see crime as an outgrowth of pro-corporate economic policies to law-and-order moderates eager to beef up policing. The winner of the contest will determine how the nation’s sixth-largest city tackles its most pressing challenge — and possibly affect national narratives about the ideological direction of liberal cities.
Promising To End The ‘Lawlessness’
There are currently nine people seeking the Democratic mayoral nomination in Philadelphia, but just five are serious contenders: former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart; former City Council members Gym, Cherelle Parker and Allan Domb; and grocery store owner Jeff Brown.
Amid a series of unforced errors and a barrage of withering attacks from Domb, a self-funded real-estate magnate and the only other white man in the race, Brown’s momentum has evaporated.
The first public poll in the race showed Rhynhart with 18% of the vote, Parker with 17%, Gym with 15%, Domb with 14%, and Brown with 11%. Notably, 1 in 5 Philadelphia voters reported being undecided, according to the survey released April 28.
Parker, Gym and Rhynhart could each become the city’s first female mayor. (Gym would also be the city’s first Asian American mayor.)
Philadelphia mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker has said that her working-class, Black background informs her plan to hire more cops.
Parker, who is Black, is running as a moderate figure in touch with the concerns of the city’s multiracial working class who can restore a “sense of order” in the city through the hiring of 300 additional police officers. She told HuffPost in a phone interview that the mayor has the immediate authority to hire retired officers for part-time desk duty so that younger officers can return to street patrol work, which would be evenly spread among all 10 of the city’s council districts.
Philadelphians are “yearning to have leadership that’s not afraid to stand up … and make the tough decisions that are needed to bring some sense of order back to our cities, stop the sense of lawlessness, but do it in a way where we don’t go back to those old days of thinking that a police officer could beat me or my 10-year-old son – my Black son who’s chocolate like me and wears locs – that you could beat us upside the head and that would be OK,” she said. “It’s not either/or.”
Asked how she would plan to change negative aspects of the police department’s culture, Parker said that her plan to increase police patrols in communities would in itself “rebuild the trust” between police and the neighborhoods they serve. She also suggested that the mere act of electing her would provide the “strong leadership” needed to improve police conduct.
Parker was born to a single mother in North Philadelphia and previously served in the state House of Representatives. She calls herself a “progressive before being ‘progressive’ was a thing.” But she sounds at times like New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D), who invoked the hardship of his upbringing to argue that staunch progressives are too hostile to traditional law enforcement tactics. (The two Democrats also share a penchant for witty aphorisms and occasionally referring to themselves in the third person.)
“I am a leader who grew out of the people, but never above the people,” Parker said. “And that’s why the solutions I offer are from the people.”
“Our people are tired of seeing a fist in the air and fiery speeches and people making promises about getting things done,” she added. “They want to touch, see and feel how we have been able to make government work for their lives and for their communities. … And they know that in giving Cherelle Parker the opportunity to lead this city, we are going to be able to get that done.”
Then-City Council member Allan Domb, center, addresses the media in 2017. A self-made real-estate magnate, he has used his wealth to pitch voters on his tough-on-crime agenda.
Domb, who also grew up working-class, is running on a similar overall approach, albeit with a businessman’s focus on technocratic implementation. He wants to triple the city’s budget for recruiting police officers and center his crime-fighting strategy on the 1,800 people in the city who experts have informed him are responsible for perpetrating the overwhelming number of crimes.
“There’s a sense of lawlessness without accountability,” he told HuffPost in a phone interview, explaining what he sees as the central public safety problem in the city.
‘The Answer Is Not Going Backwards’
Both Domb and Parker see providing better job training and economic opportunities for low-income people as the best way to prevent young men, in particular, from turning to crime. Like her progressive rival Gym, Parker would open schools in the early mornings and evenings to provide children additional time in a safe place with friendly programming.
But Parker and Domb have also elicited criticism for embracing what they refer to as a “constitutional” form of “stop-and-frisk,” in which police officers stop, question and often search a pedestrian who is suspected of engaging in criminal activity. The courts have significantly curtailed the controversial policy, which was common in New York City and Philadelphia in the 1990s and 2000s.
Parker and Domb insist that they only support “Terry stops” — a term for the kind of police stops based on credible suspicions that the Supreme Court has ruled constitutional.
Gym and Rhynhart don’t buy the distinction.
“There is no such thing as ‘constitutional stop-and-frisk,’” Rhynhart told HuffPost after a campaign visit to a Germantown barber shop on Saturday, May 6. “The answer is not going backwards to that … The answer is to move forward in a way that has consequences, but also compassion for those who need it. And we can do both.”
Rebecca Rhynhart, Philadelphia's former city controller, has a more liberal message than Parker and Domb on crime, but is not as progressive as Helen Gym.
Salaam Muhsin, an imam and construction contractor from North Philadelphia, introduced Rhynhart, a former Wall Street executive-turned-city budget wonk, to groups of Black voters in the northwestern part of the city around noon on May 6. Muhsin, a former gang member, credits Rhynhart with helping his nonprofit Put It Down secure grant money to provide formerly incarcerated people with training in the building trades.
“We need people who understand our plight and will work with us,” Muhsin said into the public announcement system at the barbershop prior to Rhynhart’s speech. “And that ivory tower that has been built between us and the politicians, we couldn’t scale? I’ll tell you, we can scale it with her.”
Rhynhart’s base is in Center City, where she lives, and other neighborhoods populated by upper-middle-class professionals. She is the candidate preferred by members of the city’s business-friendly establishment, including former Mayors Michael Nutter and Ed Rendell.
But at the barbershop in Germantown on May 6, she was trying to expand her coalition. She pitched an audience of working-class Black voters on how her vision of a more effective, less corrupt leader at City Hall could address their concerns about safety, affordability and good-paying jobs.
“We need to right the wrongs caused by this city’s racist history — the nation’s racist history for decades and decades,” Rhynhart said above the din of buzzing hair clippers. “And as mayor, I will do that to create true opportunity.”
We need to right the wrongs caused by this city’s racist history – the nation’s racist history for decades and decades.Rebecca Rhynhart, Philadelphia mayoral candidate
Muhsin told HuffPost he appreciates Rhynhart discussing the legacy effects of redlining and other forms of anti-Black discrimination.
But Pastor Day, who hosted a mayoral candidate forum, thinks some of the hopefuls are “going back way too far to diagnose” the roots of the current violence.
He blames the rise in social media use among teenagers for spurring a culture of one-upmanship that can lead to deadly in-person disputes and wants stricter regulation of platforms like TikTok.
“These kids would rather be killers than be viewed as corny,” said Day, who is a registered independent and is not supporting anyone in the mayoral race.
As for violence prevention programs, Day welcomed the prospect of public funding for Beat the Block and similar initiatives but acknowledged that it will take time to find the right strategies for combating the newest drivers of violence.
“There’s no evidence-based models that exist in a post-pandemic, social media society,” Day said.
‘I Am Trying To Prevent Crime’
Gym, an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the Working Families Party, is by far the most progressive contender in the race.
She made her name in politics opposing the replacement of traditional public schools with privately run charter schools and has been an outspoken voice both in favor of genuine investment in the city’s underprivileged neighborhoods and against the kind of corporate-led development that successive mayoral administrations have employed to spur growth.
“We’re not a city full of poor people,” Gym said at a Working Families Party canvass kickoff in the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood on Sunday. “We’re a city that keeps its people poor — with all the decisions that are made, the budgets that don’t get spent on our neighborhoods and communities.”
Mayoral candidate Helen Gym, who has deep roots on the left, argues that she is the candidate most serious about a long-term strategy for preventing crime.
In June 2020, after nine members of the Minneapolis City Council endorsed a plan to replace the police department with a holistic public safety agency without minimum police staffing requirements, Gym praised them for “showing how transformative change can happen.”
The resolution, which spurred an unsuccessful ballot initiative, did not explicitly call for reducing police funding, but many of its critics — and proponents — saw it that way.
When discussing public safety as a mayoral candidate, though, Gym has taken pains to distance herself from the more radical elements of the activist left. Gym told HuffPost that she did not interpret Minneapolis’ resolution as a “defund” proposal.
“To be clear, it was a tweet and it was a point in time, and things are always fluid,” she told HuffPost after speaking at a Working Families Party canvassing kickoff on Sunday.
Gym is running on keeping police funding steady. She envisions increasing foot and bike patrols, guaranteeing safe passage of children to school and adding new detectives through internal promotion, which she would fund in part by reviewing police department finances for potential savings and cracking down on widespread abuse of the city’s benefits program for officers injured on duty. She also believes that establishing non-police alternatives for mental health emergencies would free up departmental resources.
There’s a lot about reacting to crime. I am trying to prevent crime. You do that by actually investing and targeting the areas where we are most vulnerable.Helen Gym, Philadelphia mayoral candidate
But Gym is also more eager than her rivals to emphasize her “holistic, justice-driven approach for preventing and solving crime,” as she describes it on her campaign website. She plans to improve lighting in underprivileged neighborhoods, expand city services for those who have been traumatized by gun violence, invest in community groups that intervene before violent incidents can occur, and guarantee every Philadelphian under age 30 a job.
“There’s a lot about reacting to crime. I am trying to prevent crime,” Gym said. “And you do that by actually investing and targeting the areas where we are most vulnerable.”
Many of Philadelphia’s prominent moderate Democrats allege, however, that Gym and other progressives are prioritizing high-minded, long-term ideas at the expense of immediate relief.
“As long as my children are at risk right now, I don’t have time to wait for some policy to manifest itself 10 years down the road,” said state Rep. Donna Bullock (D), a North Philadelphia mother supporting Parker. “They are running, walking down the streets today.”
But Gym, who has plans to increase patrols and guarantee safe passage for school children, insists that she is trying to do both. A short-term strategy alone, she argues, will not address public safety problems arising from the fact that 3,600 Philadelphians have dropped out of school since classes began in September.
“A lot of my work is around short-term” steps to stop crime, Gym said. “The thing that I do notice, though, is that there is very little conversation about the investment, and like, what are the concrete alternatives? Everybody has the short-term approach.”
Gym is the only candidate who managed to visit Day’s Break the Block program in North Philadelphia. (Rhynhart wanted to check it out as well, but the cohort of participants was not available when she wanted to visit, according to Day.)
That visit helped Gym secure the vote of Utsey, the formerly incarcerated animal specialist and aspiring trucker. Skeptical of other candidates’ plans to hire more cops, Utsey was impressed with Gym’s message about helping people obtain housing and has since followed her campaign on Instagram.
“Being able to talk to her face to face instead of watching a commercial or something … helped show her purpose and cause behind what she’s doing,” Utsey said.
Pastor Carl Day Sr., second from right, hands out care packages in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood.
‘A Situation Only God Can Handle’
After Sunday worship services, Day led a contingent of his congregants and others to provide care packages to people living on the streets around the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s Allegheny Station.
This area of Kensington underneath the overhead train tracks and on adjacent blocks is home to what is often described as the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast. The syringe-and-detritus-filled streets, made infamous in videos circulated on social media, are lined with hundreds of destitute people of all races and ethnicities whose weathered, sore-filled faces reflect the hard reality of outdoor living and addiction.
The homeless residents of the neighborhood welcomed Day and his crew’s offers of care packages. The church’s quart-size Ziplock bags included snacks, Vitamin C, soap, women’s hygiene products and medical gloves. One woman was overjoyed to get a care package with Cheez-Its, which she declared were her “favorite.”
A young man named Ty said he had recently returned to the street to continue smoking crystal meth after a period of sobriety.
“I blame that on myself and nobody else — not my mom, not my dad,” said Ty, who declined to provide his last name.
He told HuffPost that he was “not ready” to go to rehab or otherwise leave the street, but later added, “I’m trying to get it together, though.”
Allan Thomas, a formerly incarcerated man who is now a small real-estate developer in West Philadelphia, joined Day for the service mission in Kensington. Not all of the people distributing care packages were Christian, but Thomas made sure to inform the recipients of his care packages that the contents had come from God and Jesus.
Thomas wasn’t sure what needed to happen to help end the cycle of poverty, violence and mental illness gripping much of the city. He showed HuffPost black-and-blue teeth marks on his wrist that he said were the result of one of his tenants, who is apparently mentally ill, biting him without warning during a recent conversation.
As for the open-air drug scene, Thomas remarked, “This is a situation only God can handle.”
Humanitarian questions aside, most observers agree that simply forcing people off of the streets in Kensington would do little to alleviate the drug problem in the area without enough long-term care facilities where they could receive treatment. State Rep. Danilo Burgos (D), who represents much of Kensington in Pennsylvania’s state capital, wants to see action at the state level to scale up humane drug rehabilitation and psychiatric treatment centers and force insurers to cover treatment that lasts at least 90 days.
“They don’t have a legitimate place to go to help themselves clean up,” Burgos said on Sunday after joining Day’s charity contingent.
We don’t give an alcoholic a bottle – ‘Here, sit in this corner until you get better.'State Rep. Danilo Burgos (D)
Burgos, who endorsed Parker after former City Council member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez (D) dropped out, opposes the creation of a safe injection site in the area where intravenous drug users would be able to use clean syringes under the supervision of public health or medical professionals. Advocates of a “harm reduction” approach to addiction argue that such sites have the potential to reduce overdose deaths and limit the transmission of diseases, but opponents like Burgos fear that they would only exacerbate the addiction crisis.
“We don’t give an alcoholic a bottle — ‘Here, sit in this corner until you get better,’” Burgos told HuffPost.
In the absence of a mayoral candidate with a record of support for the “defund the police” movement, the debate over safe injection sites has become a way for moderate candidates to depict more progressive rivals as too radical to lead the city.
“Because I grew up in the middle of the crack-cocaine epidemic and I saw it destroy — or do its best to destroy — a very proud, blue-collar, working-class Black community, that’s why you could never hear me affirm that a safe injection site is a tool that government should be investing scarce resources in and utilizing to eliminate the opioid crisis,” Parker told HuffPost.
Rhynhart takes something of a middle path on the question, declining to rule out support for a safe injection site even as she issued stipulations that might effectively make it impossible.
“I would not put it in any neighborhood that doesn’t want it,” Rhynhart told HuffPost.
Gym, who promises to clear the sidewalks in Kensington during commuting hours, has signaled the greatest openness to the idea and has ties to some activists who explicitly support it.
“No medically viable options should be off the table when 1,200 people die,” Gym told HuffPost, referring to the city’s record-high number of drug overdose deaths in 2021. “We need to delve into a range of options on treatment, recovery, harm reduction and others.”
“What I won’t do is pursue the failed policies of the war on drugs,” she added. “I won’t quote Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just say no.’”