Changing of the guard in Philadelphia

Just weeks before historic changes sweep through the ranks of Philadelphia City Hall, top priorities are becoming clearer.

Cherelle Parker speaks at her first press conference after winning the Democratic nomination in May.

Cherelle Parker speaks at her first press conference after winning the Democratic nomination in May. GILBERT CARRASQUILLO/GC IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

Philadelphia’s historic 2023 election – one in which the city elected its 100th and first female mayor, first openly LGBTQ+ councilmember, first immigrant councilmember and two Working Families Party councilmembers – is now in the rearview mirror. And in just a few weeks, this new mayor, alongside a newly remade City Council, will be dealing with no shortage of longstanding and complex quality-of-life issues, including violent crime, crumbling schools and numerous development conflicts. 

Even with a honeymoon period sure to be extended by so many firsts in City Hall, there will be pressure from the start to make an immediate impact, and to leverage connections to Harrisburg and organized labor to hit the ground running – but Parker and her allies are optimistic that collaboration will be the order of the day.

Throughout her campaign for mayor, Parker successfully worked to build a coalition that transcended boundaries of geography, class and ideology. Parker secured support from three major groups of voters in the primary election – a coalition that consisted of pro-establishment Black voters, less-politically affiliated Black voters and a plurality of support from poor and Latino voters, according to an analysis from The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

She also found allies in organized labor during the campaign, logging an endorsement from the Philadelphia Building Trades – a coalition of more than 30 construction unions. And in the early days following her general election romp, Parker announced a transition team made up of a mix of business and labor leaders. 

Another unknown for the new mayor and her administration: what doing the people’s business will look like with a Philadelphia City Council featuring two at-large Working Families Party members and, for the first time in modern history, no at-large GOP Councilmembers. Council will also be led by a new president in 2024: Democrat Kenyatta Johnson is widely expected to replace outgoing Council President Darrell Clarke.

Johnson, like Parker a veteran of both City Hall and the state House of Representatives, is keenly aware of how the working relationship between the mayor and the council president can determine the course of action.

Kenyatta Johnson
Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson is expected to be the next president of City Council. / Photo credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images/Getty Images

“I’ve always recognized that there has to be a strong partnership between the mayor – the executive branch – and the council president, who oversees the legislative branch, working on a shared vision to move the City of Philadelphia forward,” Johnson said. His firsthand experience watching the interactions between Mayor Ed Rendell and Council President John Street, Mayor Michael Nutter and Council President Anna Verna, and the current duo of Mayor Jim Kenney and Council President Darrell Clarke, he added, would drive how he prioritizes tackling gun violence, poverty and community voicelessness.

“I believe we both share that same passion and commitment to advocating and supporting and fighting for those most in need,” he said.

Philadelphia City Councilmember-elect Rue Landau, whose general election victory made her both the first openly LGBTQ+ and first Jewish female candidate to win an election to the chamber, told City & State she thinks a new administration and new council will be a positive thing for the city. 

“Council will be made up largely of pragmatic people, many of whom are progressive – that falls in line also with Cherelle Parker,” Landau said. “The new council is a breath of fresh air and it’s a great thing.” 

“Most Philadelphians feel like the city is not working for them right now. The opportunity to have a new council with a new mayor is already a positive,” Landau continued. “Our top priority is to get the city back on track, with the priorities of public safety, neighborhood investment and housing and healthy communities. We just need to work together across branches to make it happen.” 

With wins from two Working Families Party candidates, incumbent Kendra Brooks and running mate Nicolas O’Rourke, City Council will, for the first time, have Working Families Party candidates holding two non-majority seats on City Council – and some newfound clout. 

Brooks, speaking at the Working Families Party inaugural convention this summer, said the next City Council will be different. 

“We’re coming into a new era … we have a very diverse, youthful council,” Brooks said at the party’s convention in October. “That’s new vision, new ideas,” she said. “All of these things bring Philadelphia to a period of real change that we can see and feel. We have an opportunity to bring stronger, people-centered legislation into Philadelphia.”

Despite the Republican Party’s diminished role in City Hall, with a more moderate Democrat taking over the executive office, those looking for a hard swing to the left are likely to be disappointed. 

“Parker is more of a moderate than people give her credit for,” Drew Murray, a Republican who was beat out by Working Families Party candidates for an at-large council seat, told City & State. “She’s come out and said that she’s going to be tough on crime … She’s willing to do the hard things that I think people were not expecting when she was elected.”

Having been a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly for more than a decade, Parker has also forged relationships in Harrisburg on both sides of the aisle. Former GOP Speaker of the state House Mike Turzai is a longtime friend of hers, and current state House Speaker Joanna McClinton told City & State that Philadelphians should expect a “very collaborative” relationship between Parker and the General Assembly. 

As for how Parker will work with state legislators in Harrisburg, McClinton was optimistic, noting that the House Democratic Caucus “is excited and proud to have one of our caucus alumnae be the next mayor of Philadelphia.”

“Cherelle Parker, our mayor-elect, was a member of the General Assembly; she has a complete, inside understanding of how the legislature works and operates, and she has strong, healthy robust relationships,” McClinton said in an interview. “I’m happy to be one of them.”

“I do believe Cherelle will work with the General Assembly, the Senate Republicans and Senate Dems, the House Republicans and the House Dems, to find a way to win for Philadelphia. That’s what it’s about – because when Philadelphia wins, Pennsylvania wins,” McClinton added. 

As Parker and City Council prepare to take the city in a new direction, there’s one issue looming large over the city and its elected officials – crime. 

When Philadelphia wins, Pennsylvania wins.
– State House Speaker Joanna McClinton

The city experienced a stark jump in homicides over the last decade, with the annual number of murders rising from 277 in 2016 to 562 in 2021, according to Philadelphia Police Department data. However, the city’s homicide rate has begun to drop. As of the end of November 2023, the city has seen a nearly 20% reduction in murders this year compared to last. 

Fatal and nonfatal shootings in the city have been declining since 2021, according to the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting. In 2021, the city recorded 1,824 nonfatal shootings and 507 fatal shootings, according to the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting. At the end of November 2023, 1,219 nonfatal shootings had been reported over the entire year, with 350 fatal shootings. 

Still, even as the city’s murder rate moves downward, crime is still on the minds of Philadelphia residents and government officials. Carjackings have risen by more than 80% compared to 2022, and retail theft crimes have increased by nearly 30% over the same time period.

One of Parker’s first moves as mayor-elect was to announce the selection of Kevin Bethel as police commissioner. The appointment of Bethel, a former deputy commissioner and the current chief of school safety for the School District of Philadelphia, is the first of many personnel and police oversight decisions she’ll have to make as she attempts to rebuild a rapport between the city, its residents and law enforcement. 

Parker has repeatedly said she supports the constitutional use of stop-and-frisk policing practices, which she referred to as Terry stops. She told City & State last year that as a mother herself, Parker recognizes both the need for law enforcement to have tools at their disposal and the need for greater accountability in policing. 

“I’m the mother of a 10-year-old Black boy … his father has to have that police discussion with him. I have to have that police discussion with him,” Parker said. “However, I also want him and others situated to live and be safe in the city that they can call their own … I want law enforcement to have the tools that they need to ensure that Philadelphia is a safer city.”

U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, told City & State in an interview that he believes Parker’s legacy could be largely based on how she tackles crime in the city. 

U.S. Rep Brendan Boyle
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle said Mayor-elect Parker’s legacy could be defined by how she handles crime. / Photo credit: Office of Congressman Brendan Boyle

“I said to Cherelle … when she was running in the primary, I really think the next mayor of Philadelphia will largely be judged based on how he or she does on crime. I think that if, four years from now, crime is lower – specifically violent crimes, such as murder, are lower – the next mayor will be judged as a success.”

However, even if the next mayor succeeds in other areas, Boyle says how the Parker administration responds to crime will be viewed through a microscope.

“The flip side is also true. The next mayor could do a lot of great things economically, expanding the tax base, making us more competitive, reducing poverty – yet, if the crime rate is higher four years from now and murders are up, the next mayor will probably not be judged as a success,” Boyle said. 

Boyle noted that Philadelphia also has plenty of economic opportunities at its doorstep. Both Boyle and McClinton joined President Joe Biden in Philadelphia this year to announce federal hydrogen hub funding for the region, which is slated to create more than 2,000 jobs. Parker will also occupy the mayor’s office at a time when a new Philadelphia 76ers basketball arena is being planned for Center City amid protests from Chinatown residents. 

Murray said he believes the top issue of crime, as well as the Sixers arena, will be the topics on Parker’s desk on day one. 

“The top three issues in the City of Philadelphia are crime, crime and crime,” he said. “We need businesses to bring their people back to offices in Center City, we need to have retail traffic, and in order to do that, we need people to feel safe coming into the city.”

In an email interview, Parker leaned into her ability to work across the aisle during her time in the state House – her friendship with Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai is legendary in political circles – as evidence that she can usher in a new era of cooperation with GOP lawmakers in Harrisburg.

 “Since winning the primary election in May, I have reached out to GOP leaders in both chambers,” Parker said. “Building meaningful and productive bipartisan relationships is essential to the success of both our great commonwealth and city. Business, labor, and community stakeholders in Philadelphia rightly deserve and expect their elected leaders to work with legislators, on both sides of the aisle, to get things done. For example, I’ve humbly asked GOP Senate Leader Joe Pittman for help with a significant public safety issue. During our meeting in his office, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I want to help you when possible.’ He was genuine. No pomp and circumstance … a good man with strong convictions who really cares about Pennsylvania and what happens in Philadelphia.”

The top three issues in the City of Philadelphia are crime, crime and crime.
– Former GOP City Council candidate Drew Murray

The issue undergirding crime, poverty, education and anything else on the agenda is the one least-discussed and most time-sensitive: the city budget. So that an approved budget and plan can be submitted to the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority by the March 23 deadline, Parker will need to present her proposed budget and plan to City Council by the end of January.

“We need to make sure we have a budget that supports the individuals in the city of Philadelphia who are most in need by really thinking consciously in terms of our policies – and making sure resources are distributed across the City of Philadelphia,” Johnson explained. “I know that’s not easy, but we have to be intentional.” 

Parker said in a previous interview with City & State that she wants to encourage home ownership in the city, casting it as a win-win for the city and its residents. “I’m crazy about home ownership,” she told City & State. “A neighborhood is treated differently when the people who live there own their properties versus being transient … I want to grow Philadelphia’s tax base. I want to grow our economic pie. That means we need more contributors, more businesses and more people paying into that tax base so we can deal with the challenges that are facing our city.”

At the federal level, Boyle said he will continue to try to drive as much federal funding to the Philadelphia region as he can muster.

“Most of the time, I’m engaged in national issues, as well as foreign affairs, but in terms of specifically being a member of Congress born and raised and living and representing Philadelphia – my job is to fight for every last resource we can possibly get from the federal government directed to the city,” he said.

As for McClinton, who is the top-ranking Democratic legislator in Harrisburg, she said House Democrats will be receptive to the needs of city government.

“I know that the mayor will be working very hard to keep communications open, and most importantly, (I) look forward to being receptive to all of the concerns she has, responding to the city’s needs and finding a way forward for Pennsylvanians to benefit from Philadelphia’s success.”

Just weeks before she begins working with the full gamut of stakeholders invested in Philadelphia’s future, Parker continued to emphasize the same “It takes a village” ethos that has been a motif throughout her campaign and career.

“I am not Superwoman – I cannot do this alone,” she said. “We need to come together as one to move our city forward – but we need community involvement to get there.”