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Beyond Campaign Promises: A Bisnow Primer On The 5 Top Candidates In Philly’s Wide-Open Race For Mayor

Though Election Day is in November, the real decision for Philadelphia voters on who will be the next mayor of the heavily Democratic city is in less than two weeks. 

Five candidates remain very much alive in public polling mere days away from the May 16 primary: businessman Jeff Brown, former City Councilmembers at Large Allan Domb and Helen Gym, former District 9 Councilmember Cherelle Parker and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.

The crowded field has left Philadelphians with an uncommonly difficult decision — an April 26 poll conducted by SurveyUSA on behalf of a few local good government organizations found only five of the eight polling in double digits, with undecided voters outnumbering supporters of every individual candidate. Making the decision even more difficult is how much the candidates and their campaigns overlap. 

Bisnow interviewed all five top-polling candidates in the past week, as well as a handful of invested observers, seeking insight into how each of the five would impact the city in the ways that matter to the commercial real estate industry. They all largely agree on which issues confronting Philadelphia are the most dire. Each uses similar rhetoric for why they are the best choice to address those issues.

“Everyone’s got a record and a list of accomplishments,” said local urbanism activist Jon Geeting, engagement director for advocacy group Philadelphia 3.0. “In a way, maybe it’s not surprising that all the voters aren’t running in the direction of one candidate. There are not a lot of huge differences between them.”

But despite the lack of separation between the candidates in terms of campaign rhetoric and polling numbers, there is ample reason to believe each would be a very different mayor.

“I don’t see any two candidates being close to the same overall,” said Greg Wertman, president of HAPCO Philadelphia, the largest trade group for residential landlords in the city. “My overall assessment is that right now, there are five candidates that are different in several ways, and they’re all focused on crime. I’m anxious to see what the differentiation will be when one of them gets elected.”

A critical piece of context for making projections is the degree of control that Philadelphia City Council has gained over development

All five candidates agree that reforming the Philadelphia Land Bank is key to bolstering the supply of affordable housing in the city, for example. Among the biggest factors that have constrained its use is the requirement in the city’s Home Rule charter that legislation is required for all disposition of city-owned land — leaving decisions on which parcels to dispose of, and when, in the hands of district councilmembers.

The unwritten tradition of councilmanic prerogative has kept Land Bank decisions from becoming matters of debate in council and ensures unanimous support for any zoning bills a district councilmember introduces. 

Unless and until structural changes are made to curb council’s control over zoning and land disposition, who the mayor chooses for certain key roles would be among the decisions most closely watched by the commercial real estate and housing advocates, Geeting, Wertman and Building Industry Association Vice President Mo Rushdy agreed.

Some of the most crucial appointments for CRE will be for the executive boards in charge of key city bodies like the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. and the Land Bank itself. Until those appointments are made, voters searching for answers on how each candidate would handle issues affecting real estate are left to sift for clues. 

Below, Bisnow lays out each of the candidate's experience, who is supporting them — and who isn't, and what they might do if elected the city's next mayor.

Also check out Bisnow’s candidate questionnaire series from March for detailed responses to CRE-focused questions from Domb (Part 1), Brown, Gym and Rhynhart (Part 2). Parker did not reply to the questionnaire.

— By Matt Rothstein

May 7, 2023
Businessman Jeff Brown +
Former Philadelphia City Councilmember at large Allan Domb +
Former City Councilmember at large Helen Gym +
Former District 9 Councilmember Cherelle Parker +
Former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart +