The women who would be mayor

Clockwise from top left: Rebecca Rhynhart, Cherelle Parker, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, and Helen Gym.

Philadelphia, along with New York City, is one of only two of the top dozen largest cities in the U.S. to never have a woman mayor. There have been 99 mayors in Philadelphia’s long city history, and all have been men and all but three white in a city that is nearly three-quarters people of color and over half women.  

Four women — three former City Council members and the former controller — are running for mayor: Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, and Rebecca Rhynhart. All four recently resigned from their respective posts in accordance with City Charter rules to run for mayor.

Women have previously been shut out of the mayoralty, but this race could change that. In 1999, Happy Fernandez resigned from City Council to become the first woman to run for mayor in Philadelphia. She came in fourth in a field of six Democrats. In 2015, former D.A. Lynn Abraham and executive director of the Redevelopment Authority Terry Gillen ran for mayor. Gillen withdrew and Abraham came in third in a field of 10 Democrats. 

The Republican Party has fielded candidates for mayor Melissa Murray Bailey in 2015 and Daphne Goggins in 2019, but with voter registration in Philadelphia favoring Democrats 8 to 1, those races were pro-forma, given the demographics. The last Republican mayor in Philadelphia was Bernard Samuel in 1952.

In recent years, women around the country have broken through the hard glass ceiling of mayoral elections. Atlanta, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco all have had Black women mayors, and in 2020 Boston broke two ceilings by electing the first woman and first person of color, progressive Democrat Michelle Wu. 

In 2010, Annise Parker made history in Houston and the country by becoming the first out lesbian mayor of a major city. In 2018, Lori Lightfoot became the first Black woman mayor as well as the first lesbian mayor in Chicago. And in November, Karen Bass became the first woman mayor of Los Angeles and only the second Black mayor in the city’s history.

Statewide, Pennsylvania has never had a woman governor or U.S. Senator. Former congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, who ran for both governor and U.S. Senate, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that women being elected to higher office tends to happen suddenly: “It’s never happened, and then suddenly it happens,” Schwartz said. “You always look to the next election … but it’s been tough in Philadelphia and given we’ve had so many women on City Council, it’s a good question. Why’s it taking so long?”

All four women running for mayor have bona fides in their previous roles and three made history in their city government positions, breaking ground as the first woman and/or first person of color.

Gym was a Councilmember-at-Large from 2016 till 2022. A longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights, Gym made her announcement for mayor Nov. 30 at the William Way LGBT Community Center. A former teacher, Gym cofounded Parents United for Public Education and served on the board of Asian Americans United. The daughter of Korean immigrants, Gym was the first Asian American woman to serve on City Council and would be the first Asian American mayor of Philadelphia. 

“With your help, it’s time to elect a proven fighter to protect the city we call home,” Gym said at her campaign announcement.

Cherelle Parker served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing the 200th District, from 2005 until 2015, and she was chair of the Philadelphia Delegation in Harrisburg for five years. In 2015 she was chosen by the Democratic Party to run to fill Marian Tasco’s seat; Parker had interned for Tasco as a high school student. Parker represented the 9th District in City Council until she resigned to run for mayor. In February 2021, Parker was elected chairperson of the board of the Delaware River Port Authority.

In an interview with The Inquirer, Parker said “I’m gonna be the fixer, the doer, the get-it-done Cherelle. That’s who I’ve always been. The city right now, it needs bold leadership.”

Maria Quiñones-Sánchez served on City Council representing the 7th district from 2008 to 2022. She was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Philadelphia as a baby. Prior to her election as a member of City Council, she worked in local politics as an advisor to Tasco and as Philadelphia’s Deputy Elections Commissioner. In 2001, she co-founded the Pennsylvania Statewide Latino Coalition, and as Regional Director led successful efforts to create bilingual ballots in cities throughout the state. Quiñones-Sánchez is the first Latina elected to the City Council. 

When Quiñones-Sánchez announced her candidacy on WHYY in September she said,“I am a candidate for mayor, the first official candidate in the historic election.”

She enumerated her reasons for running, saying, “The work we’ve done around immigration and diversity, small business tax reform, housing work. We think we’re going to put together a very good coalition of folks who know that the next person has to come in willing to buck the system, buck the party and serve people.”

In 2008, Rebecca Rhynhart became City Treasurer under Michael Nutter’s administration. She then became Budget Director, and is credited with playing a key role in Philadelphia’s economic recovery from The Great Recession. Rhynhart also served as Chief Administrative Officer in Mayor Kenney’s administration. In 2017, Rhynhart was the first woman ever elected to the office of controller, ousting three-time Democratic incumbent Alan Butkovitz. Prior to announcing her candidacy for mayor, Rhynhart prepared a scathing review of the Police Department’s spending and performance. The report detailed disparities in 911 response times, crime fighting strategy, staffing issues, community relations, and data collection and usage. 

Rhynhart announced her run in West Philadelphia at Nichols Park, to highlight the gun violence issues in Philadelphia. “The answer isn’t to go backwards to ‘law and order’ policies that were racist,” she said. “The answer is to move forward. We can both be safe and reform our criminal justice system at the same time. As your mayor, I will implement the proven intervention strategies that have been shown to work.”

Gym, Parker, Quiñones-Sánchez, and Rhynhart are among the eleven candidates for mayor in the May 16 primary. As of February 22, the other candidates are Warren Bloom, Amen Brown, Jeff Brown, James DeLeon, Allan Domb, Derek Green, and David Oh.

This article is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit www.everyvoice-everyvote.org/. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.
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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.