Three Jewish Democrats among top contenders in Philadelphia mayoral race
The candidates themselves have largely refrained from emphasizing their Jewish identities or highlighting communal issues in heavily Jewish Philadelphia, where antisemitic incidents have been on the rise
Photo by Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News Via Getty
In the closely divided race to become Philadelphia’s next mayor, three Jewish Democrats with divergent backgrounds are among the top candidates vying for the nomination — marking what some observers view as a local record for Jewish representation on the ballot.
“This is the first time that I can remember where we’ve had three Jewish candidates,” Robin Schatz, the director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said in an interview with Jewish Insider this week. “That’s just amazing to me.”
The candidates themselves, however, have largely refrained from emphasizing their Jewish identities or highlighting communal issues in heavily Jewish Philadelphia, where antisemitic incidents have been on the rise. “I don’t see anyone going around talking about being Jewish,” said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive in Philadelphia. “I don’t think it would have any effect.”
Polling has shown that crime and public safety are the leading issues in Tuesday’s crowded primary, where five Democrats are seen as viable. Allan Domb, a self-funding real estate mogul and moderate Jewish Democrat, claims that he is the only candidate whose public safety plan includes an explicit pledge to increase funding to combat hate crimes and to provide police protections for synagogues and mosques.
The former city councilman, 68, is among a handful of candidates who have embraced tough-on-crime messaging amid mounting concerns over gun violence in Philadelphia. Jeff Brown, a 59-year-old Jewish grocery store owner, has won endorsements from police unions, while Cherelle Parker, 50, has vowed to hire more police officers and expressed support for stop-and-frisk tactics, which she had previously opposed as a city councilwoman.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Rhynhart, a 48-year-old Jewish Democrat and former city controller, has voiced criticism of law enforcement while advocating for intervention strategies such as therapy and job training, even as she has also argued in favor of “more police.” The leading progressive candidate, Helen Gym, a former city councilwoman, has shied away from past comments in which she aligned with the movement to abolish the police. The 50-year-old Democrat now calls “to stabilize police funding” and says it is “not the time to cut.”
In recent weeks, Gym’s profile has risen as she has drawn support from a growing number of national leaders on the activist left, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). The two New York Democrats, who are among the most outspoken Israel critics in the House, have had strained relationships with members of the organized Jewish community in their districts.
Thanks to their endorsements, some Jewish leaders in Philadelphia say they are now wondering how Gym, who has been likened to the “Philly’s AOC,” will engage with them if she becomes mayor. “Her affiliation with the Squad is concerning,” said Brett Goldman, a co-founder of Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, a statewide advocacy group, which is not making an endorsement in the primary.
Alissa Wise, a rabbi in West Philadelphia, said that Gym “has prioritized building relationships with the progressive Jewish community,” while welcoming “Jews who are critical of Israeli policy” into her coalition. “She’s not willing to exclude us because we are a vocal minority.”
Wise, a former director of organizing for Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, recalled that Gym had stood beside members of the group in 2017 to protest former President Donald Trump’s travel ban suspending immigration from several Muslim-majority countries. “She held our banner with us,” Wise said.
“I don’t think that necessarily means she’s taking a side on a foreign policy question that’s irrelevant to her role on the City Council,” Wise clarified, noting that she has never discussed Middle East issues with Gym.
The former councilwoman does not appear to have weighed in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the campaign or as an elected official. In a video posted to Twitter in March, however, Gym vowed to fly the Palestinian flag on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway if she is elected.
A spokesperson for Gym’s campaign said she was unavailable to comment on Wednesday.
Gym has otherwise built a close relationship with congregants of Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, according to Wise, who is a member. On the evening of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh five years ago, Gym gathered with congregants to “offer words of comfort and solidarity,” Wise said.
Last year, Gym was among a group of council members who co-sponsored a resolution condemning antisemitism in Philadelphia.
But Schatz, the Jewish federation leader, said she is skeptical that Gym’s engagement will extend more broadly across the city’s Jewish community. “The only one I have any concern about is Helen Gym, to be honest,” she told JI. “I’m not too sure how well she would do in terms of fostering relationships, especially when it comes to Israel.”
Schatz, who accompanied former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on a trip to Israel, is eager to extend an invitation to the next mayor, she said, as part of an effort to promote trade relations and educational partnerships with Philadelphia, whose sister city is Tel Aviv. “It helps them to better understand the Jewish community,” Schatz said, adding that she had previously tried to coordinate a visit with Parker but was unable to make it work. “She’s dying to go,” Schatz told JI.
Goldman, the Democratic activist, said that Domb and Rhynhart have each expressed interest in fostering [economic] ties with Israel as well as funding programs to combat hate crimes and antisemitism. The two candidates are natural “allies” of the Jewish community who “best understand the nuance,” he told JI. “For a lot of people, especially in the Center City Jewish community, it’s a hard decision between Allan and Rebecca.”
A spokesperson for Rhynhart’s campaign, which has notched endorsements from several former Philadelphia mayors, did not respond to a request for comment this week.
During a March candidate forum co-hosted by the Jewish federation, Brown and Parker also committed to fighting antisemitism in partnership with Jewish leaders in Philadelphia. Their campaigns did not respond to requests for comment from JI.
Domb, who attended the forum, said he has long been active within the Jewish community. “Even on the council, I was a big supporter of all Jewish causes, including Israel,” he told JI. He belongs to five synagogues, he said, including Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, which he joined after it was attacked in 2018. “I think it’s important,” he said, “to be a member of that community.”
He also owns the only Jewish deli in Center City, Schlesinger’s, which he said was his mother’s maiden name. “Our slogan is ‘God, country and corned beef,’” he told JI solemnly.
“If having matzo ball soup was the winning credential for mayor, you can call Mayor Allan,” Ceisler, the public affairs executive, confirmed.
Meanwhile, Domb touted his detailed policy proposals, private sector experience and tenure in city government to support his claim that he is gaining traction among voters. “I can work with everybody,” he said in the interview with JI. He has spent more than $10 million of his own money in the race, which is the most expensive mayoral election in Philadelphia history. The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to become mayor in deep-blue Philadelphia.
In the only public independent poll analyzing the primary, Domb — at 14% among likely Democratic primary voters — was running in a virtual dead heat alongside his four top rivals, with 20% of voters still undecided. Ceisler said he had reviewed private surveys showing a similar dynamic. “It’s very unusual,” he told JI. “It’s never happened before that a Philadelphia mayoral primary is this uncertain at this point.”
He suspects that Parker is building momentum as the only viable Black candidate in the race, noting that she has earned endorsements from an array of establishment Democrats. Earlier this week, Jim Kenney, the outgoing mayor, said he had voted for Parker. But Ceisler also envisioned an outcome in which the moderate candidates end up splitting the vote, effectively handing the nomination to Gym.
“That is her path to winning,” he said, arguing that only Rhynhardt “challenges her for those progressive voters.” Since there is no runoff or ranked-choice voting, “it is a clearer path for Gym,” he added. In the public poll released by Committee of Seventy late last month, the nonpartisan good government group conducted “a ranked-choice poll just to start that conversation,” Ceisler explained, “and Rebecca won it.”
J.J. Balaban, a Democratic strategist in Philadelphia who is not involved in the primary, echoed that assessment. “Because Philadelphia does not have a runoff or ranked-choice voting,” he said, “it is possible that some of the more mainstream candidates could cut into each other’s vote, and that could clear a path for the outspokenly progressive candidate in the field to prevail.”
Still, he cautioned against interpreting the outcome of the election as a confirmation of the “national mood” — in contrast with Chicago’s recent mayoral race, which starkly illustrated Democratic divisions over public safety and other issues.
“It is thought that the next mayor will be chosen by less than a third of the electorate,” Balaban said. “So regardless of who wins, they won’t exactly have a mandate.”