Challenging the Narrative of PA’s Primary Results

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One of the narratives emerging from Pennsylvania’s primary election on May 16 is that progressives flexed their muscles in Pittsburgh, winning two important countywide races, and flamed out in Philadelphia, where the most prominent progressive candidate, Helen Gym, finished third. The truth is more complicated. 

In Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, Sara Innamorato, a progressive state representative, surged to victory over County Treasurer John Weinstein by running a strong race focused on making the economy more equitable, while Matt Dugan defeated longtime district attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., a moderate.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Cherelle Parker defeated Gym along with a field of candidates including Rebecca Rhynhart, Alan Domb, and Jeff Brown. Parker was considered the more moderate candidate, particularly on policing issues, whereas Gym had a long record of advocacy for progressive causes and had secured endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Ideologically, however, Parker is much closer to Gym than Innamorato was to Weinstein. And generally, the successful candidates in Philadelphia were progressive, even if they were not considered progressive standard-bearers. Parker and Gym voted together with high frequency while on the city council. Parker voted in favor of Gym’s Fair Work Week legislation, for example, perhaps Gym’s most significant progressive bill. While Parker has taken more moderate positions on some elements of policing such as stop and frisk, she has also called for more accountability for misuse or abuse of policy power.

Looking beyond the mayor’s race, one sees more examples of success for progressive candidates and policies. Further down the ballot, Isaiah Thomas was the top vote-getter for at-large city council races. Thomas’s signature legislation was the Driving Equality Bill, which instructed police officers to avoid making traffic stops for certain vehicle violations. The bill drew the ire of the Fraternal Order of Police and Harrisburg Republicans. It is likely one of the most progressive pieces of legislation passed recently in Pennsylvania. Yet Thomas won over 107,000 votes.

Progressive candidates enjoyed some infrastructural and organizational advantages in Allegheny County, where progressive organizations have worked for the past decade to build a coalition of labor organizations and advocacy groups to support their candidates. These organizations have now elected progressive state house members, city councilors, Mayor Ed Gainey, and Rep. Summer Lee. Led by unions like SEIU, the movement has built capacity and introduced voters to progressive policies and candidates. Tapping into this infrastructure, Innamorato was able to harness progressive voters, from young activists to old school stalwarts.

In Philadelphia, groups like Reclaim and the Working Families Party have had similar aspirations and success, scoring victories for several state House members and State Sen. Nikil Saval, among others. Gym received more than 100,000 votes in her last city council election. In the mayor’s race, many of these organizations backed Gym, but others like SEIU backed Parker, who built a diverse and powerful coalition. The scattered endorsements in the race were enough to split progressive voters; many went for Gym, some for Rebecca Rhynhart, and others for Parker. Together, Gym and Rhynhart received over 50% of the vote, with unions like SEIU likely pushing progressive voters to Parker.

As much as endorsements and ideology matter, it’s important to look at how most voters followed the race – through paid media. Innamorato ran a professional campaign that painted her opponents as out of touch. She was outspent, but the ads against her were amateurish. Weinstein’s ads looked like he was trying to sell mattresses in 1995. Many of the negative ads portrayed the county and city as a hellscape that would turn into a Mad Max scene if voters elected Innamorato. The advertising made little sense with an electorate that generally liked Innamorato and felt that Allegheny County was headed in the right direction.

In Philadelphia, Parker faced no negative television advertising, while the ads against her opponents were strong. Ads against Gym, for example, undercut her progressive bona fides. A champion of public schools? Gym founded a charter school. A voice against corporate malfeasance? Gym voted against tightening regulations on opioid distribution while her husband worked at a pharmaceutical distribution company. For progressives on the fence, the ad barrage was likely effective. Meanwhile, Parker and her allies ran a disciplined campaign that told her story effectively.

Lastly, Parker held demographic and geographic advantages over her opponents. Rhynhart, Brown, Domb, and Gym live in Center City; three of the candidates even voted in the same polling place. Parker resides in the northwest, and her growing up on West Oak Lane was a key part of her story and message. Parker was also the only African American candidate among the top tier of candidates in a party whose strongest base is black women.

Before Election Day, I assumed that Helen Gym stood the best chance of winning based on the enthusiasm of her base, her performance in her last city council race, and progressive successes in other cities. Now that the results are in, a narrative is emerging that discredits the progressive wing of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, comparing its mayoral failure with progressive electoral successes in Allegheny County. It’s not that simple. The result in Philadelphia is much cloudier than it appears, even without accounting for the relatively low turnout. Allegheny County nominated two progressive leaders, yes – but progressive losses in Philadelphia are complicated. As always, candidate and campaign quality matter.

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