The Real Lesson for Progressives in Our Philadelphia Mayoral Defeat

In Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral primary, Cherelle Parker has decisively defeated her opponents. Those included progressive Helen Gym, who had the backing of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The triumph of Parker, a moderate, raises the usual question about whether today’s voters are more inclined toward centrism or progressivism and why; Politico, for example, called the primary nothing less than the “next battle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” serving as “a test of the strength of the national progressive movement.”

It’s easy to portray Parker’s victory as a message sent by voters in favor of “tough on crime” policies. During her campaign, Parker had promised to put more police officers on the streets and condemned the “lawlessness” of the city. The working class Black neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by gun violence tended to support Parker.

But city politics are always complicated, and we should be careful about stories that emphasize a single issue.

Indeed, Parker isn’t quite the equivalent of a “tough on crime” Republican, and while she’s controversially advocated “stop-and-frisk” practices, she’s also spoken of the need for “restorative justice” and endorsed reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner when he first ran for his position in 2017. Tellingly, both the local Fraternal Order of Police and the National Black Police Association endorsed one of Parker’s opponents.

Parker is also a highly experienced politician with the backing of major local power players. She received major endorsements from local labor unions. If progressives are looking for a clear takeaway from this race, “progressive candidates can’t win if major local unions aren’t supporting the progressive candidate” is just as important as anything about the politics of crime and policing. After all, Chicago’s Brandon Johnson recently won the city’s mayoral election while openly rejecting “tough on crime” politics in a city plagued by gun violence. But Johnson was a union organizer with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). In cities where organized labor is still strong, the key lesson here might be that a progressive candidate who wants to win cannot afford to have major unions endorsing their opponent.

Pennsylvania delegate Cherelle Parker cheers for Michelle Obama on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, July 25, 2016.
Tom Williams/Getty

There are still some important takeaways about crime and policing. First, clearly at least some voters who are alarmed by the city’s ongoing violence found reassurance in Parker’s promises to keep people safe. Parker offered a clear and detailed public safety plan. Those progressives who don’t think “more police” is the answer to gun violence (and I count myself among them) can’t afford to let pro-police candidates be the only ones with clear policies. The slogan “Defund the Police” was ill-conceived, not because reallocating police funding is a bad idea, but because it emphasized what the progressive movement was against (harsh policing) rather than emphasizing what it was for (good schools, good jobs, good housing, healthy communities).

Progressives who want to win in areas suffering from widespread violence need a strong pro-safety message, with an emphasis that more incarceration and more safety are not synonymous.

When I spoke to Robert Peters, the Chicago democratic socialist who holds Barack Obama’s old state Senate seat in Illinois, he told me that while he was a forceful advocate for eliminating cash bail, he also had a message that let voters know he cared about protecting them from violence. “I’m not going to cede the ground from my office or when I organize when it comes to public safety,” Peters said.

Still, nobody in Philadelphia won a majority of the vote, and we should be careful about drawing sweeping conclusions about national trends from a city mayoral race where the winner won 33 percent and turnout was low.

We should certainly avoid concluding that Philadelphia voters have sent some kind of decisive rejection of progressive approaches to public safety. After all, in the same city, Larry Krasner himself was re-elected by an overwhelming margin in 2021—with strong showings in the same crime-ridden neighborhoods that went for Parker.

The elections of Karen Bass in Los Angeles and Johnson in Chicago show that unapologetic progressivism is still viable in cities. But without a compelling vision for how to stop violence or the firm support of local labor unions, it will be very hard for those on the Left to defeat establishment candidates.

Nathan J. Robinson is the editor in chief of Current Affairs magazine and the author of Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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