The phone rings at one o’clock sharp, signaling an incoming call from Diane Cornman–Levy.
As the Chief Disruptor of WOMEN’S WAY, a Philadelphia–based nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of women, girls, and gender equity, a typical day for Cornman–Levy includes hours of meetings on the docket. Finding time in her schedule for a 30–minute interview is a bit of a game of Tetris, she laughs. Still, she’s happy to make the time. The topic up for discussion is one that she’s been following quite closely herself: Philadelphia’s 2023 mayoral election.
“This [election] is an opportunity for our city to make real progress,” she says. “And it’s important that we recognize that.”
As of Oct. 20, four public servants have officially thrown their hats into the ring for what is shaping up to be a contentious race. So far, former City Councilmembers Cherelle Parker (D), Maria Quiñones Sánchez (D), and Derek Green (D) are joined on the ballot by former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart (D).
On May 16, candidates will go head to head in the Democratic primary with the winner all but guaranteed to secure the title of Philadelphia’s 100th mayor come the general election next November. And with three women officially in the running and more expected to follow, rumors are swirling that the results of this vote might very well see the appointment of the first female mayor in the city’s history.
Regardless of who the next officeholder may be, Councilmember Helen Gym (D) says they certainly have their work cut out for them: “The most pressing issues [facing Philadelphia] require urgent attention, and they’re not just here—they’re national.”
From surging levels of gun violence, to the fallout of the public health crisis spurred by the COVID–19 pandemic, to chronic economic inequality that particularly disadvantages the city’s communities of color, current Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s (D) administration has weathered its fair share of storms—and evoked its fair share of criticism. In his most recent brush with scandal, Kenney came under fire for his flippant handling of the July 4 shooting on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, prompting candidates for his successor and their fellow public servants alike to decry his irresponsibility and call for his resignation.
The problems facing Philadelphia are hardly on their way out. Political pundits and everyday citizens are calling for a different approach to leadership that will better address the city’s needs.
“The fact that we're electing our 100th mayor is a real window of opportunity for us to elect a new kind of leader,” says Sandy Vogel, programming chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the League of Women Voters—a grassroots organization committed to the protection and expansion of voting rights. “Our current administration has dealt with a wide variety of issues, and a lot of people are asking: ‘What can our next leader do to help Philly evolve as a city?’”
In the eyes of many Philadelphians, this new kind of leader is a woman.
On the heels of 99 men occupying the mayor’s office, Vogel highlights, many voters have been left wondering whether a woman is better suited to guide the City of Brotherly Love out of an era of heightened political turmoil. “[We] want to see what a female mayor could do to break out of that mold and to make headway on issues that we just haven’t been able to break through on yet,” she says.
Perhaps the greatest asset that a woman could bring to the mayor’s office, Cornman–Levy argues, is a more nuanced perspective—one that’s more in tune with the struggles facing our community’s most vulnerable.
Appointing a woman as mayor “will provide a whole gender focus and gender lens to every policy that’s being discussed, because a lot of times, if [policymaking] is just done by men, it’s through their lens,” Cornman–Levy notes. The city’s poverty rate disproportionately impacts women, particularly women of color and their families, she says—adding that “women experience poverty differently; they experience all the challenges [facing the city] differently. And so having a woman at the helm will help Philadelphia tackle these challenges better, because [she’ll be] closer to most of the problems that need to be addressed.”
Should a woman be elected to the mayor’s office, she’ll certainly be in good company. Dozens of women have pulled a seat up to the table at major policymaking hubs across the city—from City Council to the Sheriff’s Office. “We have a lot of strong female leaders at the City Council level, at the City Controller level, and [among] our state representatives. We have some incredible female leaders across the board,” Vogel says.
In the midst of what seems to be a Golden Age for women’s inclusion in Philadelphia’s political realm, Vogel underscores the importance of acknowledging the barriers that have traditionally shut women out of the field—and that still exist today. “We now see these very strong, experienced leaders,” Vogel says, “so, it’s almost tempting to say, ‘When hasn’t there been a good time for women in Philadelphia politics?’”
As Marc Meredith, a professor in Penn’s Department of Political Science, highlights, many of the obstacles that exclude women from city politics are rooted in a centuries–long history and present–day political parties’ interests in maintaining the status quo. “Philadelphia still has a lot of the vestiges of being a political machine for a long time, where oftentimes the choice about who the candidates were going to be was not even made by the candidates themselves, but made by party leaders,” Meredith says.
Historically, machines backed the people whose politics reinforced the standing of the party—which were often limited to incumbents and well–established politicians known to brush elbows with the party’s elite. We still see remnants of this system in Philadelphia’s Democratic Party today, Meredith emphasizes. And in the case of political offices that have been dominated by men for the past 321 years—the mayor’s post included—this legacy presents a particular challenge for women looking to break into public service.
“Female candidates still face some particular challenges in the places where there once were strong political machines,” Meredith says. “It’s probably less important than it once was to have the support of the party behind you, but it still is the case that there are advantages for people who are able to win over the leaders of the party. I’m thinking in terms of formal endorsements, but formal endorsements often coincide with support, both financially and otherwise.”
The exorbitant costs of financing a campaign also bar women from pursuing political office. “Women, historically and currently, have less assets and wealth because of systems grounded in patriarchy and sexism and racism,” Cornman–Levy says. “Many women don’t have access to that kind of capital, that kind of investment. They often don’t have access to big networks of people with wealth or assets, or they have less networks. Women might want to run, but they’re like, ‘I can’t financially do it.’”
What’s more, Cornman–Levy, who herself ran to represent District 168 (Delaware County) in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2016, says that women with children are also discouraged to run by gendered notions of caregiving responsibilities. “Women are still the primary caregiver. Men can often say, ‘Hey, I’m running, my wife will take care of my family.’ And so, [women] are always trying to balance that caregiving—because we still ultimately do most of it—and running for office,” she explains.
Yet, dozens of local female politicians remain undaunted—charting a path into offices that traditionally kept them at the gate. The ever–growing number of women elected to public office in Philadelphia is a testament to that fact.
“It’s always groundbreaking when a woman is the first one to do something,” Cornman–Levy says. “It also sends the message that, ‘Yes, women can win. Women can win at this level and be at the helm.’”
As for the next post that such changemakers have set their sights on? Three women have joined the race for the mayor’s office thus far in the hopes of becoming not only the city’s 100th mayor, but also its first female one.
A former representative of Philadelphia’s Seventh Council District, Maria Quiñones Sánchez describes herself as a cheerleader for her constituents—ensuring that the unique challenges facing the city’s northern and northeastern neighborhoods didn’t fly under her fellow councilmembers’ radars.
“For the last almost 15 years, I have represented one of the poorest and historically marginalized districts in the City of Philadelphia,” Quiñones Sánchez says. “And I was always very clear that my role in City Council was to be the advocate and to really give a voice to these communities.”
Strengthening the city’s most vulnerable communities, Quiñones Sánchez argues, is crucial to the health of Philadelphia as a whole. “When communities like the ones I represent do better, the entire city does better,” she says. “We needed resources, we needed to change how the government responded to poverty, deep poverty, crime, trauma—all of those things.”
For Quiñones Sánchez, this requires a new approach to public safety—an issue she says is front and center in every corner of the city. “Public safety has always been a challenge where I lived, where I’ve grown up, and in the district that I serve. Now, it touches everybody,” she says.
A public safety plan that works for Philadelphia, according to Quiñones Sánchez, is one grounded in report findings that turns a critical eye toward the shortcomings of our police departments. She speaks to the importance of prioritizing de–escalation, smart policing, community policing, the use of forensics, and, most importantly, investing in marginalized communities.
For Quiñones Sánchez, accomplishing this requires the appointment of a mayor willing to take a long–term view—who sees the issues facing Philadelphia’s at–risk communities not as problems in need of quick fixes, but as ongoing projects that must remain at the forefront of local politics for years to come.
“Where I think I’m different from the women—the very qualified women—running in this race is that I’m going to be talking about what this city will look like in 2030, not what the city looks like in 2023,” she explains. “What are the [necessary] infrastructure investments? How do we address the lack of support and investment in historically marginalized communities? How do we build equity in a government that has discriminated based on people’s zip codes?”
A Hunting Park native, Quiñones Sánchez’s dedication to defending the city’s marginalized populations is rooted in firsthand experience. Having moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico as a baby, Quiñones Sánchez was raised in public housing before her family purchased their first home—a milestone that coincided with the rise of the city’s crack epidemic.
“We bought our first house in the ‘70s, where I experienced … the [effects of] the initial crack epidemic in the Hunting Park area. As a young person, I watched everybody get arrested and really watched the harmful effects of these public health crises in vulnerable communities,” she says.
It was this experience that inspired Quiñones Sánchez to launch her storied advocacy career. “I started doing community organizing work in the local Hunting Park CDC, at the age of 15. We were doing community development, block–to–block organizing—and that forever changed my life and why I do what I do today,” she says.
Her devotion to addressing the hardships facing Philadelphia’s working–class families, immigrant communities, and communities of color is woven into the fabric of each and every initiative that Quiñones Sánchez has advanced. She founded the city’s first bilingual charter school, spearheaded campaigns to implement bilingual ballots in Latinx communities, fought discriminatory banking practices in low–income neighborhoods, and formed a statewide coalition to support Latinx candidates running for office. Voters searching for proof of Quiñones Sánchez’s commitment to her creed need look no further than her record.
“When you have a certain lived experience, you understand that every policy decision has an impact, because you’ve lived it,” she says. “The next mayor has to be the cheerleader that speaks to the resiliency of the people who live the challenges and obstacles [facing Philadelphia] every day.”
Cherelle Parker’s decades–long political career has been guided by a mission to bridge the gap between Philadelphia’s haves and have–nots. In early September, she resigned her position as representative for the Ninth Council District to launch her bid for mayor.
Parker began her work in City Council at the tender age of 17 as an intern in the Office of Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “I was sitting at the reception desk learning how to help people keep their utilities on, and really learning how to solve problems,” she says.
In the years since, Parker has worn a number of hats—pursuing a career as an English teacher before returning to politics as a full–time member of Tasco’s team. In 2005, she assumed the role of State Representative for the 200th Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, becoming the youngest Black woman ever elected to the body. In 2015, she joined Philadelphia’s City Council where she championed legislation and policy initiatives ranging from a low–interest Housing Preservation Loan Program, meant to help citizens maintain ownership of their properties, to a small business training and technical assistance initiative.
Through it all, Parker has kept the interests of the city’s underserved communities close to heart. Raised in West Oak Lane by her grandparents, Parker understands the economic struggles plaguing many Philadelphia neighborhoods—in fact, she’s lived them.
“People hear me talk about closing the gap between the haves and the have–nots. Well, it’s because I was on the other side—I was the have–not,” Parker explains. “My grandmother … received public assistance to take care of me. And so, I noticed that life was different for people with means at a very, very, very young age.”
For a young Parker, the support of her community meant everything and inspired her to pursue a path to public service. “The community, village, neighborhood, it meant the world to me, right? I was a product of my neighborhood,” she says. “The coaches, the teachers, the people who were actively engaged in community–based organizations in my area—they helped to motivate me and inspire me and encouraged me to dedicate my life.”
Paying homage to her beginnings, uplifting under–resourced districts has become the ethos of Parker’s politics. “I had this burning fire in my stomach about making sure that neighborhoods were stable,” she says, “to give them access to opportunity—particularly those people who were not born into wealth.”
Parker highlights that fulfilling this mission requires addressing three key issues: safety, cleanliness, and economic opportunity.
In her tenure on City Council, she released her Philadelphia Neighborhood Safety and Community Policing Plan—calling for the recruitment of 300 new police officers, an increase in funding to the Police Department’s security camera program, and augmented support for initiatives dedicated to cleaning up commercial areas.
The implementation of such a system, Parker hopes, will effectively address residents’ safety and public service concerns. “I listened to what people said in [Philadelphia’s] neighborhoods, when they said they didn’t feel safe, that they wanted community policing,” she says. “That’s why I introduced the Neighborhood Safety and Community Policing Plan—addressing quality of life issues, supporting changes that people can tangibly touch, see, and feel in their neighborhoods.”
What’s more, Parker has been an outspoken advocate of programs meant to equip citizens with the tools that they need to achieve financial stability. Specifically, she calls for “training with direct access to employment that gives people the ability to take care of their own family without dependence on the government.”
“That’s what made the working–class neighborhood that I grew up in so grand,” she says.
To put such plans into action, a “get–it–done” mayor needs to step up to the plate—and Parker aspires to be just that.
“If the people of Philadelphia give me the great honor and privilege of serving as the 100th mayor of our city, I’m going to be Cherelle ‘Show–Me’ Parker,” she says. “Because I’m going to fix things, and it’s going to be done in an unconventional way.”
And for Parker, fixing things requires getting all hands on deck. “It’s got to be the government, it’s got to be the private sector, it’s got to be our citizens engaged. [Philadelphians] just want a leader to say: ‘This is how we can get it done.’ And that’s what I’m prepared to do as the mayor—the 100th mayor—of the City of Philadelphia.”
Former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s path into local politics was far from traditional.
Having spent the early years of her career working in New York City’s private sector, Rhynhart was drawn back to her hometown of Philadelphia in 2008 by the opportunity to use her Wall Street experience to rectify the financial woes facing City Hall.
“I decided to come back and work for Philadelphia—the city that I love,” she says. “I wanted to use my financial knowledge to make it work.”
Rhynhart was first appointed to the position of city treasurer upon her return before serving as the director of Philadelphia’s $4 billion general fund budget and eventually as chief administrative officer. After nearly a decade of working for the city, Rhynhart realized that there was only one way to make the difference that she wanted to make in city government: Run for office.
“I decided to run because I saw so much within our city government that needed to change and that couldn’t change unless the politics changed,” she says. “After about nine years … [I knew that] I had to run for office to have the impact that I wanted to have.”
Running against a long–term incumbent for the office of the city controller, Rhynhart was an underdog. “I definitely was not expected to win that race,” she laughs. “I had the support of one out of 69 Democratic ward leaders.”
Yet, Rhynhart managed to pull away with 58% of the vote citywide—becoming the city’s first female city controller in January 2018.
As the independent financial watchdog of the city, much of Rhynhart’s work as controller entailed auditing the performance of all city departments. From internal controls, to the parking authority, to the city’s controversial sexual harassment policies, Rhynhart’s tenure was spent pulling back the curtain on the pitfalls of Philadelphia’s political machine.
“What I’ve tried to do is use the powers of my office to really get at problems within city government, exposing those problems and charting a path forward,” Rhynhart says. “That’s the power of my office … to expose the problems and to make recommendations for improvement.”
The scope of Rhynhart’s work as controller wasn’t limited to the duties traditionally delegated to her office. Ever the agent of change, she dedicated her years at the helm to investigating issues facing not just city government—but Philadelphia at large.
“One thing I’m proud of is the work that my office has done under my leadership in areas that are outside the traditional role of the controller’s office,” Rhynhart adds. “I’ve done a lot of work on gun violence. Since 2019, my office has looked at this issue, has looked at what works in other places. And that’s what led me to start calling on Mayor Kenney to implement these intervention strategies that are so successful in other places.”
Rhynhart is well aware of the work that needs to be done to make Philadelphia the safe and equitable city that it has the potential to be, and she wants to be the one doing it. But first, she needs a bigger platform—and the mayor’s office seems like the right place to start.
When asked about the most pressing issues facing mayoral candidates this election cycle, Rhynhart is quick to name a laundry list of areas where the current administration has fallen short.
“Public safety is the number one issue that we have to tackle—that ties into gun violence, and there are proven ways to do that.” Rhynhart says. “We need to invest in the neighborhoods that have long been neglected. We need to crack down on illegal guns. These are actions that a mayor can take.”
Investing in Philadelphia’s public education is also top of mind for Rhynhart, whose relationship to the city’s school system is particularly personal. “My daughter is in seventh grade in the public school system, and we need to make sure that every child is going to a school that is in a safe building and that provides a good education,” she says. “Right now, the mayor picks the school board—which historically has not been the case—and I think that provides an opportunity for a mayor to be much more involved in the schools.”
Next up is an overhaul of municipal services more generally, which receive different levels of funding district–to–district. “We also need to ensure equity in city services; we have some neighborhoods that are getting much better services than others, and that’s just not right and must be fixed,” Rhynhart explains.
And to pull it all off, Rhynhart asserts that Philadelphia’s next mayor must also be able to rally politicians of all parties together to work toward her vision of a stronger Philadelphia—to bridge the ever–widening gap across the aisle.
“The next mayor needs to have empathy, to be able to connect with people’s needs and bring people together,” Rhynhart says. “I talk to activists, business leaders, community leaders, and I think that we’re really more alike than different. When it comes down to it, what everyone wants is safety for their family, a good job, a good school, and clean streets.”
A year out from the election of Philadelphia’s 100th mayor, the city is at a crossroads.
“I feel that our city is at such a critical moment right now,” Rhynhart says. “There’s a sense of, ‘Where are we going from here?’”
With Philadelphia in the throes of a gun violence epidemic, an economic downturn that disproportionately affects communities of color, and the aftermath of a public health crisis that exposed how deeply inequality is ingrained in access to public services—moving the city forward is no easy task. And with the current administration consistently failing to make the progress that its constituents expect, mayoral candidates need to bring a novel approach to leadership that will restore waning faith in local government.
City Hall’s most outspoken female changemakers have stepped up to the plate, each with a unique vision for a better Philadelphia. By knocking on the door of an office that has historically shut them out, Maria Quiñones Sánchez, Cherelle Parker, and Rebecca Rhynhart lend a fresh perspective to city government that offers a voice to the city’s voiceless.
“My hope is that when a woman comes [to the mayor’s office], that it isn’t just the trappings of femininity or gender identity that are changing,” Councilmember Gym says. “My hope is that a female mayor leads a radical feminist agenda that turns things on its head—that rejects a patriarchy and class structure that pushed so many women out of office and that has kept women in the city of Philadelphia down.”
Philadelphians want to see radical change made to a stagnant system that many believe no longer works for them—or perhaps never has. And the appointment of a woman to the mayorship for the first time in city history has the opportunity to do just that.