(CNN) — The biggest city in the battleground state of Pennsylvania is poised to effectively choose its next leader on Tuesday, as Philadelphia Democrats vote for the nominee to be the city’s 100th mayor – and a key figure in President Joe Biden’s reelection bid next year.
The long and historically expensive campaign, which at one point featured a dozen candidates, appears to be coming down to four or five contenders: former City Council members Cherelle Parker, Helen Gym and Allan Domb; former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart; and Jeff Brown, a city grocery store magnate.
Parker, Gym and Rhynhart are widely regarded as the favorites entering primary day, and each, should she win, would become the first woman elected mayor in the city’s long history. Like Michelle Wu in Boston, Gym would also be the city’s first Asian American leader. Parker, like Karen Bass in Los Angeles, is a Black woman and would also break two barriers at once.
The winner will instantly emerge an important national political player among Democrats, who count on Philadelphia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1, to deliver big turnout and heavy margins in statewide races, like the coming contest for its 20 presidential electoral votes.
This election, which has centered on education and public safety, could also provide another opportunity for progressives to flex their growing local electoral power. Gym, a longtime activist who served on the city council from 2016 until resigning to run for mayor, has the support of progressive movement leaders in Philadelphia and around the country. This past weekend, she was joined at a rally by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Throughout this campaign, so many people who always felt like they had the right to run this city called our ideas too radical, too complicated and our dreams too big,” Gym said days ahead of the vote, which progressives are hoping will add to a winning streak in big city mayoral elections, following Bass, Wu and, most recently, Brandon Johnson in Chicago – who, like Gym, once worked as a public school teacher. (Sanders specifically mentioned Bass and Johnson in his remarks to the crowd.)
The strength of her campaign – along with the perils it faces in the closing days – was highlighted by a recent storm of attack ads from a super PAC bankrolled by Republican donor Jeffrey Yass, who has spent roughly a million dollars on ads and mailers. (Yass also spent big against Democrat John Fetterman in his US Senate race with GOP nominee Mehmet Oz last year.)
Though Gym has the backing of grassroots liberal activist groups, larger organizations like the Working Families Party and the city’s teachers, municipal and hospitality workers unions, Parker also enjoys the support of influential labor outfits. The powerful Philadelphia Building Trades Council has endorsed her, along with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, which represents school workers like bus drivers, among others.
US Reps. Dwight Evans and Brendan Boyle, as well as state Sens. Vincent Hughes and Sharif Street are also backing Parker, who has the broad support of the city’s Black political establishment. Mayor Jim Kenney, who is term-limited, has not officially endorsed Parker, but told reporters last week that he voted for her.
“I think she has the ability to lead the city forward,” Kenney said, “and honestly I think it’s time for a woman of color.”
She is proposing an education reform package that would keep schools open longer each day and all year-round. But she has drawn some backlash over her support for the use of “stop and frisk” tactics by police as part of their efforts to root out guns and gun violence, so long as the practice follows constitutional guidelines.
“It’s not an either-or,” Parker said in a debate, “You will be held accountable, we will also have reform, but we will use every tool in the toolbox to ensure that our city is safer and cleaner and greener.”
Rhynhart, meanwhile, is likely competing with Gym for liberal votes in a race most believe will come down to a few percentage points and could end with the nominee only winning roughly 30% of the primary vote.
The former city controller has been endorsed by former Mayors Michael Nutter and John Street, along with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who ran the city for most of the 1990s. Rhynhart is also the choice of the editorial board of the city’s biggest paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Rhynhart, like others in the race, has sought to mix criticism of the police with what she casts as a comprehensive plan, including boosted social services, to combat crime.
“We need compassion,” Rhynhart said recently when asked about public safety, “but we also need consequences.”
Gym, though the clear progressive torch-bearer, is promising a robust approach to gun violence and crime prevention. She has promised to add police, but warned that vacancies in the force can’t be filled all at once.
“We are going to put more people out on the streets,” Gym told CNN. “Not all of them are going to be able to be police officers, but there’s going to be a larger cohort of people who are out there delivering public safety.”
Domb, another former council member, pledged to bring together city, state and federal agencies to help craft a plan of action to fight violent crime and stem the flow of weapons into Philadelphia, which according to a city website counts more than 500 victims of gun violence this year, with 123 of the victims dying.
The police union, though, has endorsed Jeff Brown, who also has the support of the city’s largest municipal workers union, AFSCME District Council 33.
Other candidates, mostly considered longshots, include state Rep. Amen Brown; Warren Bloom, a pastor; James DeLeon, a former judge; and Delscia Gray, a first time candidate.
The winner will face the only Republican running for the GOP nomination, former City Council member David Oh, in the fall.