Mayoral Primary Preview: Candidate by Candidate

After 2007’s dramatic mayoral race that saw a young city councilman overtake two experienced congressmen and a billionaire to receive the nomination, 2015’s race is shaping up to be, well, less dramatic.

Candidates at the May 4th debate at Temple University Photo Credit: Stephanie Aaronson, philly.com
Candidates at the May 4th debate at Temple University
Photo Credit: Stephanie Aaronson, philly.com

Six candidates are competing to receive the Democratic nomination in the all-but-ceremonial November election. Among them are two lifelong political heavyweights in Anthony Hardy Williams and Jim Kenney, who have separated from the pack as the two frontrunners. Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, former press secretary under Mayor Nutter Doug Oliver, former City Solicitor Nelson Diaz, and former tax-evader Milton Street make up the rest of the field.

Over the past few months, the race has boiled down to two candidates: Kenney and Williams. But in the spirit of democracy, here is a brief summary of the candidates for the Democratic nomination to be Mayor of Philadelphia.

Lynne Abraham is a 74-year old former district attorney. Serving as DA from 1991 to 2010, she was the first candidate to announce her bid for mayor. But her early lead in the polls has slipped as of late. Her campaign has mostly focused on education, although her law-and-order, tough-on-crime tenure as DA has played a large role in her candidacy. Abraham has walked the line between Kenney and Williams on education, stressing the need for more funding and calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. Concerns about her age were raised when she collapsed during a debate earlier this year, but since then she’s been active and energetic on the campaign trail.

Doug Oliver was Michael Nutter’s press secretary from 2008-2010. He serves as the de facto millennial candidate in the race because he’s the only candidate in the race with no gray hair. However, Oliver’s youth comes across to many as inexperience, especially compared to Abraham, Kenney and Williams. Plastered across Oliver’s website is a quote from former mayor Ed Rendell: “Doug Oliver deserves a look in the race for mayor. He’s a bright, engaging young man with a lot of good ideas. He just might catch on.” Rendell may be right about Oliver, but his cautious prediction probably won’t come true this year.

Anthony Hardy Williams, son of longtime State Senator Hardy Williams, is currently the State Senate’s Minority Whip. This is his first run for mayor after a run for governor in 2010 that saw him pick up 18% of the primary vote. Like Abraham, education has defined Williams’ campaign. During his 26 years in the Senate, he’s bucked his own party by supporting expansion of the school district’s charter schools and public assistance to send kids to private schools. Williams is backed mostly by a trio of Main Line millionaires who have donated millions of dollars to support his campaign for governor and now mayor. He recently received a lukewarm endorsement from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Milton Street, despite receiving 24% of the vote in a primary challenge to Mayor Nutter in 2011, has been pretty much a non factor in this year’s race. His campaign has been riddled with controversy, from discoveries of tax evasion to accusations that he really lives in New Jersey. Few who follow Philadelphia politics take his candidacy seriously.

Nelson Diaz is an intriguing candidate. Most of his experience comes from the federal government, where he worked as General Counsel to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. He has served on the Temple University Board of Trustees and as City Solicitor for a couple of years, along with stints on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. However, his campaign hasn’t taken off as some had expected. Few major endorsements have come Diaz’s way, and one that did–Latinos United for Political Empowerment–has provided nothing but a headache for Diaz. Diaz refused to back Manny Morales for City Council’s 7th district due to his anti-gay and racist Facebook comments, which caused LUPE to pull its endorsement to back Jim Kenney instead. The best case scenario for Diaz, according to Phillymag.com, is “record-breaking Latino turnout that validates the community’s role as an emerging political power.”

Jim Kenney, a city councilman for 23 years, has emerged as the late frontrunner. He has the endorsement of over 40 city unions, including the powerful John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty and the electricians union–which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. Like Williams, Kenney has often gone astray of the party platform. While on the City Council he supported same-sex partner benefits before it was popular to do so and he nearly lost his seat for voting against DROP, an expensive bonus program for retired city employees. The main question for Jim Kenney is if he will be able to stand up to the powerful unions helping to get him elected.

This upcoming election is an important one. Philadelphia’s days of drugs and violence are making way for a youthful movement of promise and renewal. Over Michael Nutter’s tenure as mayor, the city has turned around decades of regression. It will be up to the next mayor to keep the progress going. How will the city convince young, educated millennials to stay? How can it encourage new people to move in without showing old residents the door? How can it find ways to fund its depleted school district and save its teetering pension fund?

There is much, much more to be said about these candidates than is mentioned in the brief summaries above. If you care to know more about how the candidates will respond to Philadelphia’s needs, conduct your own research, and don’t forget to vote on May 19!