On Friday, at the same time as thousands of law enforcement officers were lining up at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul to pay respect to slain Temple Police Officer Christopher Fitzgerald, WPHT radio host Dom Giordano was hosting the first bipartisan mayoral forum in the 2023 race. All but three of the candidates running in the crowded field attended the forum, which was broadcast live.
In attendance were Democrats Cherelle Parker, Allan Domb, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Derek Green, Rebecca Rhynhart, Jeff Brown, and Republican David Oh. Notably absent: Democrats Helen Gym and Amen Brown, as well as longshot Democrat candidates Warren Bloom and Jimmy DeLeon.
While public safety was the first and most pressing issue posed to each candidate, most touted the same talking points that current Mayor Jim Kenney had as to what to do about Philadelphia’s three-plus years of record violent crime rates, and a stunning upward spike in overall crime that began in 2017. Most candidates who spoke seemed to contradict themselves on the issue. In an almost synchronized response, most of the Democratic candidates called for more police and coordination with the district attorney, state police, and attorney general, while simultaneously speaking about coordination with community groups to “build trust” – a catch phrase used nationwide since the George Floyd riots of 2020.
The crowded field of hopefuls vying to replace Mayor Jim Kenney and become Philadelphia’s 100th mayor share many of the same talking points, but shy away from details on how they will address them. Host Dom Giordano asked each candidate direct questions on the dire state of public safety, and specific ways to fix them. Of all the candidates who spoke, only two — Councilman David Oh (R) and grocery store CEO Jeff Brown (D) — vowed to replace Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw amid their public safety strategies.
Two Democratic candidates, Allan Domb and Rebecca Rhynhart, referred listeners to their websites for “public safety plans”. While Domb’s plan is a detailed nine pages, it does not explain why he voted with his caucus to defund the police following the Floyd riots. Rhynhart’s plan is less voluminous, but she offered a great deal of detail on inefficiencies within the police department gleaned from her work as Controller. She also described a plan to allow communities to dictate how policing will “look” in their neighborhoods. Rhynhart was one of many candidates who proposed to continue the funding of “gun violence intervention” strategies, which fund nongovernmental groups with little accountability.
Rhynhart joined the consensus of Democratic candidates who favor “declaring a crime emergency” in Philadelphia which would entail “activating the emergency operations center for the gun violence crisis” and direct city resources to the areas most impacted by “gun violence”. While the talking points, like the “crime emergency” seemed like viable actions to be taken by our next mayor, the devil was in the details. The city already has a multi-billion dollar fusion center called the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center composed to coordinate law enforcement efforts between federal, state, and local agencies. It is not clear how a “crime emergency” would change things when the city’s law enforcement community is currently hundreds of officers short in recruiting goals.
The lack of specifics is surprising from a field dominated by those who should know the details, considering their roles as controller and council members. Pressed for answers, several candidates said they needed to explore the issues further following their election
Lack of specifics continued as candidates spoke about the city’s dire economic picture. Parker, Quiñones-Sánchez, Green, Oh, and Domb have budget votes that have furthered the slide toward the city’s pension shortfall. Furthermore, Parker appeared fresh from a large union endorsement, while wealthy businessman Jeff Brown strategically dropped the word “union” into each comment on the city’s economic investment, which speaks against the urgent need to “right-size” city government to bring the budget in line with revenue.
This is where former Councilman David Oh stood out. As the only Republican candidate in the field, Oh seemed less concerned with talking points and gave more direct answers. Oh called out the causation of the city’s crime issue – mainly the lack of prosecution by DA Larry Krasner and the demoralization of our law enforcement community through a lack of support by Mayor Jim Kenney. He also spoke about how he had to pay out of his own pocket to go on a trade delegation to South Korea, the country now responsible for the largest contingency of roll-off cargo arriving in the Port of Philadelphia. With seemingly “nothing to lose”, Oh’s blunt answers and actual record as the only consistent minority vote on council set him apart from those who spoke.
The lack of details offered by the Democrats may also be chalked up to the crowded field. Various candidates are actively engaged in a battle for the soul of the city’s Democratic voters and important fundraising base. With the absence of bombastic progressive candidate Helen Gym, many wondered if the other candidates may have been “pulling their punches” on the failures of Kenney and Krasner because they feared alienating the progressive donors that heavily impacted the last two municipal election cycles.
This may be why only Oh and Jeff Brown committed to replacing Outlaw, the city’s first African American female police commissioner. The absence of Amen Brown was also noted, as his “tough on crime” talking points have been of sharp contrast to his fellow Democrats in prior appearances, but Giordano reported that he was at Officer Fitzgerald’s funeral and may not have been able to appear at the forum due to that conflict.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME