Franklin Music Hall, the city’s pop music palace of the stars with celebrity puff icons like TV Girl, Liz Phair, and Danny Brown, hosted a political event on May 14, before last week’s Tuesday primary. The big trio on stage included Bernie Sanders, AOC, and one-time mayoral contender Helen Gym.

The purpose of the gala was to use the power of celebrity, in this case political, to close the gap in the polls and make sure Gym was crowned mayor.

Ocasio-Cortez was in rare form. “When progressives have victories,” she told the cheering crowd, “they are quick to dismiss it as a flake or an aberration or a mistake, but we’ve had this fight, and we’re taking the fight to the West Coast, to the East Coast….”

Cortez’s wide smile, a facsimile of Gym’s in many ways, got wider and wider as she declared, “On Tuesday, we are going to make Helen Gym mayor of Philadelphia.”

The audience believed it.

READ MORE — Albert Eisenberg: The unbearable lightness of Helen Gym

When Bernie Sanders walked onstage with his back to Gym’s front row of supporters — most holding placards like mannequins with fixed smiles that got me thinking what sort of politicking they had to do to be placed front and center — the crowd erupted into a Sanders frenzy. 

“Your generation is leading this country in the fight for justice,” Sanders said, confirming for me that most of the Franklin Music Hall audience was young people under 40. “But here is the not so good news, that is, your generation does not vote at a high enough level — we’ve got to do better!”

Gym appeared overwhelmed by all the love. At one point, she seemed on the verge of tears. One could feel that she was thinking that even if she lost the primary, she was now catapulted into the national limelight as a progressive icon.

That means, of course, that given the results of Tuesday’s primary, Helen Gym’s next move will be a statewide maneuver, à la John Fetterman.

On Tuesday, May 16, I worked as a poll watcher at my Riverwards neighborhood polling place. Poll watchers, both Democrat and Republican, hand out sample ballots to voters and answer questions. The vast majority of people who come in to vote are Democrat, so Republican watchers don’t have many ballots to hand out. We pace, read, and talk with our Democrat colleagues. Everybody gets along; there’s no animosity — but at times, there can be some back-and-forth ribbing. 

On this particular Tuesday, I noticed high numbers of young married types under 40 coming in to vote. Compared to former years, the numbers of under-40s seemed very high. This made sense when one considers Bernie Sanders’ plea at the Franklin Music Hall for “under 40 progressives” to get out the vote.

So, yes, here they were in spades, though who knows if they were all there to vote for Helen Gym. Most wore the “uniform” of progressives. (Don’t ask me what this uniform is, but you know it when you see it). 

My Dem poll watcher colleagues were unanimous in their intense dislike of Helen Gym. I would even go so far as to call this dislike hatred. “I don’t care who wins this primary as long as Gym doesn’t win,” is something I heard over and over again during my eleven-hour stay.

“Even if she loses by one vote, I’ll be happy,” a grand old dame of the local Democratic Party declared. 

Comments like this came from old Democrat stalwarts. Most were fearful of Gym’s radicalism and what she would bring to the city if elected: intense polarization. 

Although voter turnout was expected to be low, as the day progressed, more and more people under age 40 began to appear. Many brought their small children, baby carriages, and/or dogs, and made a real event out of it. In my few short years as a poll watcher, I have never seen so many people linger so long at the polling station. Some voters spent over a half hour milling about outside while their spouses went over the ballot as if they were signing tax forms.

The place had turned into a community center of sorts, which struck me as a good thing, since I’m hardly a fan of mail-in ballots.

There’s nothing like working the polls for an eleven- or twelve-hour stretch to get the lowdown on the candidates. You meet people in the know, people who “know” what Allen Domb is like when he’s not smiling in front of a camera, and people privy to all kinds of gossip. 

Gym’s loss was a miracle all Philadelphians should be grateful for.

A Gym victory worried Republicans and Democrats alike. Much of that worry had to do with the effectiveness of the massive Gym rally at Franklin Music Hall. In a YouTube video of that rally, AOC is seen hugging a blissful-looking Gym. The captured hug was a watershed moment in leftist iconography. 

Thankfully, it was a short-lived ectoplasmic moment that evaporated almost as soon as the polls closed. That’s when Cherelle Parker started to climb to the head of the pack, and when Gym and our man about town, the ever-present Allen Domb, descended to the back of the line.

I felt bad for Domb, considering the huge sums of money he spent on his campaign and the fact that he lost his City Council seat.

Gym is now free of Council as well, a mere citizen and out of the limelight for the time being — although once you’ve been hugged by AOC and Bernie Sanders on stage, you have to believe there’s something big waiting for you in the leftist cosmos.

I recall the Jeff Brown-funded poll that had him with a commanding lead some weeks back. Conversely, the (left-wing) Data for Progress poll had Gym leading the pack. The Emerson College Philly PHL 17 Survey (poll) also put Gym ahead at 20.5 percent, followed by Cherelle Parker at 18.2 percent. The Committee of 70 poll was a bit more reliable, putting Rhynhart in the lead at eighteen percent, Parker at seventeen percent and Gym at fifteen percent.

What to believe? Who to believe?

This woman’s race that left two powerful millionaires in the dust attracted the interest of the national media. New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog published a long feature entitled, “The Progressive Takeover of Big Cities is Nearly Complete,” citing Gym as the possible winner on May 16.

The author also stated that if Gym prevailed, “Progressives will have capped a remarkable run of victories in mayoral races that were once the domain of machine-backed moderates.”

WHYY was on a similar trajectory when it highlighted AOC’s declaration that “Gym will keep Philly safe from inequity and inequality.” 

Gym was also endorsed by Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. 

“They’ve got money, but we’ve got the people,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the Franklin Music Hall. “I always say to my team back home, progressives win in a street fight, and that’s what we’ve got here in Philly today: a street fight. We need to be knocking on every door, texting all our friends. We talk about youth organizing up, which means people need to call their tías, their tíos, their uncles, their cousins, everybody.”

While Brown and Domb may have had the money, Gym never really had the people, which is a miracle given the fashionable progressive tendencies of the city on the Delaware. 

Gym’s loss was a miracle all Philadelphians should be grateful for. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest“ will be released in May 2023.

3 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: Celebrity endorsements couldn’t save Helen Gym”

  1. Yes indeed, I am very grateful that Ms. Gym lost and at the same time not vey happy with the winner. By default, this gay man and his husband were voting for Rebecca as the best strategically positioned candidate to best the “Progressive Princess”. I was for Jeff Brown and spouse was for Alan Domb but when it was down to the wire, the poll results spooked us (as many) to vote strategically to hold back the sorceress of the far left. Both of us, degreed retired professionals, born in 1955, no longer fit into the Democratic narrative anymore. We are anti-woke moderates/centrists both perplexed and worried about this progressive push to herd society into a dystopic place. The movement for civil rights for gay men and lesbian women has been hijacked by insanely self-absorbed & hopelessly narcisstic radicals in the under 40 generations who have turned it into a mockery with a platform that may as well use all the letters in the alphabet from A to Z. We have watched and experienced this city simply degenerate into a version of a “Mad Max” movie over the excruitiating two terms of this spineless fool of a mayor aided by some woke leaning members of council. What to do? Queen Cheryl may make some headway in reestablishing some law and order in the streets. She may add more union backed grease into moving more gears to get some semblance of efficiency in city government amd authentic municipal services such as street cleaning. But, in the end, is that really what we all want and deserve as taxpayers? We deserve a real city that is the inheritor of noble purpose as envisoned by the founders and a place here private enterprise can thrive and provide opportunity for all. We deserve a city where children can thrive and no longer have the risk of being shot dead just steps from their home’s porch or doorstep. What will it take to get there? And most importantly, how to generate a movement of decency, thrift, enterprise, lawfulness, faith and respect within a city where the battlelines are drawn between the “Progressives” and (corrupt) Machine politicians and allies?

  2. As fractured as the field was, I thought Gym was going to win. Maybe I’m too “on-line”. I think the lesson here is that Philadelphia is not (yet anyway) San Francisco.

    1) Parker more than any other candidate probably represents the status quo. Given her “tough on crime” lane, I certainly think she’ll tussle with Krasner far more, but at the end of the day, she was the choice of old establishment, which isn’t dead yet by any stretch of the imagination. The primarily African-American areas are always going to be critical, and her and her message landed there, if you look at the map.

    2) Speaking of the map, Gym’s failure fascinated me. I got the sense that her and Rhynhart were fishing from the same pond a bit. But looking at the map, Gym only won University City (of course), some small pockets in between Center City and South Philadelphia, and some of the Vine Street Corridor (Chinatown and the Art Museum area). But by and large the more progressive types chose the “grown up” with some policy chops versus the bullhorn, with Rhynhart winning Center City, Yunk/Rox, Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy. Beyond the activists, I truly think Gym scared a lot of people away.

  3. Honestly “Cato the Elder” said it all. I was happy that Gym didnt win. The Italians and the police in the city dont forget what she did.

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