Cherelle Parker hugs Marian Tasco, her mentor and a former city council member, at her election night party at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19

Democrat Cherelle Parker will become Philadelphia’s first female mayor [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

[Originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer Nov. 7, 2023]

Philadelphia’s glass ceiling has been broken.

Democrat Cherelle Parker defeated Republican David Oh on Tuesday to become the 100th mayor of Philadelphia. She will be the first woman to hold the office when her four-year term begins in January.

Parker, 51, recognized the historic nature of her campaign by thanking the women who blazed a trail for her in city politics: former Council President Anna Verna; former State Sen. Roxanne Jones; and former Councilmembers Augusta Clark, Joan Krajewski, and Marian Tasco.

”I’m only here today because those women decided I was worthy enough to sit at their feet and learn,” Parker said Tuesday morning before voting at her polling place, the Masjidullah mosque in her native West Oak Lane. “So anyone who’s watching today, you need to know I don’t arrive here by myself. I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. There was a community and a village of people who lifted me up.”

A former state representative and City Council majority leader, Parker coasted to victory in the general election with a compelling personal story, a tough-on-crime platform, and strong backing from the Democratic establishment and organized labor.

She will replace outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney, who was prevented by city law from running for a third consecutive term.

Parker has promised to crack down on crime, keep schools open year-round, aid small businesses, and make Philadelphia a “safer, cleaner, greener city.”

Speaking at her victory party at the Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall, Parker discussed her decision to emphasize her personal story on the campaign trail, including her being raised by her grandparents and relying on food stamps. That choice was a winning formula for her campaign, she said.

”I wouldn’t allow anybody else to attempt to weaponize my humble beginnings against me,” Parker said. “My real-life lived experience was closest to the people who are feeling the most pain right now in our city. … People were yearning for authenticity.”

It’s been two decades since a GOP nominee for mayor waged a competitive campaign and 76 years since a Republican has won.

Despite a history of winning votes across the political spectrum and in diverse communities, Oh failed to seriously threaten Parker in this year’s race. And she gave him little opportunity to break through.

Oh conceded in a speech to a room of about 50 supporters late Tuesday night at Emperor Restaurant in the Northeast, saying, “we have come to the end of this journey.”

”The voters have spoken and Cherelle Parker is the 100th mayor of Philadelphia,” he said. “So I congratulate her. I wish her well. It is her responsibility now and we will all support her to make her the most successful mayor that this city has seen because that’s what’s in the public interest.”

During the general election campaign, Parker agreed to only one debate — an 8 a.m. appearance on KYW Newsradio — and barely acknowledged Oh, also a former Council member.

While there was little interaction between the two candidates, Parker occasionally made headlines on the campaign trail this fall, including saying in a televised town hall meeting that she hoped to involve the National Guard in an effort to clean up Kensington.

It was the latest sign that, despite the outgoing and incoming mayors being political allies, Parker is likely to move City Hall in a more conservative direction. Kenney’s progressive leanings, for instance, usually led him away from heavy-handed policing tactics.

That shift likely won’t be limited to public safety issues. On education, the Kenney era saw the teachers union wield considerable clout, and the expansion of charter schools was limited. Parker has said she wants more “quality seats,” regardless of whether they are in charter or public schools, giving early hope to conservative school-choice advocates that her administration may be more friendly to their priorities.

Support from the building trades and a tough-on-crime approach

Parker’s victory was all but assured when she won the May Democratic primary, a crowded and contentious contest that ended up being the most expensive election in Philadelphia history. Parker was seen as more moderate than some of her top Democratic rivals, and her primary win was powered by Black voters and residents of low-income neighborhoods hardest hit by the city’s gun violence crisis.

Her win highlights the enduring influence of the building trades unions, which continue to dominate city politics despite the fall of their previous leader, John J. Dougherty.

“Johnny Doc,” as he is known, is currently standing trial on federal corruption charges for the second time in three years. He spent Election Day listening to the prosecution’s case against him in the federal courthouse on East Market Street, a Shakespearean twist for a figure whose presence presence towered over City Hall during the Kenney era.

Meanwhile, Dougherty’s replacement as head of the Building and Construction Trades Council, Ryan Boyer, is riding high. A longtime ally of Parker’s, Boyer provided her campaign with crucial support in the primary and orchestrated funding for a multimillion-dollar independent expenditure campaign that promoted Parker and attacked her opponents.

Parker’s victory also represents the culmination of decades of success by the Northwest Coalition, a Black political organization that started decades ago as a challenge to the white Democratic machine and eventually became a major pillar of the city’s political establishment.

The group has included members of Congress, the State House and Senate, and Council, and it has been key to the election of several mayors, including Kenney. But it has never had one of its own win the city’s top job until Parker, a protégé of Northwest luminaries Tasco and Clark.

Parker also emphasized the need for political unity in City Hall when her administration begins and said politicians can’t get mired in rivalries between Philly’s various political families. She called Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who is likely to become the next Council president, onto the stage. Johnson has not yet acknowledged he has the votes to lead Council and was initially sheepish. But he embraced Parker as she said, “We will not let divide-and-conquer … stop us.”

Parker is the fourth consecutive former Council member to be elected mayor, a streak that began in 2000. Only one of Philadelphia’s seven mayors from 1952 to 1999 had served on Council.

From a high school oration contest to the mayor’s office

Parker grew up amid the crack epidemic and endured a difficult childhood. Her father was not present, her single mother died when Parker was 11, and her grandmother, who had been Parker’s primary caretaker, died when she was 16.

Her life changed when she won a citywide oration contest as a student at the Parkway Program High School in Center City. Parker’s gripping speech about overcoming the odds made newspaper headlines, and she delivered it at churches across the city and at Council, where she met Tasco and Clark.

Parker has credited her high school English teacher Jeanette Jimenez with changing her life by encouraging her to read Black female authors and by coaching her through the speech contest. Jimenez joined Parker as she cast her vote Tuesday morning.

Parker graduated from Lincoln University and later earned a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania. After college, she taught English at a public school in New Jersey for one year before getting hired to work in Tasco’s office. She rose up the ranks as a Council staffer before Tasco encouraged her to run for the State House.

Parker easily won a seat that was virtually controlled by the Northwest Coalition, served 10 years in Harrisburg, and became chair of the Philadelphia delegation.

In 2011, Parker was arrested in Germantown for driving under the influence. She fought the case in court but lost on appeal in 2015. She has apologized and said the ordeal caused her to become a better public servant.

At the time, Parker’s DUI appeared able to sink her political career. It now looks merely like a low point that preceded a long winning streak. She won Tasco’s Council seat in 2015 when her mentor retired, and four years later was elected majority leader, the No. 2 leadership position.

Parker, who lives in Mount Airy, discussed her personal history in her victory speech Tuesday night — going into greater detail than she typically did on the campaign trail. She brought her ex-husband Ben Mullins to center stage and talked about co-parenting their 11-year-old son after their divorce. And she addressed her DUI in 2011, which she said some people used to try to damage her political career.

Emphasizing ‘lived experience’ as a Black woman

Parker resigned from Council and announced her much-anticipated mayoral run in September 2022. Her campaign started slow and was overshadowed by other early frontrunners in the primary. But from the beginning, Parker’s campaign had the ingredients that would make it successful: her deep ties to labor and the party.

In addition to the building trades, she won a critical endorsement from Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and garnered the support of scores of Democratic elected officials and ward leaders. Parker is herself the Democratic leader of the 50th Ward, which often boasts the highest voter turnout in the city.

She was the only Black candidate among the top contenders in the primary, and she dominated in the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods. She has emphasized throughout the campaign that, in addition to her accomplishments in Harrisburg and City Hall, Parker’s ”lived experience” as a Black woman from humble beginnings uniquely qualifies her for the job.

A political moderate, Parker unabashedly embraced a law-and-order program while also saying she would not tolerate police misconduct. After years of record-setting levels of shootings and homicides in Philadelphia, voters consistently said in polls that public safety is their top issue this year, and Parker’s message won the day.

The transition from Kenney’s administration to Parker’s won’t see a difference just in political priorities. The current and future mayors also have vastly different leadership styles. Whereas Kenney is often dour and camera-shy, Parker is energetic and speaks with a booming voice. She dresses in bright, stylish clothes, and appears well-positioned to build a national profile from the mayor’s office.

Parker’s campaign events are well known for their high production value, and her victory party Tuesday night was no exception. The event featured a drum line performance, gospel singers, and themed groups of speeches — from City Council members, clergy members, labor leaders, and other groups.

The hundreds of attendees at the event milled about the cavernous union hall while dining on a buffet and sipping wine.

Parker said that she and her son talked to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris before taking the stage Tuesday night. She said she told them, “Philadelphia cannot be successful without an immense amount of support from the White House.”

Given her campaign platform and the city’s climate, Parker will undoubtedly be judged based on whether her administration sees a decrease in shootings and homicides.

For Robert Bibbs, who voted for Parker on Tuesday, the decision went beyond race, gender, or party affiliation. It was about “who has a proven record of helping the community.”

As a resident of Parker’s Council district, Bibbs, 64, said he has seen her in action and is confident she is the right person to bring down crime the right way.

”I think Cherelle is going to settle it, and help both police and community feel comfortable with each other,” Bibbs said. “She will get them to understand that maybe some people are not as good as they should be, but know they are still people first.”

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