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Helen Gym battles in tight race for Philadelphia mayor

By Heather Chin

For Helen Gym, the race to be Philadelphia’s 100th mayor is in some ways the culmination of her years of work advocating for residents, first as a community advocate and then as an at-large City Council member. But in other ways, being one of the leading candidates in a crowded and diverse mayoral field is just the latest platform for a woman committed to continuing her public service career for years to come. 

And with just a couple of days to go before Tuesday May 16th hotly contested primary election, Gym’s initially grassroots-focused platform got a national boost with endorsements from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and NY Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — both of whom are scheduled to join the mom of three on the Mother’s Day before Election Day for a Get Out The Vote rally in Philly’s Callowhill neighborhood, just blocks away from the Chinatown school where Gym first began her advocacy career. 

“Our campaign has always been about bringing people together to reshape political systems so that they meet the needs of the people, not the powerful — from quality public education and affordable housing to workers’ rights and environmental justice,” Gym said. “This rally is all about joy, possibility, and people power, and that’s the energy we’re bringing with us going into election day.

It is yet to be known whether Sanders and AOC’s support will help or hurt Gym’s candidacy, but she has racked up support from health and education unions, the region’s leading Asian American civic organizations, gun violence advocates, and other leading figures in politics and business.

“Major cities across the country are feeling the rush of a progressive tide,” said Mohan Seshadri, executive director of API Pennsylvania. “In the last two years, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago have all elected progressive people of color as their mayors. Now it’s our turn.”

The most recent independent poll has Gym slightly ahead of fellow female candidates Cherelle Parker and Rebecca Rhynhart as voters’ top three choices among the nine candidates. 

In Philadelphia, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a large margin, the winner of the Democratic primary is likely to triumph in the November general election against the sole Republican candidate, David Oh

We had a chance to chat with Gym about her goals, inspiration, and vision for Philadelphia. Here is what she had to say about why gun violence is a public health emergency, what she sees as responsible development and more, and, of course, why people should vote for her. 

(The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.) 

AsAmNews: If elected, what will your Day 1 agenda be? 

Gym: I would declare gun violence a public health emergency. I would begin to coordinate all city departments in an all-out effort to get resources out to families and restructure the police department, to not only deploy more officers, but really zero in on solving cases, particularly violent crime, and ensure we can support victims and survivors of violence, as well as intervene with those in the path of violence. 

We have a number of programs geared towards individuals 30 and under, and need to prioritize them. Some of them are hospital-based intervention, guaranteed employment, or paid programming. There are group violence intervention programs working with young people at risk of being victims, and with a laser focus on schools and bringing parents to be part of the solution. 

AsAmNews: What do you see as your biggest challenge? 

Gym: The biggest challenge anyone in elected office has right now is the belief things don’t really change. My role is to prove things don’t just have to change but can. My work has been around how you can take leaps forward, see dysfunctional systems really turn themselves around with a vision, a lot of public engagement, and with a significant amount of relentless will to fix problems. That’s how I’ve seen things turn around in this city. 

AsAmNews: Describe your vision for Philly’s relationship with the state and nation? 

Gym: In 2023, Philly is one of five major cities electing mayors who will help lead the U.S. on issues around community safety, education, affordable housing, climate, and a new economy. My vision is to make sure Philadelphia is the best city in the country to raise your family and build your future. 

I do think cities have to lean in right now on their ability for a strong residential base, and things can be vibrant and alive with culture, green space, centers, modern systems of transit, and technology. Those are deeply desirable. In a city like ours, our task is to make sure residents actually want to live here, and then others will want to come here too.

AsAmNews: On the issue of police-community relations, you have criticized stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional and “a failed practice of the past.” What is your goal to improve this relationship, what do you see as the mayor’s biggest challenge, and what is the biggest resource at their disposal to make your vision a reality? 

Gym: So clearly restoring a sense of community trust and public trust is paramount. We need departments that help get engaging and positive ways with communities. That includes providing real concrete resources in the aftermath of violence, making sure we’re caring for victims, not just prosecuting cases, but actually getting them the help they need. I’m certainly going to make sure I’m visible and on the ground, and also make clear that policing is one piece of our public safety agenda, but not the only one. We have a responsibility to make sure we deliver education, clean spaces, and economic opportunity as core aspects of an anti-violence agenda in Philadelphia, as well. 

AsAmNews: As a political leader, team manager, and community advocate, how would you describe your communication style? Your crisis management style? 

Gym: I am on the ground and involved in communities right away. I don’t usually wait for a crisis to hit. You have to have strong community relationships and work with communities even if there is no crisis. Be visible with communities, help figure out solutions that don’t exist right now. I feel like the visibility of cities and the breadth of what cities can do can go a long way towards helping cities heal, help people feel confident that we have power to make change and heal harmful systems. That will take a lot of work. As mayor, it will take a tremendous amount of work and effort on our part to engage and show how cities can lead on these issues. 

AsAmNews: Many community advocates in Philly’s Asian American communities have told me that you are among their role models. Who/what are or were your inspirations, in general growing up, in the AAPI community, in politics, and/or in Philadelphia? 

Gym: I would say I didn’t have a lot of AAPI role models growing up. I grew up in a midwestern city. A lot of my inspiration came from reading literature, learning about freedom fighters from all over, whether crusading journalists winning Pulitzer Prizes. Nelson Mandela was a big influence who was making change. In Philadelphia, it was a privilege to be part of Asian Americans United, to have a matriarchy of really powerful Asian American women who helped me become who I am and showed me you can be both a powerful community leader, mother, educator, and somebody who really seeks transformation around helping communities rise in the face of so much pain and struggle and uncertainty. They really taught me how to tap into the strength and unlimited potential of communities to find solutions to come together and ultimately to lead. 

AsAmNews: What has your family’s role been in your advocacy and what do they think of your work?  

Gym: A lot of the work has been as a mom. My oldest daughter was about to enter kindergarten when Pennsylvania announced a takeover of the entire public school system to turn it to a single company for profit, and I said absolutely not, not on my watch. This was part of a huge movement that really pushed back. My kids knew early on they were going to be something bigger, their lives would be tied to something bigger. They needed to understand that in this world, because things are wrong and systems don’t fix themselves, it actually takes a concerted effort of people coming together, figure out how to force change. 

AsAmNews: What are your thoughts on the proposed 76ers arena, especially now that two major Philly Chinatown organizations have formally opposed the proposal? Is it still viable? Do you think your past work with AAU challenging development will impact some voters’ perception of your candidacy for mayor? 

Gym: The proposed arena will not open its doors until 2032 at the earliest. I don’t intend to wait for a revitalized Market East that goes from City Hall to the river. Whatever deal happens for the Sixers, it’s incredibly important that our city benefits. We can strengthen small businesses up and down Market Street right now to bring life back to this critical downtown corridor. Making Market East the vibrant corridor it must be will be my focus as Mayor.

AsAmNews: From the trauma of school bullying and street violence, to the inspiration of your own candidacy and this year’s One Book, One Philadelphia selections centering the Asian American experience, AAPI representation, misrepresentation, and hate attacks have had a tumultuous history in Philly, as in other cities. 

If elected, what do you see as the significance of your status as the first female mayor and first Asian American mayor of Philly? And how would you address concerns about anti-Asian hate and general representation and political influence if elected? 

Gym: As a tough Philly mom and daughter of immigrants, I draw inspiration from the fearless moms, resilient immigrant communities, and young women leaders who wake up every single day and do everything they can to make this city a better place. To me, representing the diversity, strength, and power of the AAPI community means leading on a vision that will allow AAPI families, and all families to thrive: a vision that delivers safety at home, dignity at work, affordable housing, and quality education for every child. As the 100th Mayor, first woman Mayor, and first Asian American Mayor of Philadelphia, I will treat this city with the same level of dedication, tenacity, and care that Philly moms and immigrant families have treated their kids and their communities for generations.”

Helen Gym campaign photo

AsAmNews: How will you build, heal, and strengthen relationships with the city’s Black and brown communities? How will you build bridges between communities? What projects or partnerships do you see that inspire you? 

Gym: For decades, I have fought tirelessly alongside and delivered for Black and Brown communities in Philadelphia. When the city was closing down schools and libraries in their neighborhoods, I was standing with residents and fighting to keep our schools open and support our young people. During the pandemic, when Philadelphia, one of the highest-evicting cities in the country, was on the verge of displacing thousands of families, most of them Black women and their children, I introduced a groundbreaking eviction diversion program that cut evictions in the city by 70%. When our immigrant communities were threatened by deportation, abuse, and harassment, I stood with them at every turn and proudly declared Philadelphia a sanctuary city. 

Asian American communities must always stand with Black and Brown communities because we know our fates are intertwined, and the only way to make Philadelphia the safe, livable, vibrant city we know it can be is if we fight for the future of our city together, as we have many times in the past.”

AsAmNews: Across Philly, its suburbs, and the nation, school districts are grappling with everything from the pandemic and library staffing and achievement challenges, to book bans and bullying, standardized testing and funding. Philly schools also face basic structural problems such as asbestos and lack of air conditioning. 

Where do you stand on these issues? What works and does not work? What is your plan of attack and how do you plan to get both buy-in and actual buying power? 

Gym: Public education is the single biggest investment we can make in our children, our city, and in each other.  As a Philly mom, organizer, public school teacher, and City Councilmember, I tackled unsafe school conditions, school closures, an unresponsive state-controlled school district — and won. I worked directly with communities to take on some of our city’s biggest problems, and together we got results. We guaranteed safe drinking water, nurses, and social workers in all public schools; championed new requirements for public schools to provide free school breakfast in the classroom; secured a $15 million investment in schools from the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and more. But our work isn’t over.

I see education as the key to violence prevention, neighborhood stability, economic mobility, and building a bright future for our city.  As Mayor, I will build strong coalitions, value the voices of our school communities, and bring everyone to the table around a shared vision. I will be a Mayor who values the adults who care for and educate our children and treat parents, neighborhoods, and the city as a whole as partners.”

AsAmNews: What lessons did you learn from how previous city and state administrations handled the COVID pandemic, addiction crisis, homelessness policy, and healthcare access issues over the past several years?  

Gym: Gun violence, the opioid crisis, and the homelessness crisis are all public health issues and must be approached that way so that every person in our city can be safe and feel safe. From fighting the eviction crisis that disproportionately harms Black families and pushing for far more equitable access to COVID vaccines to securing the first dedicated funding for homeless youth and ensuring safe drinking water and nurses in every school, improving public health outcomes for our most vulnerable community members has always been a top priority of mine. As Mayor, I won’t run this city not like a business, but like this city is our home, and we are all family. And when you’re family, you don’t leave anyone behind. . . One size does not fit all. 

I also believe that our city agencies and leadership needs to more truly reflect our communities – our programs, policies, and plans should be shaped through both external community input and by having a city workforce that has direct knowledge and cultural competency to meet our communities’ needs.

Finally, I believe we need to evaluate how we are doing by listening to the people we claim to serve. My administration won’t just govern from City Hall, we will be out in communities talking to people who are living the realities of our city’s opioid crisis, gun violence crisis, and homelessness crisis every single day.”

AsAmNews: You mentioned that part of your role as mayor would be making sure people want to live here, raise families and do business here. What actions would you take or policies would you support to make this a reality? 
Gym: My approach to growing the economy and strengthening Philadelphia’s workforce is grounded in three central beliefs. First, that it is necessary to be both pro-business and pro-worker to build an economy that works for all of us, and that we cannot move this city forward by focusing on one and not the other. Second, Philadelphia’s tax structure must be re-examined and updated, and the services and supports it provides to small and local businesses must be improved. And third, that a city that works for its citizens is one that will grow. By cultivating a place where people want to be, with clean streets, reliable public transportation, affordable housing, good schools, and accessible libraries and parks and recreation, Philadelphia can create and attract high-quality jobs and community-oriented employers.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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