Exclusive: AOC Endorses Progressive Helen Gym in Philadelphia Mayoral Race

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the third member of the Squad to make the endorsement, jumped into the race days after well-funded attack ads against Gym began to air.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - November 30. Helen Gym entered the Philadelphia Mayor’s race, and is its biggest progressive face. (Photo by Carlos Nogueras/AL DÍA News Via Getty)
Mayoral candidate Helen Gym speaks at an event in Philadelphia on Nov. 30, 2022. Photo: Carlos Nogueras/AL DIA News via Getty Images

As part of a show of national figures stepping into a hotly contested local Democratic primary, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., endorsed Philadelphia mayoral candidate Helen Gym, in a statement made exclusively to The Intercept. Widely viewed to be the most progressive candidate in the race, Gym is in a statistical tie with her four main primary opponents, according to a new poll released Friday.

Ocasio-Cortez became the third member of the Squad — a band of congressional progressives garnering national attention — to endorse Gym. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., endorsed Gym on Friday; Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., also recently endorsed her.

“Helen isn’t afraid to take on tough fights or go up against big special interests. And when she does, she wins,” Ocasio-Cortez said.“She’s delivered real results for her constituents — making communities safer, housing more affordable, and public schools stronger. I am proud to endorse her.”

In a statement to The Intercept, Gym’s campaign manager Brendan McPhillips said, “While other candidates have the political machine and dark money donors in their corner, we have the people, and that’s how we’re going to win this race: by talking to everyday Philadelphians about the safe, vibrant, thriving city we all deserve.”

The AOC endorsement came just days after a new ad began to air in Philadelphia attacking Gym. The ads hit Gym for voting against a 2019 Philadelphia City Council bill to strengthen regulation of pharmaceutical sales. Her campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to local television stations on Friday, saying the ad made false claims.

A new group called the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth is spending $200,000 on the ads, according to reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer. The group has not yet filed paperwork with the Board of Ethics and Office of the City Commissioners. It won’t be clear who’s funding the group until it has filed a required financial disclosure on May 5.

Gym is one of nine candidates in the May 16 Democratic primary, which will likely determine who takes the mayor’s office in overwhelmingly blue Philadelphia. There is no runoff system in the city, and the winner will advance to the general election in November.

Gym’s campaign manager, McPhillips, and her supporters on Twitter speculated that the source of the ads was Jeff Yass, a billionaire megadonor to Republicans and moderate Democrats. The political action committee for a group largely funded by Yass sent out controversial mailers last year attacking several progressive candidates for the state legislature. He is the sole funder of a new federal PAC launched to fight progressives.

Yass also funds a far-right Israeli think tank that has been instrumental in ongoing efforts to weaken the country’s judiciary. While he has become more active in national politics in recent years, Yass has long been an influential figure in state and local politics through the Commonwealth Foundation and its network of affiliated groups, which advocates for taking Pennsylvania policy “back to its roots” through cutting funding for public schools and other social services.

For Gym’s supporters, the attacks against her are a sign that her campaign is competitive.

The first public nonpartisan poll in the race, published on Friday, showed 20 percent of voters undecided and the five top candidates in a statistical tie. Former Philadelphia Controller Rebecca Rhynhart led the pack, followed by former city council majority leader Cherelle Parker, Gym, former city council member Allan Domb, and Jeff Brown, a grocery store magnate.

Several internal polls leaked in recent weeks have shown Gym in second or third place. Rhynhart is largely seen as the frontrunner and has support from the city’s Democratic machine, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former Philadelphia Mayors John Street and Michael Nutter.

Of all the candidates, Gym has the most robust door-knocking program. She has support from the Working Families Party, Unite Here Philadelphia locals, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and AFSCME DC 47. Her campaign plans to knock 300,000 doors by primary election day.

Gym has won support from progressives thanks to her time as an advocate for working class families, both as a public school teacher and city council member. She’s worked to block school privatization, strengthen school water safety standards, and end school disciplinary practices for kindergartners.

The race has received national attention as an example of another opportunity for progressive success in a purple state on the heels of Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s upset win earlier this month.

Philadelphia has been put under a microscope in recent years, with Republicans like former President Donald Trump, who name-checked the city as part of an election strategy to drum up fear of crime.

So far, the mayoral race is a testament to the failure of that rhetoric. Gun violence is a major topic, and several candidates have expressed support for harsh strategies like the city’s new youth curfew or “tough on crime” policies like stop-and-frisk. Yet there has also been a focus on addressing underlying issues like education, housing, and job security.

Gym has worked to secure emergency funding for school zones and reform statewide juvenile justice policies, including the fight to close a troubled youth detention center in Pennsylvania.

Gym has suffered a handful of missteps along the way. Her critics point to her husband’s history as a pharmaceutical executive in the 2019 vote on new regulations. She attended a cocktail party at the tony Union League just a week after denouncing the club. Gym later apologized. And she was ridiculed for criticizing rival candidates for supporting the Philadelphia 76ers efforts to build a new downtown arena — only to admit shortly thereafter that she had met with the team co-owner.

Those are valid critiques, Inquirer columnist Will Bunch wrote on Friday. But they don’t take away from the fact that Gym’s platform is the most progressive in the race by far.

“One truism about politics is that a lot of times you can gauge a candidate by the enemies they make,” Bunch said. “The Chamber of Commerce crowd and their handmaidens aren’t fighting Gym because of her mistakes, but because of the things she gets right.”

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