Republicans Step in to Fund PAC Attacking Philadelphia Mayoral Candidate Helen Gym

Republicans have repeatedly teamed up with Democrats to oppose progressive candidates in recent years.

Mayoral candidate Helen Gym takes part in a Democratic primary debate at the WPVI-TV studio in Philadelphia, Tuesday, April 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Mayoral candidate Helen Gym takes part in a Democratic primary debate on April 25, 2023. Photo: Matt Rourke/AP

Registered Republicans have stepped in to fund a little-known political action committee that has run ads attacking the leading progressive candidate in Philadelphia’s mayoral election, recent campaign disclosures show.

Since late April, the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth has run ads targeting former Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym. Gym is one of five major candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Philadelphia mayor. The winner will advance to the general election in November and is expected to win in the overwhelmingly blue city.

Gym’s campaign has long suspected that the committee was funded by Republican megadonor Jeffrey Yass, but Yass’s involvement was not confirmed until the group had to file a campaign finance report on May 5. Yass, a registered Libertarian, has so far contributed $1.1 million to the effort, records show. The Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth was one of the first outside groups to run negative ads during the mayoral primary. 

The group has received an additional $255,000 in donations from a variety of individual and organizational donors. Just over $50,000 of that money came from six registered Republicans and a company run by a registered Republican, according to The Intercept’s review of the disclosures and the individuals’ voter registration files. One donor who gave $1,500 did not have a public voter registration record and contributed to Republican candidates in previous elections.

Democrats have chipped in too. At least four additional individuals were registered Democrats, while others had given to federal Democratic candidates in past elections. Two companies and one organization run by registered Democrats also contributed. The remaining donors listed in the group’s campaign finance reports did not have public voter registration files, had no affiliation, or were independent.

Instances of Republicans working with Democrats to oppose progressive candidates have become more common in recent years. Major Republican donors have teamed up with Democrats to fund PACs and attack ads in competitive congressional primaries and local elections in states like Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan

“Republicans are partnering with Jeffrey Yass to attack Helen Gym because they don’t have a vision for Philadelphia,” said Philadelphia City Council member at large Kendra Brooks. “They don’t have candidates they believe in. They have nothing to offer working families and are on the verge of extinction in city government. So instead, they carry water for a billionaire. It’s cynical, but we’ve seen this before and more importantly we’ve beaten it before.”

State Sen. Nikil Saval, who represents parts of Philadelphia, said he wasn’t surprised that Republicans were spending in the Democratic primary. Republicans, Yass, and conservatives on both sides of the aisle are deeply hostile to public education, he said, which Gym has been an advocate for and made central to her campaign. “These folks don’t want that. They keep doing this and they keep losing,” Saval said, referring to previous efforts by Republicans and Democrats to spend against progressive candidates. “They lost in the courts, they’ve lost in elections. They’re just going to keep pouring money on because that’s all they have. It’s just a few of them. They have money and we have people.” 


GOP Megadonor Is Funding a Far-Right Israeli Think Tank — and Establishment Democrats

Yass is the richest man in Pennsylvania, where he is a major player in state and local politics and the co-founder and managing director of a Philadelphia investment firm. In recent years, Yass has sought to extend his influence around the country; he’s made headlines for being the sole funder of a new super PAC targeting progressives and funding a far-right Israeli think tank seeking to reshape the country’s judiciary system. He has meanwhile avoided at least $1 billion in taxes over six years, ProPublica reported. 

A Greater Philadelphia, a group that ran ads attacking several progressive state legislators last year and was funded by Yass, also contributed $17,000 to the coalition and provided it with public polling. Asked about the contribution, A Greater Philadelphia Chair Mark Gleason said, “We support safety and equitable growth.” He declined to say whether he opposed Gym’s campaign and directed questions to the coalition. Gleason previously ran an education organization funded by Yass.

The Republican donors to the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth include investment manager Scott Jenkins, telecommunications executive Brook Lenfest, oncology consultant Robyn Morgan, contractor Paul Becker, real estate investment manager Daniel DiLella, and computing company executive Vince Trotta. Constructural Dynamics Inc., a company run by contractor John Silvi, also donated to the effort. Together, they contributed just over $51,300 to the group. Only one of the Republican donors listed an address in Philadelphia, and others listed various Philadelphia suburbs. Even if they lived in the city, they would not be able to vote in the Democratic primary, as Pennsylvania holds closed primary elections. 

Morgan declined to comment. The other Republican donors did not respond to a request for comment.

Josh Kopelman, managing partner at a venture capital firm and the chair of the board for the Philadelphia Inquirer, gave $50,000 to the group in April. Kopelman was registered as a Democrat in 2022 and as a Republican in 2018. He did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth’s ads criticized Gym for voting against a 2019 pharmaceutical bill that came before the city council while her husband worked for AmerisourceBergen, a drug company sued by the federal government for its role in the opioid epidemic. Gym’s campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to local television stations saying the ad made false claims. Her campaign said she consulted the city ethics board prior to her vote and was told there was no conflict of interest. Gym did not disclose her husband’s job at the time.

Gym’s campaign has said the attacks funded by Yass are a direct response to Gym’s work to fund public schools. “This is plainly a false attack by a dark money PAC,” Gym’s campaign manager Brendan McPhillips said in a press release at the time. “They want to tear Helen down because they know she stands up for public education, and for everyday people over their narrow and greedy special interests.” Her campaign declined to comment for this article.

While around 15 percent of Philadelphia voters were undecided as of last week, Gym’s campaign has pulled ahead in the most recent poll, which shows the next four candidates in a virtual tie. Gym held a rally with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on Sunday. Her campaign has been buoyed by their endorsements and others from leading progressives in Congress including Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y.; Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.; and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Should Gym win on Tuesday, her campaign would be another marker of success for progressives running in liberal islands in otherwise conservative states on the heels of Brandon Johnson’s win in Chicago last month. Her campaign has focused on creating opportunities for the city’s youth, expanding affordable housing, investing in public education, removing illegal guns, and supporting victims of violence.

Join The Conversation