Helen Gym wants to be an ‘on the ground’ mayor

Helen Gym
Helen Gym was elected to City Council in 2015.
Cecilia Orlando

Philadelphia’s public schools may be in a perpetual state of crisis, but the situation was particularly dire when Toni Damon arrived as principal of Murrell Dobbins High School.

State funding had been slashed, under the leadership of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and thousands of positions were cut. Damon became involved in efforts to fight for increased funding, and she kept seeing Helen Gym, then a community organizer.

“She’s not like all fluff. She is about this work,” said Damon, who left Dobbins in 2021 after nine years to become principal at Cherry Hill West High School. “She doesn’t just talk about it. She is truly about it.”

Gym rose to prominence as a public education advocate, and now, following nearly six eventful years on City Council, she is vying to be the Democratic nominee for mayor.

In an interview, Gym described herself as a “tough Philly mom that refused to accept broken systems.” She also compared Philadelphia to a sick patient who “needs care and support.”

“Communities need somebody who is going to be on the ground, turning things around with them, and not just being a figurehead in City Hall,” said Gym, who lives in the Logan Square section of Center City.

Gym believes gun violence and the problems facing the education system are intertwined and need to be tackled together.

“Most victims and individuals involved with gun violence are below the age of 30,” she said. “They’re deeply impacted by a dysfunctional educational system that has struggled with funding, with investment and, most importantly, with political will.”

If elected, she intends to declare a state of emergency around gun violence and focus resources on solving crimes, supporting victims and their families and providing outreach to those most likely to be on either end of the gun.

Though she thinks traditional policing measures have “largely failed,” Gym said “the sense of lawlessness is that too many people right now are getting away with it.”

Gym’s campaign has continued to gain steam despite an early misstep.

Days after criticizing the Union League of Philadelphia for honoring controversial Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Gym was spotted at the club during a January event hosted by General Building Contractors Association.

She refused to answer a question about the ordeal; however, in a statement, Gym said her “attendance at the GBCA event sent the wrong message” and she pointed to a decades-long record of “fighting policies of hate and exclusion.”

Significant endorsements, from Jane Fonda to the Philadelphia Federal of Teachers and the Working Families Party, have continued to buoy Gym. She has more money in the bank than any other mayoral candidate, aside Allan Domb, who has poured a significant amount of his personal fortune into the race, according to campaign finance reports filed this week.

‘Problem solver’

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Gym’s introduction to Philadelphia was through the University of Pennsylvania, where she enrolled as an undergraduate.

“Technically, I studied history, but I spent most of my time at the college paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian,” she told Metro.

After running an afterschool program, Gym began teaching at Olney’s James R. Lowell Elementary, where she saw the promise of the city’s students and the institutional challenges facing them.

“Clearly education brought me into more community work,” she added. “I’m really running for mayor to finish a job I started almost 30 years ago.”

A Gym administration would partner with the school district to craft a 10-year plan to modernize all buildings; institute early morning and afternoon programming; and give SEPTA passes to all students, regardless of how far they live from school, according to her campaign.

Her platform also calls for implementing a 60%-40% property tax split, with the bulk of the revenue going to schools. Currently, the district receives around 54% of the total.

“I expect that the public school system is going to be much more responsive to parents,” she said. “It’s going to be well planned out.”

Gym would maintain the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, also known as the soda tax, saying it would be “irresponsible” to dismiss a levy that pays for pre-K slots and renovations to recreation centers, libraries and playgrounds.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym speaks during a 2020 rally outside Comcast headquarters.Metro file

She pushed for 2020 SEPTA fare changes that eliminated the fee on a rider’s first transfer and allowed children under 12 to ride free with an adult. Gym said she supports making all transfers free and would encourage universities to purchase transit passes for students and staff as a way to boost ridership.

Her appointees to the authority’s board would be “SEPTA riders and transportation experts,” her campaign website states.

Joining council in 2016, Gym became known for championing progressive causes, pushing legislation ensuring schedule predictability for workers and creating an eviction diversion program.

Over the past three years, she often teamed with council members Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks, who was elected on the Working Families Party ticket.

Longtime attorney Mark Aronchick, who served as city solicitor under Mayor William J. Green, has worked with dozens of council members and characterized Gym as one of the most effective lawmakers.

“I think she’s a problem solver, but she’s also a leader,” Aronchick told Metro. “She has a vision. She can bring people along on that vision.”

“When you work with Helen Gym, you see somebody that cares so much about your point of view, balances it, brings it in with all the other points of view,” he added. “You see somebody who works so hard on evidence-based solutions.”

Ahead of Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Race, Metro will spotlight every candidate in the Democratic primary election, which will take place on Tuesday, May 16. Follow our Mayor’s Race Spotlight Series for an in-depth look at the candidates.