Rebecca Rhynhart started the Philadelphia mayoral race as a former city controller trying to make a name for herself by criticizing the police department. She was neither a wealthy businessman, like Jeff Brown or Allan Domb, nor a city council member with a local following, like Helen Gym.
But then, the Jewish woman surprised everybody. The 48-year-old earned endorsements from three former mayors in Ed Rendell, Michael Nutter and John Street and the city’s newspaper of record, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Less than a month before the May 16 Democratic Primary, she held a small lead over Councilwoman Cherelle Parker in a much-hyped poll.
So, as she walked into her election night party at Craft Hall in Northern Liberties, Rhynhart was smiling, embracing her daughter and chatting with the friends, volunteers and donors in attendance. “Let’s hear it for the mayor!” shouted Street, who was standing by a table near the entrance. The crowd started cheering and clapping.
It was just after 8 p.m. The polls were closed throughout Philadelphia County. Just like in that pre-election survey, Rhynhart held a small lead, less than 1,000 votes, over Parker with 23% of the tally counted. Refresh after refresh of the webpages of outlets like the Inquirer and 6abc showed the Jewish candidate’s grinning profile picture at the top. Giant TVs all around the beer hall, tuned into CBS Philadelphia, showed the same scoreboard.
But within an hour, the race turned. Successive vote dumps, from 23% to 38% to 46% to 63%, gave Parker the top spot. And her advantage kept growing, from around 9,000 votes to 11,000 to 17,000 to more than 20,000. Rhynhart disappeared from the bar area to go to a private room upstairs to consult with her team. The people downstairs sipped their beers with long faces. Some filed out the front door and into the warm spring night.
Sometime after 11 p.m., CBS Philadelphia showed a check mark next to Parker’s name. It was over. Parker, not Rhynhart, had won the Democratic Primary, making her the heavy favorite to become Philadelphia’s 100th mayor in the 80% blue city. She will face Republican David Oh in the November general election. If she wins, she will become Philadelphia’s first female mayor.
Shortly after the result came down, Rhynhart did, too. The people who remained at Craft Hall, a large enough group to fill tables, cheered loudly. The candidate put on a smile and walked to a podium set up at the front of the room with her campaign’s decal on it.
With her husband, David McDuff, standing next to her, and her campaign leaders on the other side, Rhynhart tried to pull off the most emotionally difficult task in politics: the concession speech. She took a second to try to find the words as the clapping continued. Then it died down and the floor was hers.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone. Obviously, this isn’t the outcome that I wanted or that we wanted. But I want to say that I am really proud of…the campaign and the way that all of us here came together to fight for a better Philadelphia,” Rhynhart said.
The crowd clapped and hollered.
“Our campaign was about fighting against the Democratic machine and the status quo of how things are done in Philly,” she said. “Change doesn’t happen always the way you want it to. But that’s OK, because we’ll keep fighting.”
The people clapped and hollered again.
“I’m proud of the campaign that we ran,” Rhynhart continued later to more applause. “I just want to say thank you. Thank you for being there for me. Thank you for putting yourselves out there. Thank you for standing with me.”
The candidate pledged that “the momentum that we have built is not going away.”
“It’s not,” she reassured her audience as they continued to cheer. “We will continue to work together and to fight for Philly because we have a great city, and there is a way forward that we’ve all charted.”
The Democrat did not elaborate. It will not be her job to do so. That task belongs to Parker, who at 11:41 p.m. tweeted the following:
“I’m so incredibly honored to have earned the Democratic nomination tonight. It’s been a long road, and to see the tireless work of my campaign team, supporters, and family pay off is humbling. I’m looking forward to November and bringing our city together as its 100th mayor.”
Back at Craft Hall, Rhynhart exited stage left and enjoyed a long embrace with Nutter, who had arrived earlier in the evening. Rhynhart served in the Nutter administration as treasurer and budget director. The former mayor endorsed her in March.
“My advice to Rebecca was always, ‘Give it everything you have.’ And if you know that you did the best you could, then you did the best you could,” Nutter said. “And that’s all a candidate can ever do. Ultimately, it’s up to the voters and what they want. Candidates don’t control the outcome.”
“I do believe that Rebecca gave every possible thing she could to this campaign,” he added. “Campaigns are a function of the sign of the times and the many, many things on voters’ minds.”
Nutter lost his first race for city council in 1987 but won the seat, representing Philadelphia’s fourth district, four years later and held it for 14 years. Then he ran for mayor and won twice. As he put it, he knows what it feels like to win and to lose.
“There’s a certain sense of disappointment,” he said of defeat. “A feeling that maybe you let a lot of people down. That’s not the feeling here in the room. You heard people chanting, ‘Rebecca.’”
Black residents make up the biggest racial demographic in Philadelphia, and Parker’s victory, according to several analyses, was powered by Black and Latino neighborhoods. She differentiated herself from other candidates on the crime issue by making specific proposals for putting more cops on the streets, like 300 additional foot and bike officers, and by advocating for a “constitutional version” of stop-and-frisk policies.
Rhynhart won the white neighborhoods but had to share the vote with Gym and Domb. An Inquirer breakdown showed Rhynhart winning more than 38% and more than 33% in “strong-majority-white” (75% plus) and “majority-white” (50-75%) precincts. Gym reached 24.9% and 30.6%, respectively, in those areas while Domb scored in the teens. Parker won at least 40% in every “majority” or “strong-majority” Black or Latino precinct, including 58.4% in “strong-majority” Black precincts.
Rhynhart said in November, after announcing her run, that her crime-fighting strategy did not begin with putting more cops on the streets. Instead, it started with “intervention strategies” like job training and therapy. Rhynhart, who grew up in a Reform Jewish household, had a bat mitzvah at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, sent her daughter to preschool at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and still celebrates Jewish holidays, said her approach was motivated by her Jewish values of empathy and fairness.
But in a city where homicides and car jackings impacted lives and dominated the news over the past two years, crime felt like a crisis, not a long-term issue to solve over time. Rhynhart’s argument convinced three former mayors, the newspaper of record and the more than 56,000 Philadelphians who voted for her. But with almost 99% of the vote counted, Parker’s victory margin is more than 24,000 votes and close to 10%.
The result forced even Rhynhart supporters to look ahead.
“I am going to be excited to work with whoever the next mayor is to advance veterans’ issues,” said Jack Inacker, a Philadelphia resident, Rhynhart supporter and the head of the local Veterans Caucus.
“I feel like Cherelle will stabilize the city,” said Colleen Puckett, a Jewish Rhynhart supporter and Philadelphia resident. “But if Rebecca doesn’t win, I feel like it’s a missed opportunity to bring the city forward.”