As urban gardeners begged Cherelle Parker to save the green spaces they had spent years maintaining from being gobbled up by developers, she furiously took notes in her spiral notebook and barely uttered a word.
Finally, Ms. Parker, the Democratic mayoral candidate, addressed neighborhood groups who had gathered on a cold afternoon in the Las Parcelas Garden in North Central Philadelphia. Yes, she would bring together as many stakeholders as possible to find a solution. But she was no savior.
“I’m not Superwoman, I can’t fix everything by myself,” she said as nearby construction echoed in the background. “I want to manage expectations.”
Ms. Parker was talking about Philadelphia’s 450 community gardens, but she could just as easily have been referring to her 142-square-mile hometown.
On Tuesday, Ms. Parker, a 51-year-old former state representative and city council member, is favored to be elected mayor of Philadelphia and become the first woman to lead the city and its 1.6 million residents.
If she won, she would have four years — or more likely eight, given that each of the last five mayors, all Democrats, won two terms — to address the challenges plaguing the country. poorest big cityheadlined by gun violence, opioid overdoses And crumbling And chronically underfunded public schools.
As a black woman, the daughter of a teenage mother and now the mother of a black son, Ms. Parker said she can relate to the daily struggles many of her neighbors face.
She has pledged to hire hundreds more police officers and restore what she calls “constitutional” stops and searches. help from the National Guard to combat the open-air drug market that has made shootings common in the Kensington neighborhood.
But with two-thirds of Philadelphians saying the city is on the wrong track, what many residents say they want from their next leader, as much as any political plan to address the city’s ills, is optimism and energy.
Symbolism, after all, has always permeated a city whose history as a cornerstone of American democracy is so essential to its identity. And Ms. Parker, as Philadelphia’s 100th mayor, would be the face of the city in 2026, when the country celebrates the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
“She’s very charming, very charismatic — a calming presence,” said Cait Allen, president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association, which represents a historic and wealthy neighborhood not far from Independence Hall. Quoting from Ms. Parker’s winning speech in the Intensely contested Democratic primary On making Philadelphia the “safest, cleanest, greenest city” in the country, Ms. Allen, 37, said: “She was the candidate who seemed to prioritize reality over philosophy . »
Ms. Parker would succeed Mayor Jim Kenney, who is leaving office after two terms. Early in his tenure, Mr. Kenney led a tax on sodas to help finance preschool education. More recently, the city’s finances have stabilized and its bond rating has been upgraded.
But in the weary context of the pandemic, Mr. Kenney’s second term was overshadowed by the civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd and by the proliferation of gun violence, such as a mass shooting in July that was exacerbated by a botched police response.
In an interview, Mr. Kenney, 65, said “a cultural change needs to happen.”
He added: “Not that I’m not progressive or that I don’t understand the struggles of people of color, but I’m still a white man. »
Ms. Parker is a former English teacher from Northwest Philadelphia who has a strong working relationship with Gov. Josh Shapiro, a fellow Democrat. She will undoubtedly be an integral part of her party’s efforts to increase turnout for President Biden, Sen. Bob Casey and other Democrats in 2024, when Pennsylvania could affect the balance of power in the White House and Congress.
When asked in an interview which mayors she hoped to emulate, she mentioned three: Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, for his focus on economic opportunity; Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge, who told Ms. Parker not to give up “chemistry for diplomas» ; and Eric Adams of New York, for prioritize “emotional intelligence» among the members of his staff.
“I don’t like to see people engage in what I call policymaking by saying, ‘I know what’s best for you,'” she said. “Change is not supposed to happen to a community. Change happens in partnership with a community.
His Republican opponent, David Oh, a former colleague on the city council, would also make history if he managed to surprise, becoming the city’s first Asian American mayor.
A lifelong Philadelphian like Ms. Parker, Mr. Oh, 63, a former prosecutor, set up a lively and unorthodox countrysideaimed at wooing immigrants, to overcome the daunting calculus in which registered Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans.
In an interview in front of city hall, after a flag raising ceremony commemorating Turkey’s 100th anniversary as a republic, Mr. Oh noted that he had taken some positions to the left of Ms. Parker, such as limiting the use of stop-and-frisk. And unlike Mrs. Parker, who counts the powerful make unions a strong supporterMr. Oh opposes the proposed new basketball arena for the 76ers in downtown Philadelphia which local activists let’s say it would devastate Chinatown.
He was disappointed, however, that Ms. Parker had only agreed to one debate.
“It’s not about winning the election,” he said. “It’s about communicating with voters. We need to engage them to boost their morale and get them behind a vision and a solution.
At an elegant coffee shop in a gentrifying West Kensington neighborhood, Al Boyer, 24, and Alex Pepper, 38, both baristas, cited the opioid crisis and gun violence as the next mayor’s top priorities.
A man with a needle sticking out of his neck had recently died of an overdose across the street from the cafe. A few blocks away, groups of homeless people slept under blankets on the sidewalk along Kensington Avenue.
Mr Pepper said he supported the creation of drug consumption sites supervised by medical and social workers – something Ms Parker opposed. Still, Mr. Pepper said he would vote for her.
“The lesser evil,” he said.
Joel Wolfram reports contributed.