Philadelphia mayor’s race sees a first public spar over race, privilege, and wages – The Philadelphia Inquirer

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More than 200 people attended a mayoral candidates’ forum sponsored by DiverseForce and the African American Chamber of Commerce on Sunday. It got testy at the end.
A public forum in Germantown featuring eight of Philadelphia’s mayoral candidates turned heated Sunday evening when former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker aimed sharp quips at rival Jeff Brown, a ShopRite proprietor, and intimated that he generated his “white privilege wealth” on the backs of Black people.
Parker’s criticism – which included suggesting Brown pays some of his employees $9.65 an hour – came after Brown, who is white, repeatedly touted that he has created 60,000 jobs, many of them held by Black people. Brown said he intentionally works with Black vendors, saying, “People of color, especially Black people, have been my life’s work.”
The ShopRite owner didn’t have an opportunity to respond to Parker on stage, but his campaign strongly pushed back Monday, calling her attacks “dishonest” and saying no one who works at his stores makes less than $12.50 an hour.
The back-and-forth over Brown’s stores represented the first major dispute of the 2023 mayoral campaign and came during the first time a plurality of the 10 Democratic candidates running for mayor appeared together on stage.
The dustup also underscored how racial politics stand to play a significant role in the race, particularly for Brown, whose messaging has focused on the grocery stores he opened in majority-Black neighborhoods. The forum was about building wealth in Black and brown communities and was sponsored by the African American Chamber of Commerce of PA, NJ, and DE, and DiverseForce, a talent recruitment company that focuses on Black and brown professionals.
In addition to Parker and Brown, the other candidates who attended were former Councilmembers Derek Green, Helen Gym, Maria Quiñones Sánchez, and Allan Domb; ex-City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, and retired Judge James “Jimmy” DeLeon. State Rep. Amen Brown did not attend. The 10th candidate, the Rev. Warren Bloom, who had not responded to the invitation on time to be part of the panel, said a few words after the panel ended
Jeff Brown has made the dozen ShopRite stores he opened in the region a focal point of his campaign – his television advertisements are largely about his stores — and he is presenting himself as a government outsider. During the forum, Brown suggested members of City Council backed legislation that was bad for business, and he vowed to veto “crappy legislation.” He didn’t specify the legislation he was referring to, but Brown was one of the city’s most prominent critics of the sweetened-beverage tax that was one of Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature policies. Every former Council member running for mayor — except Quiñones Sánchez —voted for the tax.
Parker, Council’s former majority leader, jabbed back later in the forum in response to a question from Regina Hairston, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce. Hairston asked the candidates what they would do to ensure businesses owned by Black and brown people got a fair share of business opportunities, especially with 2026 World Cup games coming to Philadelphia and celebrations of the nation’s 250th birthday the same year.
Parker said: “When someone comes before you and says they’ve created 60,000 jobs, you’ll say, ‘My God, that’s so great.’ But when it’s a multimillion-dollar corporation, I want you to start asking questions. How many of those 60,000 jobs paid Black people $9.65 an hour?” She went on for several minutes without mentioning Brown’s name.
”You’re not going to be able to come before a Parker administration talking about the percentage of Black people, number of Black people you do business with,” she said. “I want to know a dollar value on the contract. How much did they earn? How much of your white privilege wealth did you share with the small Black business owners who don’t have access to venture capital, who don’t have access to investments, who were not born into wealth?”
Numerous outcries of “Oohs” came from the 215 people in the audience.
Parker continued with her verbal missiles. “I want you to ask, How much state subsidies did you get to open up those shops?”
Brown’s campaign hit back Monday in an emailed statement that said: “Our salary numbers are publicly available online — anyone who would misrepresent them is simply being dishonest.”
The statement reported the average rate for all workers, full- and part-time, is $18.32 an hour, and the average rate of pay for workers with benefits is $25.78 per hour.
“Under my leadership, Brown’s ShopRite Stores voluntarily unionized,” Brown’s statement said. “We have worked together [with the unions] for many years to ensure our employees earn a living wage and comprehensive benefits (healthcare, retirement, childcare, disability, housing trust fund, education benefits and sick pay).”
Wendell Young, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) , Local 1776, said Monday that “no one” gets paid $9.65 an hour at Brown’s ShopRite stores. Young endorsed Brown’s candidacy the day the campaign launched.
He said full-time workers, “with few exceptions, make between $20 and $30 an hour,” not including benefits such as a health plan, pension and paid vacation and sick days.
“Retail is notorious for paying low wages, but Jeff Brown’s ShopRites are vastly different from that,” Young said. “Whatever candidate is talking about this doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
He said his union represents about 2,000 workers at the 11 Brown ShopRite stores in the Philadelphia area.
The eight candidates all spoke in favor of increasing economic opportunities for Black and brown business owners.
Quiñones Sánchez said she was tired of people in City Hall saying that Black-owned businesses need special training.
“We don’t need that,” she said. “We have accountants, we have business leaders. What we need is a fair opportunity that doesn’t make you fill out 1,900 more pages, give blood […] to prove you should have that economic opportunity.”
She also called out the city for giving the same 10 to 12 companies — often from New Jersey —many of the city’s contracts by saying they put in the lowest bid. But she said the bidding process wasn’t fair.
Green said some of those businesses that regularly win city contracts by making the “lowest bid,” later refuse to hire the Black and brown subcontractors they promised to, and then add changes to their contracts to increase the money they are paid.
Gym decried the “economic apartheid” in the city and said she is a proven force for change. Shepointed to her work helping to change the city’s processes for handling evictions.
“You’ve got to have somebody, when, as soon as they walk into the room, systems of oppression fall and new systems of opportunity are built,”Gym said. “When I walk into the room, systems of oppression fall and new systems of opportunity come up, and everybody in this room knows it.”
Rhynhart noted that the city’s Black population is 39% but said Black owned businesses make up only 3% of the city’s businesses. The 2020 Census reports that Philadelphia’s Black population is 42.2%, but a spokesperson for Rhynhart said the candidatewas using the 39% Black population figure from a diversity report on hiring in city government she had completed as city controller, prior to the 2020 Census.
Rhynhart vowed to change the inequities built into the system caused by the racial wealth gap.
The gap exists “because of racist policies that let white families create wealth and prevented Black families from creating wealth through homeownership for decades and decades,” Rhynhart said.
Tisha McKinney, of North Philadelphia, who works as a coordinator for a health management company, came to the forum as a Parker supporter with plans to support her in the May primary. “I’ve always liked the way she has engaged with her district,” she said, noting that she doesn’t live in her Parker’s district.
After the forum, she said she still supported Parker.
Another voter in the audience, Desiree L. A. Whitfield, a business consultant, said she believes Rhynhart is the best candidate for mayor.
“The issues are far more important than the color of someone’s skin,” Whitfield said. “Rebecca knows what the city needs. She has shown she has the power to run the city.”
Rahman, of DiverseForce, called the forum a success. It was the first mayoral candidates forum launched under the “Every Voice, Every Vote” initiative funded by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and took place at the P4 Hub, a co-working space at 4537 Wayne Ave.
“Sunday’s turnout and the engagement of the audience is a demonstration of how vested our Black professional community is in the future of our city,” Rahman said Monday.
”I’m glad we were able to arrange a very pointed conversation about how we retain and uplift this important demographic that holds the aspirational capital that our city needs to inspire our next generation of Black and brown leaders. Our youth will believe they can be what they see.”
You can watch the entire mayoral forum video here, provided by DiverseForce.
Inquirer City Hall reporter Anna Orso contributed to this article.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included the results of a straw poll of attendees’ choice for mayor conducted before and after the event. The number of respondents dropped significantly after the event, making it unreliable to draw conclusions from the results.