Updated: May 10
Tuesday, May 16 is Philadelphia’s Mayoral Primary to determine which Democratic candidate will face Republican David Oh in November. But what are the real differences between the five major candidates who all say they want to improve tree canopy, ensure all residents have accessible green space close to their homes, clean up the trash, improve recycling, stop dumping, and restaff Licensing and Inspections? We took a deeper look at each candidate’s history, platforms, and answers to questionnaires and in forums to get a better picture of which candidates are truly prioritizing environmental justice issues. Who can get us on track for the city’s climate resolutions and lead Philly into the green and climate resilient future we know we need?
Although the average Philadelphian might lack the expertise to sort the nuances of which solution might work better on any specific issue, understanding a candidate’s fundamental governing principles can provide insight into how they will lead on environmental issues. When speaking about Philadelphia’s dependence on Chester’s heavy polluting incinerator, Brown had the opportunity to point out systemic shifts that need to take place in order for our energy consumption and waste disposal to adhere to scientific guidelines and justice principles; unfortunately he instead doubled down on a “business as usual” attitude that exploits the planet and people. “The trash has to go somewhere,” he stated in a televised debate, underscoring his willingness to allow lower income and majority Black communities’ health to suffer from Philadelphia’s trash problem, rather than working toward a zero-waste system long term while immediately redirecting trash to safer alternatives. Brown wants the trash picked up, but he does not care where it goes or who is harmed in the process. If he lacks the empathy – let alone the awareness – to address this existing problem, how will he lead when it comes to the issue of climate change, which requires forward-thinking prevention as well as addressing problems people are experiencing now?
Domb did not attend the Green Living Forum but he has posted all the questionnaires he has responded to on his website, including one sent by the Sierra Club. When asked, “Will you support legislation requiring PGW’s budget plans and operations to align with the City of Philadelphia’s goal/pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050?” Domb replied, “I would not,” suggesting that affordability was too great an immediate impediment to transition the utility to a non-fossil fuel alternative until renewables became less expensive. While Domb promises to restore Philadelphia infrastructure by improving recycling and sewers, and he wants to plant trees and better fund parks, he lacks a comprehensive environmental plan to uphold the City of Philadelphia’s pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Gym made a name for herself as an activist and advocate for education, minority communities, and low income communities before and during her time on City Council. As a councilmember, she authored the Community Health Act to ensure the city consider the cumulative impacts of permitting industrial activity. As mayor, she has promised to pursue IRA funding to increase flood resilience and enable relocation for residents under threat, and dedicate land to flood-resilient uses that create a model for community-led response to climate change - for example, dedicating land to community-owned solar. Gym has said that she wants to transition Philadelphia to a circular economy, using Circular Philadepha’s mayoral platform as a blueprint, and move completely off of fossil fuels. At the Green Philly Forum, she asserted, “Fossil fuel infrastructure has kept Philadelphia impoverished…we need a vision and purpose for changing ways that people live.” Though critics have expressed concern over methods they believe alienate some stakeholders, with the aggressive timeline of our climate realities, anything less than an aggressive approach may impede the city from achieving its own goals. Recent endorsers Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seem to agree.
Although Parker was not present at the Green Living Forum, she has been a part of positive social justice efforts closely tied to environmental issues in the past. Parker championed home fixes through Restore, Repair, Renew, and worked to eliminate backlog within income-based home repair programs. Parker wants to improve zoning in floodplains, and reorganize L&I and Streets departments. Like most of her fellow candidates, she also wants to restore the Zero Waste and Litter cabinet and use vacant lots as public community spaces. As a councilmember, she collaborated to fund Philadelphia Taking Care of Business, putting local residents to work maintaining clean streets. However, while Parker has styled herself as a candidate who represents the interests of the most vulnerable Philadelphians, she has touted her friendship with City of Chester mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, who many Chester residents hold responsible for bolstering toxic industrial projects like the Covanta incinerator. Yes, she has prioritized vulnerable communities throughout her career, but it is not clear how she will approach these considerations in the context of the long term challenge of climate change, or how she will address the fossil fuel dependence responsible for global warming, which will continue to disproportionately impact Black, Brown and lower income residents.
The former City Controller, Rhynhart combines a nuanced understanding of the city’s finances with a clear position on long term climate work. She wants to build a levee for Eastwick, pursue federal funding for the $5 billion she says is needed to update public schools, and appoint board members that have expertise in clean energy transition. She also plans to create an affordable housing plan and community gardens with the 8,500 government-owned vacant lots not in the land bank, prioritizing neighborhoods with greatest need. Where other candidates talk about restaffing L&I, Rhynhart adds that she is prioritizing aligning inspections with city sustainability goals. Like Helen Gym, Rhynhart goes deeper in interviews to describe the way each government department needs to get their operations in line with city climate goals, like adding city-wide compost in addition to getting litter and recycling under control. Critics will point to her time on the 5-member Gas Commission, wondering if she did enough in that position to move the municipally-owned utility toward a more sustainable future, though she was the only member to vote against Seth Shapiro for CEO, who oversaw PGW when leadership aided senators in crafting legislation that would lock in gas long term. She does not support a gas ban at this time, but she “would work to move PGW to more sustainable energy,” she wrote to Whyy. “However, this must be done strategically and over time to lessen any negative impact on workers, ratepayers, and the city’s budget.”