By Scott Kurashige
Philadelphia’s mayoral race is heating up, and Asian American community activists are deeply invested in the fight to be the city’s next political leader. Pennsylvania has been a crucial swing state for recent presidential and congressional elections, and politics in Pennsylvania are increasingly influenced by its growing Asian American electorate, which has doubled since 2016. Although still only 2 percent of Pennsylvania’s voters, Asian Americans are increasingly commanding attention, and organizers assert that their recent 70-80% support for Democratic candidates has proven crucial in hotly-contested political races.
This year, many of Pennsylvania’s progressive Asian American activists – including many who previously worked on campaigns for President Joe Biden and Senator John Fetterman – have turned their attention local. They are throwing their support behind Korean American progressive Helen Gym in Philadelphia’s mayoral race. Twice-elected to the Philadelphia City Council, Gym stepped down last year to announce her candidacy for Philadelphia mayor. She is now a leading candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary, which will be held on Tuesday, May 16 and which usually determines the outcome for mayor in this strongly Democratic city.
I have known Gym since the early 1990’s, and I interviewed her for my master’s thesis on Asian American activism in Philadelphia while she was a key organizer for Asian Americans United (AAU). Since the 1980’s, AAU has been a major driver of the city’s pan-Asian political organizing efforts.
To better understand Gym’s journey into local politics and why so many progressive Asian American community activists are working to get her elected, I interviewed two staff and two volunteers with the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance (API PA), a political action committee formed in 2020 that is supporting Gym’s campaign. I was especially interested to hear their first-hand accounts on the campaign trail for Gym, and to ask how Gym’s campaign fit into the shifting Asian American political landscape in Philadelphia.
Gym’s progressive Asian American supporters are drawn to her candidacy by her history of Asian American progressive movement work, and her victories on the Philadelphia City Council. Gym has passed legislation to limit evictions, increase education funding, and mandate fair workweek standards for service workers.
“The things that [Gym has] won arenʻt just good for Philly,” says API PA Executive Director, Mohan Seshadri. “They are models for the nation on how to actually make life better for working families.”
“Adults wonʻt listen to us about issues that we care about or affect us,” said volunteer Grace Fan, characterizing her conversations with teenagers. A 2019 college graduate who moved to Philadelphia to organize youth, Fan says that many young people believe Philadelphia’s schools are in a state of crisis, and that Gym is one of the few leaders who will both listen to and inspire Asian American youth.
“It just feels really different having somebody to campaign for who comes out of struggles in the deepest way—not in any kind of superficial way but down in the trenches, working ʻtil midnight way,” said Ellen Somekawa, who has organized with Gym for over three decades.
If elected, Gym would be not only the Philadelphia’s first Asian mayor, but also its first woman mayor. Seshadri stressed however that support for Gym is more than skin deep. “This is someone who came up through your movements. This is someone who has spent 30 years fighting for you,” he says he often tells voters.
API PA is finding that Gym’s support varies across the city’s Asian American voters. Seshadri estimates that two-thirds of voters contacted by the group support Gym – many because they are aware of her progressive record. Cambodian Americans living in South Philly, for example, are strongly in favor of Gym’s candidacy, Seshadri says.
Conservative Asians Americans more likely to support David Oh, a Korean American candidate who is seeking the Republican nomination for mayor. If both Gym and Oh win their respective primaries, they would square off in the fall for the city-wide race for mayor. Concerned that Gym poses a major threat, some Republican voters have vowed to switch party affiliations just to defeat Gym during the primary election. Other conservatives appear to be attacking Gym’s identity to undermine her candidacy. Wolfe Tsuboi, API PA’s operations and development coordinator, fretted that an “army of conservative men” is trolling every tweet by progressive women of color in Gym’s campaign. Moreover, the editorial board the Philadelphia Inquirer openly opposes Gym’s campaign, and has characterized her as a “troublemaker” ill-suited for a job that requires a “troubleshooter.”
Based on limited polling data, Philadelphia’s mayoral race remains extremely tight, and is likely to be decided based on voter turnout. API PA, therefore, is part of a coalition vowing to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors, and to organize phone-banks in sixteen different languages – all in support of Gym.
A victory by Gym in next month’s Democratic primary for Philadelphia mayor – as well as an eventual victory in the city-wide race in the fall – would resonate throughout the nation as a symbol of the growing power of the Asian American electorate. If Gym is elected, Philadelphia would also join a string of other cities governed by progressive leaders – including Boston’s Michelle Wu, Chicago’s Brandon Johnson, and Los Angeles’ Karen Bass – all of whom began their political lives in grassroots, multi-racial movement building; but Gym would also wield special influence as the mayor of the largest city in one of the most critical swing states in the nation. Indeed, a mayoral victory for Gym might have a widespread ripple effect, positively influencing US politics for the next century.
Gym’s supporters are counting on that.
For more information on the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance and to volunteer for its canvassing efforts, go to API Pennsylvania.
Corrections: An earlier version of this post misspelled API PA Executive Director Mohan Seshadri’s name; it is Seshadri not Shesadri. An earlier version also neglected to note that API PA is part of a coalition of volunteers who are hoping to canvas hundreds of thousands of Philadelphia voters for Gym. These errors have now been corrected.
Scott Kurashige is the author or co-author of four books, including The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (2008); The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century with Grace Lee Boggs (2011); Exiled to Motown: A History of Japanese Americans in Detroit with the Detroit JACL History Project Committee (2015); and The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit (2017).