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Top moments include ethics, unions, and false claim

A debate in the final weeks of the Philadelphia mayoral primary campaign featured a heated back-and-forth over ethics, odd attacks over union endorsements, and new scrutiny for one contender.

Tuesday night was the final scheduled televised debate ahead of the May 16 primary election. Nine Democrats are vying for the nomination, and the winner of the Democratic primary will be well-positioned to prevail in November given Philadelphia’s heavily Democratic electorate.

Six appeared on the debate stage: state Rep. Amen Brown, businessman Jeff Brown, former City Councilmember Allan Domb, former Councilmember Helen Gym, former Councilmember Cherelle Parker, and former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. Three others who are not considered to be top contenders were not invited to participate.

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The debate, hosted by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, was filmed at 6abc’s studio and streamed online. The debate will be broadcast on television Sunday morning, and the event wasn’t open to most outside observers, including other journalists.

Here are some of the key moments of the night:

Jeff Brown makes false claims about super PAC case

One of Jeff Brown’s first comments during the debate was a lie.

The grocer was asked about an outside group called For A Better Philadelphia, which has raised more than $3 million to support his campaign and was sued by the city’s Board of Ethics earlier this month. The board alleges the group — which is a super PAC that is supposed to be operate separately from Brown’s campaign — has illegally coordinated with Brown.

Brown said Tuesday night that the ethics board “settled the case because they didn’t have a case. They wouldn’t have settled it any other way, and so let’s make that clear.”

The board did not settle the case against For A Better Philadelphia, which remains pending. The super PAC was first ordered by a judge to stop spending money to influence the outcome of the election. Then, the group and the board came to a limited agreement over the weekend that extends that arrangement through Election Day.

Brown’s campaign is aware that the board has not settled or withdrawn its case. That news has been widely reported, and The Inquirer on Monday questioned a campaign spokesperson over a statement in which Brown said the board decided “to drop their nonsense complaint.”

The spokesperson said Monday the campaign stood by the statement.

Mayoral candidate Jeff Brown speaks during a debate at the WPVI-TV studio in Philadelphia on Tuesday.. … Read moreAP

Shane Creamer, the board’s executive director, said in a statement Tuesday night that claims the ethics board “settled” its lawsuit are “false and misleading.”

He said For A Better Philadelphia surrendered its right to influence the mayor’s race, and that the board is not aware of another time that an agency stopped a dark-money funded super PAC from spending money to support “its alleged colluding candidate” before an election.

“This is an unprecedented forbearance for groups who exist only to influence elections,” Creamer said. “Philadelphia is showing the country how it’s done. It’s a Philly thing.”

Candidates finger-point on ethics

Minutes after the dust-up over Brown, moderator Matt O’Donnell pointed out that Parker, Gym, and Rhynhart are each also supported by super PACs, which are outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long they do not coordinate with the campaigns they favor.

Gym said, “Unlike Jeff Brown, our super PACs actually disclose their donors.” For A Better Philadelphia is considered a “dark-money” super PAC, because it was largely funded by a nonprofit that is not legally required to name its donors. The three other super PACs supporting candidates in the race have not used a similar tactic.

Brown directed attention elsewhere, saying, “Almost everyone up here has had ethics problems … and Helen was one of the largest ones.”

Gym said, “That’s not true,” and, “I have not had any ethics issues with our campaign.”

In 2015, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was fined $1,500 by the Board of Ethics for contributions to Gym, who was then a candidate for City Council, that exceeded the city’s campaign-finance limits. The board found that the union had funneled a contribution through the American Federation of Teachers’ Pennsylvania chapter, and that Gym and her campaign were not aware of the excess contribution.

During the debate, Gym said Brown “must have me confused with Allan Domb, who actually had a conflict of interest fine lodged against him on ethics.”

Domb, a real estate magnate, admitted to one violation. Last year, he was fined $2,000 for failing to disclose real-estate interests during hearings in 2019 and 2021 over Council legislation that affected a property in which he had an ownership stake. He abstained from votes on the legislation, but did not follow the required process of stating the conflict in Council.

Two candidates supported by unions slam unions

The debate featured two surprising attacks by candidates who criticized their rivals for campaign donations from organized labor, usually a sacrosanct constituency in Philadelphia politics.

Even weirder: The candidates who made those attacks are among the few who have union backing.

First, Gym criticized Parker for the level of support she has received from the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, a coalition of 30 Philly-area unions in the construction industry, while discussing how many local donors have backed her campaign.

”I’m a candidate who has actually raised the most amount of money from Philadelphians themselves. Seventy-two percent of my donors are Philadelphians,” Gym said. “Other candidates in this race are wholly funded by building trades unions and others. Cherelle Parker’s campaign is two-thirds funded this year by 15 building trades unions.”

This is an especially strange line of attack for Gym. As a progressive, she is a vocal supporter of labor and has received money from building trades unions in the past.

Mayoral candidate Helen Gym speaks during a debate at the WPVI-TV studio in Philadelphia on Tuesday.. … Read moreAP

The other odd union attack came from Jeff Brown, who singled out the unions backing Parker and Gym as problematic: ”the two concerning unions — I didn’t want their endorsement — the building trade unions and the teachers unions.”

A representative for the PFT, which has endorsed Gym, said Brown attended a forum to speak to members in advance of the union’s endorsement vote.

And Ryan Boyer, who leads the Building Trades Council, which has endorsed Parker, unleashed a torrent of attacks on Jeff Brown in social media posts after the debate.

“To be clear, Jeff Brown practically begged for the endorsement of the Building Trades,” Boyer wrote. “He was like a crackhead begging for rock.”

Oddly, Brown has been endorsed by one of the building trades unions: the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 8. That union is the only member of the Building Trades Council that did not back Parker.

Brown has also received union endorsements from the Teamsters, the union that represents workers in his grocery stores, and the largest union for city workers. Brown contrasted the teachers and construction workers who endorsed Gym and Parker with those in the unions that backed him.

”The unions of working people that struggle under the current political system — I’m proud of that because I represent them,” Brown said.

Rhynhart takes some heat

Most of the attacks in earlier debates have largely centered on Jeff Brown and Gym. But Rhynhart took some fire from her rivals during Tuesday night’s debate, perhaps a reflection of her position in the race.

Rhynhart has won notable endorsements and gained some momentum, and internal polls conducted by campaigns show she has gained support over the past several weeks.

Toward the beginning of the debate, Parker said she is “not an expert articulator of problems and/or a commissioner of audits. My job has been to lead and get things done.” As controller, Rhynhart’s job was to audit city agencies.

Later, the moderator invited each candidate to direct a question at one of their rivals. Gym directed hers at Rhynhart, saying “budgets are moral documents” and hers would invest in schools and city services “that were slashed in an administration that you served under.”

Rebecca Rhynhart speaks during a debate at the WPVI-TV studio in Philadelphia on Tuesday.. … Read moreAP

Rhynhart was the city treasurer in former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration from 2008 until 2010, then worked as his budget director. Gym specifically said Rhynhart advocated for firehouse “brownouts” — or temporary closures — as a means to save the city money.

Rhynhart said as treasurer, she was “managing the city through the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s,” and as budget director, “worked for a mayor who wanted to keep the brownouts, so I did my job to convey that message.”

Other candidates use questions to jab one another

While the questioning of one another did not lead to very substantive exchanges, they offered a window into which candidate they may view as their closest rival.

Jeff Brown and Domb are both wealthy businessmen who have sought to appeal to relatively conservative Democratic voters during the campaign. They used the round of questions to aim barbs at each other.

Domb pointed to his experience in both the private and public sectors, and he questioned Jeff Brown for running without any government experience. Jeff Brown then attacked Domb for sponsoring a bill that would have expanded the 10-year real estate tax abatement.

Domb said the proposal was for properties worth under $250,000 and was designed to encourage homeownership.

Like Domb and Jeff Brown, Rhynhart and Gym are viewed as competing for some of the same voters — in their case, highly educated liberals — and used the question round to go after each other.

Parker also went after Gym, questioning her for previously supporting supervised-injection sites to combat the opioid crisis, but avoiding taking a position on that issue on the campaign trail. Gym again did not say whether she would support the facilities as mayor, but said she would not take any option off the table.

In the most bizarre moment of the night, Amen Brown, who is not viewed as a viable contender, accused Rhynhart of calling Nutter and former Mayor John F. Street “boys” in a TV advertisement in which the pair of mayors endorsed her.

Rhynhart is white, and the mayors are Black. It would have been a bad look.

The only problem is that Amen Brown was wrong. Rhynhart refers to Nutter and Street as “guys” in the ad.

She bluntly denied the question on stage, and the debate moved on.

Inquirer staff writer Chris Brennan contributed reporting.

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