The mayoral candidates stumbled through their performance at a Latino forum

Esperanza in the News

They invoked Maria Quiñones Sánchez, but the former District 7 Council member thought they showed up unprepared to address the Latino community.

It was a struggle for specificity at Monday’s Latino Mayoral Forum in Hunting Park, where nine of the candidates jockeying for mayor grasped at tenuous connections to Philadelphia’s Latino communities while answering questions about education, language access, representation in government, and quality-of-life concerns.

The forum — hosted by Impacto Media, Univision 65, Esperanza, and Ceiba — took place the day after former City Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez dropped out of the race, citing an inability to keep up with self- and PAC-funded candidates. She exited with a final platform: the Agenda Latina, which calls for the next mayor to increase Latino representation in city government, improve language access, and support free tuition at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Candidates from Warren Bloom to Cherelle Parker and Rebecca Rhynhart were quick to invoke Quiñones Sánchez’s name and parting agenda, but lacked policy specifics.

“I was hoping my challenge to the candidates would force them to come more prepared,” Quiñones Sánchez told The Inquirer. “Even when given the direct opportunity to provide a little specificity, they won’t take it.”

Nasheli Ortiz-González, the executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño (which recently hosted its own mayoral forum), agreed: “I keep hearing a lot of promises and not seeing a lot of action.”

Here is what Quiñones Sánchez had to say about some of the forum’s key takeaways.

Quiñones Sánchez loomed large

Even though the former, longtime District 7 Council representative wasn’t in the room, Quiñones Sánchez’s presence was felt.

Latino residents comprise 16% of the Philadelphia’s population — the majority concentrated in District 7 — but the city’s political parties have consistently struggled to reach Latino and Spanish-speaking voters before election day. Quiñones Sánchez had been the only candidate to release advertisements and campaign materials in Spanish.

The candidates on stage mentioned Quiñones Sánchez’s name upward of eight times, using their connection to her as a proxy for a connection to the Latino community.

Former at-large Councilmember Allan Domb opened the forum by thanking Quiñones Sánchez for her “service to the city,” while grocery store magnate Jeff Brown said he would like to appoint her as a senior policy adviser.

Quiñones Sánchez called Brown’s offer “insulting,” noting that she would take only cabinet roles that allow her career to “continue growing upward.”

“I’m not working 16 hours a day to make someone else look good,” she said.

Only Parker and Rhynhart acknowledged Quiñones Sánchez’s platform, with Parker pledging to take it up.

“When I think about Maria Quiñones Sánchez, I — without pandering — can say I respect her as a thought leader,” Cherelle noted in her opening remarks. “I affirm the Agenda Latina.”

Quiñones Sánchez acknowledged that Parker — for all their differences — was the most relatable of those onstage.

“Cherelle and I have always had to be that much better than the people next to us,” she said. “There’s a certain lived experience that Cherelle and I share as Black and brown women, that Helen [Gym] and Rebecca do not understand.”

Promises of language access, but no bilingual campaign materials

Both Parker and Rhynhart pledged to make language access a priority if they are elected, but neither had bilingual campaign literature or advertisements as of the forum.

The Gym, Parker, and Domb campaigns passed out English-language campaign literature at the event, which was broadcast in Spanish on Univision 62.

Per census data, more than 350,000 Philadelphia residents speak a language other than English, and the majority of them speak Spanish.

Philadelphia as a municipality is required to provide bilingual election materials in Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic — and has recently voted to add seven more languages — but campaigns are not.

“I want to work with [Quiñones-Sánchez] to make language access a reality,” Rhynhart said during the forum before committing to more bilingual door knocking.

When a reporter pressed Parker about her lack of bilingual campaign materials, she chalked it up to a financing issue.

“From a fundraising perspective, if all campaigns were created equal, just maybe that would be an opportunity,” Parker said.

Quiñones-Sánchez — who raised far less than the other top Democratic mayoral candidates in 2023 — pushed back at that notion.

“This isn’t a cost issue,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “If you’re not translating things, it means you don’t see the value in wanting to speak to those people.”

Few specifics on hiring Latinos or knowing the community

When asked what they learned about Philly’s Latino communities while on the campaign trail, the majority of the candidates focused on resiliency, and one even said he learned nothing.

David Oh, a former at-large Councilmember and the sole Republican candidate for mayor, said he “didn’t learn anything new” because “he’s always had a Spanish-speaking member of the community in his office.” He then went on to name three.

Parker, Brown, Helen Gym, and Derek Green all focused on the concept of perseverance, acknowledging that neighborhoods such as Fairhill often must do more with fewer resources from the city.

“I’ve seen the resiliency, the strength, the energy, and the stick-to-it-ness of so many communities, especially in the Latin diaspora, often in spite of challenges like gun violence, the issues with education, the poverty,” Green said. “They should expect more, and deserve better from our city.”

Another sticking point: diversifying the municipal workforce, from cabinet positions and directors down to the civil service.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has struggled with this: A 2021 report conducted by the city controller when Rhynhart was in office found that the hiring of Latino executives stagnated in departments under Kenney’s supervision while white executives were hired at disproportionately high rates. Latino workers make up more than 6% of Kenney’s executive positions.

Outside of James DeLeon, a retired judge, recommending the promotion of a Latino police officer to deputy police commissioner, Quiñones-Sanchez was the onlyLatino leader candidates committed to giving a cabinet position.

Gym, Parker, and Rhynhart all spoke about hiring Latino executives and government workers in a general sense, prompting DeLeon to ask, “Why was applause given for people who would not mention a specific Hispanic to put on their cabinet?”

Quiñones-Sánchez agreed.

“It’s always ‘I will do this for all people,’ not what they will do for us. How insulting is that?”

Brown scrutinized over ethics probe

The forum came on the same day the Philadelphia Board of Ethics sued a super PAC and a nonprofit backing Brown.

The board alleges he illegally coordinated with the For a Better Philadelphia super PAC, which raised nearly $3 million last year.

The bulk of the money was donated by a nonprofit that shares the same name as the super PAC and, thanks to a campaign finance loophole, is not required to disclose the names of donors.

“I don’t know all of the people who have contributed,” Brown said during the forum. “That’s up to the PACS.”

The forum soon devolved into an ethics free-for-all, with candidates using the investigation to address wealth inequality and other issues.

“This is not complex,” Parker said. “Not everyone starts the race of life at home base. Some of us are well-connected and start at third base, yet want to act like they hit a home run.”