A scene from one of mayoral candidate Jeff Brown's TV ads, the first in the race Credit: Jeff Brown for Mayor

ShopRite magnate Jeff Brown wants to be Philadelphia’s next mayor despite lacking any political experience. It’s a feat no one has accomplished in recent memory, or perhaps ever.

Wealthy people with little or no background in politics have won the top job in other big cities, like billionaire Michael Bloomberg in New York. At the federal level, Donald Trump won the presidency with no experience, but it didn’t work for TV doctor Mehmet Oz in this year’s Senate campaign.

The closest comparable figure in Philly is insurance executive Tom Knox, who fell short in the 2007 Democratic primary. He won 25% of the votes to Michael Nutter’s 37%, despite spending $12 million on the campaign, most of it his own money. Even he wasn’t a total newbie, having briefly worked for the Rendell administration.

Outsiders often tout their lack of experience as a positive — that message comes across in one of Brown’s first campaign ads — but it could also become a potential stumbling block.

Siah McCabe, a senior strategy consultant at Jefferson Hospital who serves on the city’s Millennial Advisory Committee, said that while she appreciates the appeal of a political newcomer, she’s concerned a first-time officeholder might struggle to work with Council and move critical legislation.

“I’m not saying that it couldn’t be learned,” McCabe said, “but to have someone potentially running a city who’s never been a part of that and doesn’t understand the ins and outs as well as another candidate — that could be a little messy.”

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It wasn’t inexperience that led to Knox’s primary loss, the former candidate told Thetelegraphfield.

Knox was leading in polls, as he recalls it, until Nutter ran a TV ad with his 12-year-old daughter Olivia, who charmed voters. Knox also faced sharp attacks from rival candidate Bob Brady, the city’s current Democratic party chair and a U.S. representative at the time.

Knox’s advice to Brown: spend your dollars wisely. He estimated the grocery tycoon, who owns Brown’s Super Stores, will need to put up at least $5 million to $6 million to stand out in the crowded field of (so far) nine mayoral candidates.

“He needs to get a good campaign manager, and he needs to get a good person to do commercials for him,” Knox said. “Because commercials are really important.”

He also has the advantage of being able to attack the entire political establishment on issues like crime and homelessness, including former council members he’s running against, Knox said.

Brown is on it. In early December he became the first in the crowded field to run TV ads, spending $100,000, per The Inquirer. A political action committee paid for another Brown ad.

In one, Brown accuses officials of not listening to residents, saying, “That’s where these guys in city government fail.” Another man in the ad criticizes City Council specifically, saying, “They’ve all sat on their hands. That’s a disgrace.”

YouTube video

“He’s probably right in a lot of respects. The city is falling apart from a management point of view,” Knox observed. Meanwhile, “nobody can criticize what he’s done. All he’s done is make money.”

Neil Oxman, a longtime political consultant who made the famous Olivia ad for Nutter, noted Brown isn’t the only candidate who can broadly criticize Mayor Jim Kenney and Council, where many of the prominent candidates have served. Contender Rebecca Rhynhart, spent years publicizing flaws in city programs when she was city controller, a tack she can continue as the race heats up.

Much of Brown’s campaign messaging focuses on ShopRite stores he opened in “food desert” neighborhoods with few grocery options, which won him recognition from then-First Lady Michelle Obama and others.

Oxman compared Brown to rival candidate Allan Domb, a real estate mogul and former councilman, who can’t claim political outsider status but similarly touts his success in business.

“It’s not as if Brown is going to have that lane to himself. He’s going to try to do it, and Domb is going to have as much money as Brown. It’ll be interesting to see what lanes all these people get in,” Oxman said.

A business candidate is potentially attractive to McCabe, the Millennial Advisory Committee member. She’s also chair of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Council. Though she doesn’t know much about Brown, she said she’d like to hear how he would handle budget issues, such as police department funding and possible misuses of tax dollars.

“Maybe with his business background, he could come in and really be focused on cleaning that up. Anyone with a business background could be, so I’m interested in that,” she said.

But McCabe is also focused on a range of other issues, including gun violence, the wage tax, supporting businesses owned by people of color, and housing affordability, with which she said she has struggled. “I’m not one-track minded here, but of course I’m going to really pay attention to things a candidate has to say about that,” she said.

More than anything, McCabe and others said candidates’ performance between now and the May 16 primary will be far more important than their political experience, or lack thereof.

Every election cycle is different, Oxman noted, with a multitude of events and factors that shape the race.

“Almost exclusively, the major candidates for mayor have been people who’ve had political offices at one time or another,” Oxman said. “So it’s not because it hasn’t worked. It’s simply because very few people have tried it.”

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Thetelegraphfield covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...