Mayoral candidate Jeff Brown answers questions about his plans for infrastructure, land use, and development during a forum hosted by BUILDPhilly at the Kimmel Center on March 14. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Supermarket magnate Jeff Brown is a leading candidate in the mayoral race — and the most controversial.

Brown came out with the first TV commercials of the election, boosting his name recognition and calling attention to his work creating jobs and opening grocery stores in underserved areas.

He gained support among Black voters, but also alienated some with a series of ads and remarks that could be perceived as racially insensitive. They include a commercial where a Black resident compared Brown to god, and comments that seemed to show a lack of concern for environmental issues in the predominantly Black city of Chester.

In addition, some of the ads that powered Brown’s rise in popularity were funded by a dark-money PAC that has been accused of flagrantly violating campaign finance law by coordinating its activities with Brown himself.

Here’s a timeline of the ups and downs of the grocery store owner’s foray into mayoral politics so far.

2017-2018: Supermarket owner mad about the soda tax

Brown has owned supermarkets in Philly for decades, but many residents first heard of him when he got in a fight with Mayor Jim Kenney over the city’s new sweetened-beverage tax.

Brown complained to media outlets that the tax was driving away customers and forcing him to lay off workers. Kenney jabbed back, pointing out that Brown was in the process of opening a new store in the city despite his supposed losses.

The dispute earned Brown glowing newpaper and magazine profiles, which described him as a progressive who had opened successful stores in low-income “food deserts” where residents lacked access to healthy grocery options and who hired many ex-offenders.
The articles noted that President Barack Obama highlighted Brown’s work in a State of the Union address in 2010 and First Lady Michelle Obama praised his achievements.

2019: Closing a store and ‘we need a different mayor'

When Brown announced he would shutter a supermarket in Overbrook because of the soda tax, he took a sharper tone, criticizing the mayor specifically.

“This store is closed because of Jim Kenney’s beverage tax,” Brown told WHYY news. “He’s locked in, and he’s been a bully, and he’s causing harm to the people of Philadelphia.”

“I’m not shy about the fact that I think we need a different mayor,” he said.

A Kenney spokesperson responded that it was “no surprise that Mr. Brown has decided to scapegoat” the tax and said there was no hard evidence the tax was impacting grocery sales generally. The spokesperson also emphasized Brown’s personal wealth, pointing out he owned a massive $4.3 million mansion in Rittenhouse Square.

By the time the Overbrook supermarket closed, the property owner had found new tenants to open a grocery store in the same location.

2020: Hiring consultants and weighing a run

Brown began weighing a mayoral run, citing concerns about the “demise of small businesses” and increases in gun violence, food insecurity and unemployment. He reportedly began working with veteran political consultants Jim Cauley and Doc Sweitzer.

The case for Brown as a potential candidate was based on the thinking that he’d built up community goodwill by operating in underserved neighborhoods, reopening quickly after stores were damaged during civil unrest, hiring formerly incarcerated people, and opposing the soda tax. He also had early support from Black clergy and leaders after hiring many Black employees.

2021: Helping small business, working with Philly Progress PAC

Brown seemed to maintain a relatively low profile. He was in the news for co-founding a fund to help small businesses affected by the pandemic and for expanding his stores’ partnerships with local entrepreneurs.

Behind the scenes, he was actually quite active on the political front. When campaign finance reports for the year came in, they showed that a dark-money political action committee he was involved with, Philly Progress PAC, had raised a surprising $934,000.

Brown adviser Cauley, who began working for the PAC, said the supermarket magnate had helped with fundraising but denied the PAC was preparing to support Brown’s run for office.

If it was, that could violate campaign finance laws. Election lawyer Adam Bonin told The Inquirer at the time that “front-loading campaign expenses” for a mayoral run by using a PAC could result in an investigation by the city Board of Ethics.

2022: First to launch TV ads, funded by For a Better Philadelphia

Brown declared his candidacy in November 2022 and the next month appeared in the first TV ads of the election, well before any other candidate.

The ads were paid for not by his campaign but by a super PAC, For a Better Philadelphia, which can accept unlimited contributions and was set up to keep its donors secret. Its TV spending on his behalf soon reached $700,000, per The Inquirer.

One ad showed Michelle Obama praising Brown for opening grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods. Soon after, Brown’s campaign itself paid for an additional $400,000 in TV ads.

His end-of-year campaign finance report showed his regular campaign account had brought in about $1 million in contributions. That was just a little more than the second-place fundraiser, former Councilmember Helen Gym.

At that point Brown had personally contributed just $240,000 to the campaign, much less than his fellow multimillionaire candidate, former Councilmember Allan Domb, who loaned his own campaign $5 million.

January 2023: Union backing and ‘I don’t have any racial tensions'

Brown ended 2022 with the endorsement of Transport Workers Union Local 234, the region's transit workers union, and started the year with the surprise endorsement of AFSCME DC33, the city's largest municipal workers union

One of the first attacks on Brown came from rival candidate Cherelle Parker, a former Council member who is also expected to draw significant support from Black voters.

At a mayoral forum focused on building wealth in communities of color, Brown said he’d hired 60,000 people, including many Black employees, and had made a point of working with Black vendors. “People of color, especially Black people, have been my life’s work,” he said.

When Parker spoke, she went after Brown without mentioning his name, asking “How many of those 60,000 jobs paid Black people $9.65 an hour?” (Brown’s campaign said that figure was “dishonest” and his workers earn an average of $18.32 an hour. A Thetelegraphfield survey in 2021 estimated the minimum wage at Brown’s Super Stores to be between $8-$9/hr.)

At the forum, Parker also asked, “How much of your white privilege wealth did you share with the small Black business owners who don’t have access to venture capital, who don’t have access to investments, who were not born into wealth?”

Issues around race continued to dog Brown. Writing for the Daily Beast and Philadelphia Magazine, journalist Ernest Owens criticized a “cringey” video ad featuring Black residents praising Brown: a former employee compared the grocery boss to a “Big Ma” in the community and said, “One thing about God is, he’s always going to have your back no matter how hard it gets, and so will Mr. Brown.”

“Jeff Brown used vulnerable Black Philadelphians as props to position himself as a God-like savior for my community,” Owens wrote. “For God’s (or Big Ma’s) sake: Kill the white savior routine.”

Brown later said the criticism was part of a “distasteful” political strategy aimed at racial division. “I don’t have any racial tensions or any racial problems,” he said.

Journalist Owens contacted Michelle Obama’s office, which criticized Brown for editing old footage of her praising his grocery store work to imply she endorsed his mayoral run.

“For any candidate looking to earn the public’s trust, manipulating old appearances that are out of context to suggest an endorsement is disappointing,” an Obama spokesperson said. “Mrs. Obama does not get involved in Democratic primaries and is not supporting this candidate.”

Nonetheless, the ads may have worked. According to a poll commissioned by an undisclosed source (very possibly Brown himself), and reported by The Inquirer, he led the race in January, with support from 20% of surveyed voters, up from 5% a few months earlier.

February 2023: Grilled by Nutter as fundraising soars

Brown would be the first Philadelphia mayor in modern times with no government experience. His unfamiliarity with city operations may have contributed to a hit he took from a grilling by former Mayor Michael Nutter.

During an interview in front of a live audience, Brown said he’d never read the city’s Home Rule Charter and didn’t know what the administrative board is. (It’s the mayor, managing director, and finance director.) He also incorrectly described the city’s sinking fund. (It isn’t a rainy day fund, as Brown said, but rather for paying off debt or bonds.)

“This is a fundamental, complete lack of understanding of the structure of the government,” Nutter said afterward. “The public deserves someone who actually knows and understands government. It’s very different than running a grocery store.”

The super PAC For a Better Philadelphia reported it had raised more than $2 million in 2022, most of it from a nonprofit 501(c)4 organization with the same name that declined to disclose its donors.

Meanwhile, the old Philly Progress PAC from 2021 reported it had raised and spent at least $1.2 million, which Cauley said went mostly toward “the education of Jeff” as he considered running for mayor.

But the expenses “raised questions among City Hall observers,” The Inquirer reported, because they included payments to a political strategy firm, to Cauley and others who went on to work for Brown’s campaign organization, and to Brown’s son.

Former Gov. Tom Wolf joined the list of those criticizing Brown’s TV ads. An ad paid for by For a Better Philadelphia PAC showed a photo of them together while noting that the candidate served on the governor’s Workforce Development Board. “Governor Wolf has not endorsed in the race for mayor in Philadelphia and has no plans to do so,” a spokesperson said.

March 2023: Viral video and start of ethics investigation

The hits on Brown kept coming. First, journalist Owens posted a video of Brown talking to someone on the sidelines of a mayoral forum and saying his opponents did “horrifying” things to him. If citizens knew about their corruption, “they’d lynch them,” Brown said in the video.

Mayoral candidate and former Councilmember Derek Green, who is Black, said he was disgusted. “You cannot call Black people your ‘life’s work,’ then turn around and callously joke about people ‘lynching’ your opponents, multiple of whom are Black,” Green said.

Brown apologized, saying he understood “lynch” was offensive and would do better in the future.

Then The Inquirer reported that Brown’s campaign was being investigated by the city’s Board of Ethics. The reason for the investigation was unclear at first, but a Domb spokesperson took the opportunity to attack, saying Brown needed to answer questions about “illegal coordination with dark money groups, and what he promised the secret donors funding his campaign.”

April 2023: Campaign finance violations and another endorsement

Concerns that the For a Better Philadelphia PAC was illegally coordinating with Brown and his campaign were justified, according to the city’s Board of Ethics.

The board sued the PAC and demanded it immediately stop spending money on TV ads and other expenses. Through subpoenaes of bank records and emails, the board uncovered “extensive evidence” that the PAC coordinated with Brown “to circumvent the city’s annual contribution limits,” executive director J. Shane Creamer said.

Brown helped the PAC raise millions of dollars, participating in fundraising events and communicating with its donors, according to the board’s petition to the Court of Common Pleas.

At one point, an unnamed pro sports team — possibly the 76ers organization — contributed $250,000 to the For a Better Philadelphia nonprofit and then contacted the campaign to schedule a briefing with Brown, according to the Board of Ethics.

Domb was among the first to criticize Brown, saying the grocery magnate “is running one of the most unethical campaigns in Philadelphia history.” Parker said Brown’s campaign was “built on deception” and Gym called the potential violations “egregious.”

Brown dismissed the allegations as a “political hit job” by the apolitical Board of Ethics and his campaign spokesperson called it “nonsense.” He also said other candidates are using super PACs — although he’s the only one where a supporting PAC has not disclosed its donors.

Chinatown residents opposed to the 76ers’ proposal to build a new downtown arena said they were concerned the basketball team was “trying to buy a mayoral candidate.” Brown has come out in favor of the arena.

Brown drew backlash again, and national attention, after the first televised mayoral debate. He was asked about accusations of environmental racism in Chester, the predominantly Black city where some of Philadelphia’s trash is burned at a controversial incinerator.

“Chester is Chester. I’m worried about Philadelphians and how their lives are,” Brown said. “And so what will come first for me is what will be best for my Philadelphians.” He added that he didn’t “work for Chester” and said, “The trash has to go somewhere. And whoever gets it’s going to be unhappy with it.”

Candidate Rebecca Rhynhart said it was “not really an appropriate answer” and Parker said “that response is the same way you treat the Black and brown community.”

At the same time, Brown remains a strong candidate ahead of the May 16 Democratic primary, as shown most recently when he was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police.

He also remains the second-best funded candidate after Domb, having raised $2 million in the first three months of 2023, including $800,000 he personally loaned his campaign.

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,...