(Photo courtesy of Brendan McPhillips)
Brendan McPhillips just wrapped the successful U.S. Senate campaign of Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a grueling race during which the candidate suffered a stroke, and fought his way back despite his lingering auditory processing issues, not to mention an opponent with deep pockets in Republican Mehmet Oz.
One might say McPhillips had more than earned a little time off. But instead of taking an extended vacation, he jumped into his next job: as campaign manager for former Philadelphia City Councilor Helen Gym, in her bid to be the next mayor of Philadelphia.
She’s one of — as of this writing — nine Democrats vying for the party’s nomination for mayor, seeking to replace Jim Kenney, who is term-limited and can’t seek reelection. And in a city where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 7 to 1, the Dems’ nominee is likely to be Philadelphia’s next mayor. The primary election is scheduled for May 16.
“There’s just no time to waste,” McPhillips told the Capital-Star. “These elections matter tremendously, they affect people’s lives on a day to day level in a way that I think sometimes gets lost with the coverage and the gravity of these higher profile races in the midterms and the presidential years.”
In other words, Pennsylvania is too big a piece of the electoral puzzle for McPhillips to take any extended down time.
“I want to be sure that we have good representation, people that I believe are going to make Philly and Pennsylvania places where I want to continue to live,” he said. “I feel that very viscerally in my bones, and that’s why I do this work. It’s not enough to just get a win and then hang it up.”
As far back as 2019, when he was current U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s Iowa state director (and where Buttigieg, then a Democratic presidential hopeful) pulled off a surprise win in the caucuses), McPhilips says he’s received questions about his future plans.
“Somebody will ask you at some point, ‘What do you want to do next? Do you see yourself going to the White House? What do you want to do in the general [election]?” McPhillips said. “And I was always like ‘Nope, yeah, back to Pennsylvania.’”
McPhillips, a Philadelphia native, ran Gym’s successful 2015 City Council campaign, and Fetterman’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2016.
He also helped flip Pennsylvania from red back to blue in 2020, as the Biden campaign’s Pennsylvania state director.
But McPhillips says he’s not really interested in a job in the West Wing — while emphasizing that it’s perfectly respectable work.
“I just feel like my skills are best devoted toward trying to help continue to get good people elected,” he said. “Especially at a time when there’s such a lack of faith in the ability of our institutions and our elected representatives to actually do real good for people. And I’ve been fortunate enough to come across some genuinely good, interesting, thoughtful public servants who are trying to do the right thing, and in a lot of campaigns, that’s not always the case.”
At a glance, the 6-foot-9 Fetterman and the petite Gym appear extremely different. But their paths to public service have a lot of similarities, McPhillips said.
“They’re both people who found their calling in public service because they were members of a community that had been left behind, and saw community members of theirs just forgotten,” he said.
“And their answer to witnessing that was not to move away or retreat back into a comfortable lifestyle and go somewhere it would be easier. Each of them stepped up in a big way that was unique to them and what they had to offer at the time,” he continued.
Fetterman, McPhillips noted, taught GED classes in the former steel town of Braddock, near Pittsburgh.
After two of his students were killed in shootings, Fetterman ran for mayor to try to address violence in the community and the economic issues the community suffered from.
Fetterman served as the town’s mayor for more than a decade, before being elected Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor in 2018, and he and his family still live in Braddock.
Gym, McPhillips said, was a public school teacher in Philadelphia who saw the lack of resources they had compared to other schools in nearby suburbs.
“She stepped up and began organizing parents and teachers fighting back against budget cuts and school closures and forging community through that organizing,” he said. “Those are the people I find most compelling and interesting as candidates: people who are fighting for issues that they’ve been a part of for a long time. Their campaigns are extensions of their own character.”
Gym was elected to Philadelphia City Council in 2015, and has championed education issues, including pushing for the return of Philadelphia Public Schools from state to local control.
She also helped pass Philadelphia’s Fair Workweek law, which requires many retail, service, and hospitality companies to give workers predictable work schedules and advance notice of any schedule changes.
Joe Calvello, who was the communications director for Fetterman’s Senate campaign, said McPhillips was the right person to run what was a difficult race.
“He was very stoic and a really strong leader to the entire team,” Calvello told the Capital-Star. “By the end of the campaign everyone looked up to him. The culture of the campaign was this really great team, we were all busting our asses but we were doing it together because we knew it was bigger than us, bigger than John Fetterman. It was about us and the people of Pennsylvania.”
Calvello said he considers McPhillips “the most talented political operative in America right now.” He’s been on numerous campaigns himself, Calvello added, and he said he’s sure McPhillips’ phone was ringing off the hook with job offers.
But in a field full of schemers and operators, Calvello said McPhilips stands apart.
“He’s really good at his job, and he inspires his team,” Calvello said. He added that in a campaign like Fetterman’s, which he compared to a storm traveling over rough seas, McPhillips would be the eye of the hurricane, right at the center helping move it forward.
For his part, McPhillips isn’t giving away too much of the strategy he plans to use for Gym’s campaign, and agreed that running a primary against other Democrats definitely had different nuances than running against a Republican.
On its way to its general election win over the Trump-endorsed Oz, the Fetterman campaign used to great success was social media, posting and replying (often with withering sarcasm) to his opponent. It helped that Fetterman already had a sizable social media following before running for Senate.
But McPhillips said a platform like Twitter can only take a candidate so far.
“If your candidate doesn’t have a good message, it’s not going to help, right? It’s all about having a good candidate who’s actually running on a real platform and having a strong message to back that up. Everything else is window dressing.”
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