Cephas Takes Wynnefield Ways to Harrisburg

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MORGAN CEPHAS … running to win.

by Tony West
To understand incoming State Rep. Morgan Cephas, get to know Wynnefield.

Wynnefield doesn’t control most of the votes in W. Philadelphia’s 192nd Legislative Dist. But it has become a favored home for Black leadership in Philadelphia.

When veteran incumbent State Rep. Louise Bishop ran afoul of the law, a discreet power struggle arose amongst the Democratic City Committee over how to replace her. Influential Congressman, DCC Chair and Ward Leader Bob Brady favored Lynwood Savage, a committeeman in Brady’s home 34th Ward, which is dominated by Overbrook Heights.

Savage won a spring special election and is serving in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. But Cephas, now 32, will replace him in January because she beat him in the primary one month later and ran unopposed in the fall General Election.

Cephas was born and raised in Wynnefield (“around the corner from Will Smith,” she noted). Her parents had moved there from South Philadelphia’s Tasker Homes to improve their lot. She graduated from Central High School and went to the University of Virginia, where she majored in political science.

The light came on for Cephas when she took a summer class in political campaigning. She found it “extremely exciting,” she said. When she came home, Cephas asked her parents if they could recommend a political race she could get involved in. “Well, there’s your coach,” they told her.

Cephas was born to run – literally. With a runner’s build, she had competed in track as a kid, trained by Curtis Jones, Jr., and was close to his daughter. Now Jones, who then headed the Philadelphia Commercial Development Corp., was about to reach for the 4th Dist. City Council seat Michael Nutter had vacated in order to run for mayor.

“I was able to put theory to practice,” Cephas said. She signed on board with Jones and has remained close to him ever since, calling him “an amazing mentor.” She started out as his youth-policy advisor and scheduler, then became a legislative aide.

Moving into a City Hall office in 2008 was a blooding for Cephas. It gave her a taste for policy-making. Before her first year was up, the Great Recession had struck, imperiling all the bright ambitions of newly elected city officials as city revenue crashed. She had to learn her way around City Hall fast.

“You can’t operate in silos when putting policy together,” Cephas emphasized. “You have to understand the pulse of the people you’re serving, and also the people you must work with, if you want a plan to come to fruition.” Cephas was active in City Council’s budget process. She learned where resources come from, how to coordinate different agencies and bring them together on a project.

Cephas played a lead role in crafting the Philadelphia Internship Tax Credit, which rewards businesses that bring high-school or college students into their workplace.

Fresh from attending college out of state, the issue of Philadelphia’s “brain drain” resonated with her. With the economy tanking, Cephas saw a need to keep Philadelphia’s young talent in town and help them invest in the city’s future. Economic opportunity became her cause.

Cephas had also grown up in a campus neighborhood. Wynnefield is dominated by St. Joseph’s University. As a girl, she had worked out on its track. As a councilmanic staffer, she was plunged into all the neighborhood issues of an urban university.

Nobody wants the university to go away. But neighbors want inclusion in its business opportunities; they want to stop “rental creep” to shifting bands of students from driving out longterm homeowners; and they want control of trash and disorderly behavior by bright young things who hopefully will run for public office someday and do good, like Cephas.

“My duty, as a public servant of the community, is to allow neighbors to be comfortable with that institution,” said Cephas.

Cephas took a break from Jones’s office in 2014-15, when she was director of external affairs for the Philadelphia Youth Network. The job broadened her network to movers and shakers like State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-W. Phila.) and Urban Affairs Coalition President Sharmain Matlock-Turner, who were essential to grantsmanship for her nonprofit, which aims to help city youths tap into educational and career advantages.

Then the dramatic events of DA Seth Williams’ “Aligate” investigation unfolded. It became clear the 192nd seat would open up when Bishop was ensnared in prosecution.

Cephas is a runner. So she ran.

No outsider has a shot in a special election. These are low-turnout affairs controlled by ward leaders. But Cephas’ target was always the Apr. 26 primary. Running twice for the same office in back-to-back months, Cephas paced herself like a track star.

And she killed. In a five-way race, she ran past the 34th Ward’s favorite son Savage by better than 2-1 there. In her home ward, the 52nd, she edged out the Ward Chair Steven Jones, who governs in Nutter’s name, 1,744-1,355. Evidently she learned something in campaign class at UVA.

Key unions such as the Laborers, AFSCME, SEIU, PFT and Local 1199C endorsed her. She pitched to six campaign forums and as many civic associations as she could reach. A campaign team led by Marcus Spivey and Chris Woods helped put together both traditional and online strategies. Hughes weighed in heavily in her favor. Cephas claims to have clocked 30,000 doors, 30,000 phone calls, 30 meet-and-greets and numerous transit stops, on a budget of $200,000.

Next stop: Harrisburg. Cephas will arrive with a boatload of constituent concerns: a high poverty rate, schools crying for upgrades, public-transit needs, crime-triggering stop-and-goes.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild program excites her – there are a lot of schools, parks and recreation centers in her district, and she is on board with its community-school model – but she knows Kenney’s plan cannot work to the fullest unless the Philadelphia Caucus can wring more money out of Harrisburg in 2017 – not an easy play. “But we have to leverage city resources with state resources,” she insisted. This is a state rep’s job.

Cephas will have to work and play well with upstate Republicans. She gets that. But she is confident in Philadelphia’s group of newly elected young officials, her peers.

And she thinks her Republican colleagues will need help from across the aisle. They are buffeted by contradictory pressures from their constituents and may be unable to solve basic governmental puzzles like a budget solely within their own caucus.

2017 will be an interesting year in politics, from global to local, says Cephas. She’s glad to be tackling it. She will be sworn in next Tuesday.

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