POLS ON THE STREET: New Council Faces, Row-Office Upsets in Philadelphia

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SWEEPING to victory, Mayor Jim Kenney was cheered by supporters at the Museum of American Jewish History Tuesday night. Photo by Richard Rykard

Jim Kenney will remain mayor of Philadelphia for another four years, God willing.

Democratic primary voters said so Tuesday and not enough disaffected citizens will turn to his Republican challenger, Billy Ciancaglini, in the fall to unseat him then.

Perhaps if his two challengers, State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-W. Phila.) and former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, had united much earlier around a common message – which they tended to share – and a single candidate (eeny meeny miny mo), they could have beaten Kenney together. But they would have had to start that process early in 2018. This did not happen.

As a result, Kenney thumped them both, 67% to 24% for Williams and 9% for Butkovitz.

New Blood on City Council

COUNCILWOMAN Helen Gym moves to the head of the at-large class, votewise.

With two at-large incumbents, Council Members Blondell Reynolds Brown and Bill Greenlee, retiring, we knew there would be new faces in City Council chambers come 2020.

But three other Council incumbents walked home in the primary. Helen Gym won her second term with a #3 ballot position and a dominant 15.7% vote share. None of her colleagues will mess with her for the next four years. Well-funded colleagues Allan Domb and Derek Green skated home.

Retiring Reynolds Brown succeeded in promoting her protégée Katherine Gilmore Richardson to take her place as an at-large councilwoman. Isaiah Thomas, who has been standing in line for eight years, finally made it into the final five Democratic team.

So by and large, at-large was a win for the old guard. Numerous new faces such as Justin DiBerardinis and Eryn Santamoor, although well funded and well planned, with impressive TV ads and ground games, failed to crack the top five.

But they are young. And building citywide name and face recognition takes time. Take Thomas, who started when he was quite young. Now he’s just sort of young. But he’s elected now.

IN HIS third try for Council at large, Isaiah Thomas succeeds.

Democratic City Committee did well in this race, losing only one endorsement out of five.

In the district races, the major surprise was the termination of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s hold on the 3rd District in West Philadelphia. In service for 24 years, the councilwoman took over that seat from her husband Lucien Blackwell, who had held it for many years previously before he became a congressman. It is the end of an era and a dynasty.

Blackwell’s opponent, Jamie Gauthier, relied on generational connections to unseat the incumbent: It was largely a battle of the 40s against the 70s. Gauthier early secured substantial funding in a way that is rare for district Council challengers. She is also hooked into the University City wing of the district in a way that Blackwell never was; and this “read-&-write” neighborhood is good at turnout in low-profile elections.

JAMIE GAUTHIER unseated Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell in West Philadelphia’s 3rd District, ending a political lineage going back four decades.

In a neighboring district, South and Southwest Philly’s 2nd, the generational divide was not present.

While the 2nd District is always up for grabs, incumbent Councilman Kenyatta Johnson shut down challenger Lauren Vidas 3-2 despite her long-planned campaign.

In the 1st District, challenger Lou Lanni eked out 19% against incumbent Mark Squilla – not bad against a popular incumbent with few foes.

In the 4th District, little-known challenger Ron Adams shocked Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. by winning 25% of the vote. Jones faces an independent challenger, Karla Cruel, in the fall. This district is notoriously diverse and hard to please.

In the 7th District, independent Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez survived a joust with Democratic Party-backed State Rep. Angel Cruz, 52-48%. That’s par for the course in the barrio, where the political knives are always drawn.

No other district races amounted to much.

Sheriff’s Race Dumps One Incumbent

ROCHELLE BILAL is Democratic nominee for Sheriff.

Sheriff Jewell Williams was in trouble after charges of abuse were leveled against him. Although he defended himself eloquently, it did not save his candidacy for re-election.

In row-office elections, ballot position is often crucial and Williams drew the shortest straw: #4 in a four-way race.

He was thumped by another public-safety officer with deep credentials, Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, which represents Black police officers. Bilal took 41% of the vote in a five-way race.

City Loses Its Veteran Register of Wills

Ron Donatucci, who has credibly managed the Register of Wills Office for most of a lifetime with little squawk from anybody, was turfed off the Democratic primary ballot by Tracey Gordon, a Southwest Philadelphia activist with a history in the broader progressive movement.

TRACEY GORDON is on the Democratic ballot for Register of Wills.

Gordon was once a deputy City commissioner under then-Commission Chair Stephanie Singer. She is an inveterate low-budget political player who saw this race as winnable. Appears she was right.

Donatucci is a veteran of old-school Philadelphia politics. A South Philadelphia native, he harks back to an era when that part of the city was guaranteed a seat at the table of Democratic City Committee.

But the lesson of this election is that DCC no longer controls this downballot row office. After decades of job security, Donatucci had fallen out of the habit of traveling north of Market Street. That hurt him when a sudden wave of interest in downballot offices swept the rest of the city. Nobody knew who he was anymore.

No Surprises on City Commission

The mind-boggling field of 13 candidates for two Democratic City Commission seats in the end worked in favor of the party’s endorsees, City Commission Chair Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir. They walked away with 21% and 24% of the vote respectively.

CITY COMMISSION Chair Lisa Deeley was renominated.

Perhaps if there had been a clear faction united around a leading challenger, the DCC team might have been in trouble. But the 11 challengers all nibbled away at each other, leaving little to show for it – beyond the fun of running. And it was refreshing to see so many people take seriously the important public office of running elections.

Of the lot, Kahlil Williams, a Ballard Spahr attorney, had enough finances to run impressive TV commercials and came close with 17%. Grassroots Reclaimer Jen Devor and well-credentialed Marwan Kreidie did pretty well at 8% each.

Judges Come Home with Mixed Results

Common Pleas Court candidates seeking six open benches showed a weaker DCC influence. For sure, it never hurts to draw top ballot position; but top ballot positions can be and were beaten again.

OMAR SABIR will be Deeley’s running mate.

Independent Jennifer Schultz, a third-time seeker with a low-funded background in progressive defendant law, pulled #1 this time & racked up the most votes: 58,331 as of midnight Tuesday. #2 Joshua Roberts also walked home with 54,747.

But #3 Craig Levin and #4 Jon Marshall didn’t make the cut, proof that ballot position in itself guarantees no one a seat on the court.

The other four winners were Jim Crumlish, Anthony Kyriakakis, Tiffany Palmer and Carmella Jacquinto.

DCC batted .500 on its Common Pleas ballot. It got Roberts, Anthony Kyriakakis and Carmella Jacquinto across the line despite terrible ballot position for Kyriakakis and Jacquinto. But it could not bring home Sherman Toppin, Cateria McCabe and Henry McGregor Sias.

Another Common Pleas candidate, Kay Kyungsun Yu, just missed the cutoff despite poor ballot position. Philadelphia politics will be seeing her again.

Only one seat is open in Municipal Court. David Conroy shut down his only contestant, Teresa Brunson, but not by much.

Turnout Was Good

Initial results suggest that voter turnout was decent for this sort of municipal election.

Of course, no two municipal elections are alike. Those for district attorney and City controller are typically lower than those for mayor.

But mayoral races with an incumbent are typically lower than those when the incumbent has stepped down. That’s because incumbents have strong advantages, leading these races to be quiet.

Therefore, turnout for Kenney’s second race in 2019m should be compared too turnout for Mayor Michael Nutter’s second race in 2011. And by that metric, voters responded vigorously this year. About 200,000 votes for mayor were cast, compared to only 150,000 in 2011.

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