It’s Friday afternoon on the fifth floor of an office building on Walnut Street, and Babette Josephs, after spending 28 consecutive years serving as Pennsylvania state representative of the 182nd district—a space invader-shaped chunk of Center City with borders that thread through parts of Center City and South Philly—is leaving office in just a few hours. Literally. As of 5 p.m. today, Josephs, the 72-year-old firebrand known for championing civil rights, unleashing scathing, spectacular lectures on the House floor and sniping at conservatives, will no longer be a politician.
“I feel good,” says Josephs, dressed down in a turtleneck, jeans and sneakers, standing among boxes of files, piles of t-shirts from every color-coded cause to ever host a 5K fundraiser and stacks of canvas tote bags with her name emblazoned across the front. She shrugs. Later, she’ll say that she felt much more emotional back in April, when she effectively lost her seat by succumbing to challenger Brian Sims, 34, in the Democratic primary by 235 votes.
Josephs is a quintessential liberal feminist who co-founded the abortion rights group NARAL Pennsylvania before going into politics. She was also a fierce advocate for the LGBTQ community, convening the Women’s Caucus and co-chairing the Democratic LGBT Caucus. She has the long-view on the way civil liberties get chopped up and distorted in Harrisburg. (Hint: If a Pennsylvania bill has the word ‘freedom’ or ‘right’ in the title, it’s time to break out the political gobbledygook decoder ring.) At the same time, Josephs is known for her dedication to local civic engagement, from her participation in more than 40 groups to her habit of walking the ‘hood and popping into stores.
The Josephs-Sims race was nasty, and then got nastier—and that’s even comparing it to a previous race where Josephs accused the competition of pretending to be bisexual in order to court the pink vote, as the 182nd includes the Gayborhood. (Though, at this point, Philly’s gay community is more of a mini-diaspora). Sims’ campaign cast Josephs as an uncompromising blowhard whose brash opining made bipartisan cooperation impossible. Josephs’ camp retorted with clucking tongues, portraying Sims as a naïve wide-eyed outsider who has no clue how Harrisburg really works.
It was a sorry state of affairs to watch two progressives, former allies, scrap over one chair in a bloated state legislature otherwise packed to the gills with middle-class, rural, straight white men.
So while we gained the first Pennsylvania lawmaker elected while openly gay—Sims was set to be the first openly gay legislator in the state of Pennsylvania, until Rep. Mike Fleck (R-Huntington) scooped him by coming out in a local paper just a few weeks ago—we lost one of the few women, and the only Jewish woman, in the entire general assembly. In 2012, Pennsylvania was ranked as one of the worst states for female representation, with only 17 percent female legislators.
The race was heated because it was tight. Tarah Hannah-Taliaferro, Josephs’ legislative assistant and director of constituent services, was stunned by the defeat. The night of the election, she recalls, “A former coworker called me up and said, ‘What the bleep-bleep is going on? She’s losing in the polls!’ I said, ‘Get the heck out of here!’”
Hannah-Taliaferro, 44, worked in Joseph’s corner for 10 years. She went to bed believing the numbers would change, but they didn’t. “I said, ‘Oh my god, what’s going to happen? Come Monday, I won’t be getting up and going to work.’” As she packed up her office to leave on Josephs’ last day as a state rep, Hannah-Taliaferro began to sob. She called Josephs a mother figure.
Josephs’ ideological enemies have had different names for her. Fox News declared her “a national disgrace” when she refused to lead a meeting in the Pledge of Allegiance. She explained that she hasn’t said it in public since “under God” was added in 1954—because that makes it a prayer, and she doesn’t pray in public.
For friends and foes alike, Josephs’ absence will be felt on the House floor, where she is best known for giving epic remarks, spicing up—or drawing out—otherwise routine proceedings.
“She’s smart,” says John Baer, longtime political reporter covering the Capitol for the Philadelphia Daily News. She actually believes in some things, which, believe it or not, isn’t the norm here.
“Added to that,” he continues, “she has the advantage or disadvantage of, I’m going to say, a semi-irritating voice. When she gets up on the House floor to begin her remarks, you can literally see people wince. If you’re in the Capitol newsroom, you hear people moan.”
Most recently, Josephs caught heat for calling Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren, Forest, McKean) a “man with breasts” in response to Rapp’s championing what would have been the country’s most severe unnecessary mandatory ultrasound abortion bill. In the end, the bill was shelved to squash uproar before the presidential primary.
Josephs’ tiffs with renowned uber-conservative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry), chair of the House State Government Committee—where Josephs was the lead ranking Democrat—were so legendary that committee meetings were nicknamed “The Daryl and Babette Show.” Their feud has become a touchstone of humor for Josephs fans; when the ACLU awarded her a lifetime achievement award a couple of months ago, the introductory remarks was interrupted by a faux telegram “from Metcalfe,” to guffaws and claps from the crowd. (Metcalfe must take their differences more seriously: His office did not return request for comment on this story.)
But now, show’s over—though, Josephs says, she is not shutting the door on politics for good. When the dust settles, she plans to work on food and hunger issues in the area. But for the immediate future, she’ll be catching up with her family.
Standing in what served as her office for the last decade, she surveys the piles of papers. It’s 10:30 a.m., and the office is almost completely dismantled. Certificates have been plucked off the walls and stacked near the door. In the mini kitchen area, a bag of frozen corn kernels defrosts in the sink. Her desk is cleared except for two cans of Diet Coke, which Josephs sips instead of coffee. She cracks a can, and sits down for her exit interview.
How was your last day in session?
Lots of people were leaving, some willingly, some not, from both sides of the aisle. So there were a lot of farewell speeches. After I gave mine, I didn’t really come back because the only business left was electing the caucus for next session.
Did you feel emotional giving your farewell speech?
PW's Summer Guide 2015