Philadelphia has a new sheriff in town – and for the first time, it’s a black woman.
Rochelle Bilal beat out two-term incumbent Jewell Williams, who has been beleaguered by accusations of sexual harassment, settling two suits filed by women and still facing another one.
The sheriff’s department is responsible for overseeing court security, transporting prisoners to court and running monthly sheriff’s sales of delinquent properties. Williams recently tacked on the jobs of serving warrants and guarding City Council and the new Family Courthouse.
The department has no term limits and seemingly few checks and balances. It has been dogged for decades by allegations of corruption.
Some have argued for eradicating the office altogether and subsuming it under the mayor’s purview, as is done in New York, where the mayor has a deputy committee of finance that oversees the sheriff’s duties.
“Should we get rid of the office, that is a conversation we may need to have. But until then it needs to be cleaned up,” Bilal told Philadelphiacitizen.org.
In addition to the sexual harassment charges, Williams posed other controversies. He added staff and doubled his department’s budget but still consistently exceeded its overtime budget. Williams said this was because of vacancies in the office and other issues, such as traffic on I-95.
He asked for a budget increase of $3.5 million during his first term as sheriff, in part to buy a new pursuit vehicle for himself.
Williams’ predecessor, Sheriff John Green, has pleaded guilty to accepting bribes during his decades in office.
Philadelphia residents will have to see if Bilal is able to restore integrity to this department and justify its ongoing existence as an independent entity.
Bilal seems to have history on her side as the first African American woman to hold the office in the wake of Williams’ sexual harassment allegations and in the atmosphere of the #metoo movement. But Bilal is not without her own seemingly questionable past.
A former cop, she retired from the Philadelphia Police Department in 2013 during an investigation into a second job she had with Colwyn Borough. Bilal said she was innocent of holding the two positions simultaneously, which would have been illegal.
Bilal ran on a platform of “policing with compassion, helping Philadelphians stay in their homes,” according to her website. She said she understood the devastation of “insensitive policing” and that she hoped to “build a better, more just Philadelphia.”
Bilal is also president of the Guardian Civic League, the black police officer’s association, and serves as secretary of the Philadelphia NAACP. She taught new recruits at the Philadelphia Police Academy and developed a program to educate them on topics that could cost them their careers if they stray from the law.
But whether Bilal will be able to turn around the opaque and oftentimes corrupt sheriff’s office remains to be seen.
Gauthier brings fresh face to old district
West Philadelphia met with a huge upset in Tuesday’s primary, with Fairmount Park Conservancy Director Jamie Gauthier unseating longtime incumbent Jannie Blackwell, who has reigned since 1992 when she took over the seat from her husband, the late U.S. Rep. Lucian Blackwell.
“We worked really, really hard, and I’m thrilled and honored at the opportunity to serve the residents of the third district and to move forward together,” Gauthier told PW.
According to preliminary results in the 3rd District, Gauthier had 56 percent of the votes compared to Blackwell’s 44 percent, with 97 percent of the precincts reporting.
This ends a 45-year run for the Blackwells in West Philadelphia, and Gauthier, who ran a grassroots campaign, is calling for change.
Gauthier told PW that she wants to tackle gentrification in part by expanding “Just Cause” legislation to help renters evade unfair evictions and that she likes the idea of providing free or low-cost counsel to residents to fight housing injustice.
Gauthier said she also wants to address the 33 percent poverty rate in her district.
“We are one of the biggest economic engines in the city,” Gauthier said. “There has to be better ways to connect residents with jobs right here in the district.”
Expanding job training, investing in the “equitable development” of commercial corridors and streamlining the tax code are on Gauthier’s list. She also wants to get local institutions to procure from locally-owned and minority businesses, Gauthier said.
She is against the 10-year tax abatement, which enables developers to evade taxes on new construction and renovations for a decade, saying the repeal of the program would increase school funding.
“Something has to happen,” Gauthier told PW. “I think the political will exists on council to do something about the program, and I’m in favor of that.”
Can Quinones-Sanchez shake up growing Kensington?
In North Philadelphia’s 7th District, which includes Kensington and Fairhill, the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis, incumbent Maria Quinones-Sanchez has declared victory in a tight race, despite the fact that opponent Angel Cruz had not yet conceded, with 99 percent of precincts reporting.
Quinones-Sanchez held onto a 52 percent lead over Cruz’s 48 percent.
This will be Quinones-Sanchez’s fifth term on City Council. She was the first Latina to hold a council seat when she won in 2007.
Quinones-Sanchez has advocated for investing in job training and creating sustainable jobs, reducing blight and eviction rates in an effort to transform vacant land and keep families in their homes.
Her biggest recent achievement was the creation of the Philadelphia Land Bank to encourage neighborhood revitalization by empowering community groups, residents and small businesses to repurpose vacant and blighted land.
Quinones-Sanchez is totally against a supervised injection facility in Kensington and will continue to fight the potential placement of one there, where it was rumored a site was going to be located.
“You don’t start in Kensington where you’ve lost the vote of confidence of people because we’ve not been able to keep them safe,” Quinones-Sanchez told PW. “Why not put them somewhere else and prove that the model works?”
Is Kenney a lock for November win?
Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney dispatched two challengers in Tuesday’s primary in a landslide. Cruising to victory with 67 percent of the vote, Kenney will more than likely win the Nov. 5 general election against Republican challenger Billy Ciancaglini, an attorney from South Philadelphia who ran unopposed in the primary since registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 7-to-1 in Philadelphia.
“Serving as your mayor has been the greatest honor of my life,” Kenney said in his victory speech. “There’s something special about being mayor when you walk into a pre-K classroom and see how a quality education empowers our children. My frequent school visits serve as a powerful reminder of what we’re fighting for each and every day.”
Kenney was referencing his signature legislation, the sweetened beverage tax, popularly known as the soda tax, which will most likely continue now that he has been re-elected. Revenue from the 1.5 cents per ounce tax, which came into play at the start of 2017, funds pre-K and after-school programs, recreation centers, libraries and community programs.
However, the soda tax is loathed by more than half of registered voters, according to polls, and confronts continued battles from industry and retailer groups. Philadelphia residents should expect more conflict on this front, but it’s unlikely that Kenney’s soda tax will be overturned.
Kenney’s victory also means that he will continue to support the 10-year tax abatement program for new or remodeled properties, credited with revitalizing many neighborhoods but criticized for costing the schools $62 million in revenue in 2017, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I think it works and should be left alone,” Kenney told The Inquirer editorial board about the tax abatement program.
However, Kenney has also said that he would sign off on whatever changes Philadelphia City Council – whose majority of members are opposed to the program – made to the tax abatement because he didn’t feel like it was worth the fight.
A Kenney victory also means that his endorsement of supervised injection facilities, where drug users could go to inject under medical supervision and receive overdose reversal and other services, is fortified.
The federal Justice Department, however, has filed a lawsuit against the nonprofit Safehouse, which is attempting to open the city’s first supervised injection facility. A majority of city council members also oppose the opening of a safe injection site, as do many residents.
Despite Kenney’s endorsement, supervised injection facilities will continue to face ongoing conflict and backlash in Philadelphia.
The AP called Kenney’s victory shortly after 9 p.m., and his opponents conceded.
“You will hear my voice that speaks for those who don’t have the power, privilege and position that I currently have,” said state Sen. Anthony Williams, finishing second with 23 percent of the vote. “That will never stop. I will do that as long as I serve the public and bring truth to power.”
Coming in third with only 10 percent of the vote, former city controller Alan Butkovitz said, “I’ve always said Jim Kenney has a good heart. I just felt in terms of management he was not bringing his best efforts to the job. I hope this campaign has sharpened his skills.”