On a still Sunday afternoon, Armond James swung open the rusty door of a jam-packed corner store on Diamond Street, a couple blocks west of Broad.
Half a dozen members of the Temple University College Republicans patiently waited outside as the 33-year-old navigated his tall, broad frame around people and products with a stack of campaign cards at the ready.
James Godfrey, standing in line between snaps of the Eagles/Washington game, took a brief moment to size up the first-time candidate.
More than anything, he was impressed by James’ willingness to canvass this bruised pocket of North Philadelphia, to walk into his “Papi shop.”
“You can talk it in that building right there looking 40 feet in the air,” said Godfrey outside, pointing towards the Comcast Center off in the distance, “but once you come down on the ground level, that’s what’s being respected. They respect ground level. I can’t see you if I got to look up to you.”
A seemingly impossible task?
James, who hails from Elkins Park, thinks that kind of one-on-one connection, especially in “ignored” corners of the city, will help make securing victory in the Second Congressional District more akin to climbing Lemon Hill than Mount Everest.
The way he sees it, it’s the best way — and perhaps the only way — to make voting for a Republican in this bluest of blue districts seem like a less wild idea.
“It’s an uphill battle. We know that,” said James. “It’s very hard. It’s nine-to-one registration Democrat [to] Republican, but we are astonished at the acceptance that we’re receiving.”
He isn’t lying.
While some people during Sunday’s two-hour effort just politely took his campaign card and moved on, just as many chatted with James without much, if any, political rancor.
There were certainly some surprised faces, though.
What he’s up against
Democrat U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who James will face on Nov. 4, has led the district for two decades.
To James, though, his party affiliation doesn’t — make that shouldn’t — matter. Still, he gets the hesitation.
He often introduced himself as a conservative and got to the Republican part a little later.
“Before the party, I’m me. I’ve been me. I’ve been a stand-up guy,” he told one skeptical resident. “I want to help.”
What’s his platform?
James’ moderate platform rests on two pillars: Jobs and education.
To him, the two go hand in hand and, if addressed, can spark a virtuous cycle that will lift up a district that’s home to several hardscrabble communities.
“We have so many empty factories here that we need to revitalize and give people tangible jobs,” he said. “That will help with the crime and, once we build the tax base, that’ll also help with putting funding into the education system.”
When it comes to jobs, James wants to make Philadelphia the industrial hub it was during the region’s “Workshop of the World” days, roughly between the mid-1800s and the 1970s.
To do that, he said the city would need to lower its business tax so that it’s a more inviting place to set up shop.
James would also like to offer a five-year tax exemption for U.S. companies that bring manufacturing back from oversees.
When it comes to education, James is all about creating choice for parents — whether it’s charter, private or cyber schools.
James, a history teacher, said he sees everyday how different education models could benefit different students. And how, often, making a switch simply isn’t possible.
“I have 43 students in one class,” he said. “All those kids are different learners. They may be active learners, they may be visual learners, listening learners.
“There are so many different ways to promote education. We just don’t want to fall in a box, saying, ‘Ok, public education is the only way.'”
He said creating choice starts with advocating for it, making the demand clear. If elected, he’ll turn to state legislators to help spread the word.
Avoiding slung mud
Somewhat surprisingly, James does not bring up Fattah much as he canvasses, even as controversy swirls around the veteran lawmaker.
He said people want to hear about what he’ll do if elected, not about allegations that could one day take down the 10-term congressman.
Even when given a chance to directly comment on the political-corruption case, James largely steered clear of the controversy.
“I try not to read too much into it because it actually has nothing to do with my campaign. He has to handle that and I have to promote my ideas and solutions for the district,” said James, adding that his is not a “protest campaign.”
According to a late August plea deal, a pair of taxpayer-supported nonprofits founded by Fattah was among the conduits used to help repay an illegal $1 million campaign loan received while he was running for Philadelphia mayor in 2007.
The loan exceeded the city’s $5,000 donation limit.
Fattah is not named specifically in the plea deal, only as “Elected Official A,” but all the details of it make the connection clear.
Fattah, who is not facing any criminal charges, has denied any wrongdoing since the allegations surfaced.
“I have not in this instance, or in any instance in the decades that I’ve been an elected official, been involved in any illegal activity whatsoever. That is a direct response to an allegation made yesterday, today, tomorrow, anytime in your lifetime. The answer is no,” said Fattah.
In five campaigns between 2004 and 2012, Fattah’s vote count ranged from 88 percent (’04) to 89.3 percent (’10 and ’12).
Controversy could help
Joe DeFelice, executive director of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee, still thinks the accusations can help James, though probably not enough to win.
“Some people are going to go in and vote for Armond James. Some people are going to go in and vote against Chaka Fattah,” said DeFelice.
He added that the flurry of allegations currently hanging above the heads of several elected officials in the district, which also covers most of Northwest Philadelphia and Lower Merion in Montgomery County, could also help bring in more votes for James.
State Rep. Jose “J.P.” Miranda allegedly used a “ghost” employee to funnel money to his sister, who was also indicted by a grand jury.
State Sen. LeAnna Washington allegedly made her taxpayer-paid staffers plan an annual birthday party campaign fundraiser during the workday.
Win or lose, though, DeFelice said James is the kind of Republican candidate the party wants to attract and support. It’s why he recruited him to run last September.
“Armond is new, he’s fresh, and he’s young. But he’s not owned by anybody. He’s nobody’s guy. He came in, he’s a grown man and he’s doing this on his own and I wouldn’t put him in any camp other than his own,” said DeFelice.
James is currently unemployed. His position at the Creative Learning Academy, an alternative program inside South Philadelphia High School, was recently cut due to budget woes and it’s unclear if it’ll be restored.
That, for obvious reasons, makes this run for office a bit weightier.
But more than anything, James said Congress desperately needs a sea change and he wants to be part of a new wave of leadership.
If nothing else, James hopes his campaign makes things competitive enough to drive positive change — to make Fattah become a stronger leader.
“You give him some aggressive competition, that boss who was a beast is going to turn into an angel and give you really good service and everything,” said James. “So, that’s what I’m trying to do: Give him really good competition and, hopefully, the voters will see my hard work.”
If not, you’ll likely find him campaigning inside a North Philadelphia corner or two in 2016.