The decision by Donna Reed Miller, the Eighth District’s councilwoman since 1996, not to run for re-election this year has set much of Northwest Philadelphia abuzz with possibility… and a little criticism.
“What we need to do is reunite Germantown,” said Larry Simmons, a former chief of staff for State Rep. John Myers (D.,Phila.). “The blacks and whites, the Asians, the haves, the have-nots; everyone that has been fractured because of the leadership that we’ve had for the last 16 years.”
The Eighth District stretches from Chestnut Hill and Mt Airy, where Miller support has been soft, through Germantown to Nicetown and Tioga, where Miller has a political stronghold.
Some say there’s good reason for her weakness in the north.
“I think she was known for not necessarily representing the entire district,” said John O’Connell, the Democratic Ward Leader for Mt. Airy’s 9th ward. “I think my ward felt that way, which was one of the reasons that we have not supported her as a council person.”
A long standing criticism of Miller goes something like this: She ignored the top half of her district and didn’t do enough for the lower half where she focused her efforts.
There were a few notable low points along the way. In 2008, one of her staffers pleaded guilty to extortion related to a real estate scheme, and in 2005 her former chief of staff was found guilty of an illegal tax scheme that was tied to the federal bugging of then Mayor John Street.
Her political mentor
In her announcement Friday, Miller explained that she never saw a City Council seat as a life long post. Instead it was all about community, she said. And fulfilling a vision that was set before her by mentors.
“All I wanted to do was to serve and help the community,” the announcement reads. “That is all any of us wanted when we started in this many years ago. I tried to live up to the expectations that Dave [Richardson] and other trailblazers had for us.”
Her mentor, the late State Rep. Dave Richardson, was a dynamic visionary. As much as anyone, he was responsible for setting up a neighborhood power base that lead to stable posts for African American politicians in the Northwest.
Yvonne Haskins, the former Philadelphia Regional Director of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, remembers when Miller worked on Richardson’s staff.
“Whenever there was someone on parole from their region, you could bet I would hear form Donna Reed Miller pleading their case,” Haskins said.
Over the years, Miller has tried to reform Philadelphia’s gun laws, secure spots for women and minority owned firms in city contracts, and most recently she co-sponsored hearings on alleged police misconduct.
The Settlement connection
Another high point, according to her, was the successful redevelopment of Cricket Court Commons, a massive Germantown housing complex that had been all but lost to neglect. This project came out of a second powerful relationship in Miller’s career, this one with Emanuel Freeman, the former executive director of Germantown Settlement, who hailed from roots similar to Richardson’s.
Miller tied herself tight to the social service and housing agency throughout her career, right up to its bankruptcy and court ordered dissolution last month. For many of her constituents, this was not a good thing.
“We just see her connected so closely to Emanuel Freeman and Germantown Settlement, and at this particular time it just doesn’t look good,” said Debra Roberts, the director or operations for the Wister Neighborhood Advisory Council, and a former Settlement employee.
Over her 16 years in office, Miller has been accused of enabling Settlement to hoard property in the neighborhood even as the tracts fell into decay and other developers were ready to step in. The result, many have said, is a fractured and physically broken down Germantown where notorious examples of blight and neglect, like the still languishing YWCA building on Germantown Avenue, have made frequent headlines.
“You cant take whole sections and set it aside for one individual,” said Simmons of the Miller-Freeman connection.
Yet in Lower Germantown voters have gone for Miller every time.
Votes kept coming in
An even stronger voting bloc for Miller is farther south, in Nicetown.
“We’re going to miss Councilwoman Miller for sure,” said Majeedah Rashid, the chief operating officer for the Nicetown CDC. “She basically helped us build our foundation for our organization… We went from just a grass-roots organization … to a community-based CDC that’s doing joint ventures with major developers.”
For its entire 10-year existence, the Nicetown Community Development Corporation has worked closely with Miller, and it’s paid off. She and other politicians have been critical to successes like the new $15 million mixed use development on the 4400 block of Germantown Avenue, which is under construction now, and a planned $20 million project that already has a $4 million city commitment.
And while critical voices like John O’Connell’s are still easy to find, with projects like the Germantown Avenue Street-scapes improvement, Miller has been slowly winning fans all the way up the Avenue.
Greg Welsh, the president of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, said Miller has been great to work with for the two years he’s had the post, though he thinks that was somewhat of a recent development.
“There has been a much greater uptick in terms of City Council participation in the Chestnut Hill area,” he said.
According to him, Miller now sends a staffer to every association meeting, something that she did not do several years ago.
The former executive director of Mt. Airy USA, Farah Jimenez, noticed something similar in her final years at that organization. To her, the prevalent criticism that Miller was checked out when it came to Mt. Airy no longer fit.
“That was probably true for about half of my tenure at Mt. Airy USA,” Jimenez said. “But toward the end I felt that she really had grown into the leadership role.”
Jimenez thinks the next council person from the district can learn a lot from Miller’s track record in these communities.
The biggest lesson: Even though Nicetown or Lower Germantown may look a lot different from Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, “it has to be somebody that can speak to both parts,” Jimenez said.
Corrected version of this article. An earlier version miss-identified Yvonne Haskins’ organization.