Gordon on track to become first African American woman Register of Wills

Tracey Gordon (Provided/The Philadelphia Tribune)

Tracey Gordon (Provided/The Philadelphia Tribune)

This article originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

Tracey Gordon ran her campaign for the Register of Wills in the Democratic primary on a shoestring budget against an entrenched incumbent for an office that is the gatekeeper for transferring generational wealth in Philadelphia.

Now she is on track to become the first African-American woman to win the office after toppling Ronald Donatucci, who has held the job for 40 years. There is no Republican candidate for the post.

“When you talk about the Black working class, the poor: The only asset that we really have is our home,” Gordon said.

“I want to even the playing field,” for all residents, she added. “I want to make sure that people understand the importance of wills so they can transfer their wealth.”

Gordon won the Democratic Party’s ticket in Tuesday’s primary with 71,027 votes (44%), beating out Donatucci who had 64,237 votes (40%) and Jacque Whaumbush who received 25,689 votes (15%), according to unofficial results.

Donatucci declined to comment.

In an email, Nyron Crawford, an assistant political science professor at Temple University, chalked up Gordon’s win to a combination of the uptick in the number of women running for elected office in recent years and voter dissatisfaction of long-time incumbents.

“There has been a strong progressive, anti-incumbent push that has been led by black women,” he added. “It actually is a good sign that voters may be looking down the ballot.”

Gordon, a 57-year-old mother of four, is a community activist, consultant and former deputy City Commissioner.

She has run three unsuccessful campaigns in the last decade — City Council in the 2nd District, City Commissioner and state representative.

She said running for the Register of Wills provided a unique challenge: The office was a mystery to voters.

While canvassing for signatures and campaigning in the citywide primary, Gordon had to turn nearly every encounter with a voter into a crash course about the office’s responsibilities and importance.

“Where I could have had five signatures, I had one because I had to stand with somebody for 15 and 20 minutes to explain to them an office they should know about,” she said.

The office is responsible for probating wills, i.e. the legal process for transferring the property of deceased individuals to their heirs; issuing letters of administration when there is no will; and issuing marriage licenses, among other responsibilities.

Crawford said a considerable number of Black Americans lack a will or estate plan, so a Black woman becoming the Register of Wills in Philadelphia “could help change how communities think about record keeping, which has been a valuable but not always well-preserved source of historical data for Black people.”

Through the one-on-one encounters, Gordon said, she connected with numerous residents who have experienced so-called “tangled titles,” where someone is living in or has interest in a property but is not the legal owner, such as in cases when family members die without wills.

Another hurdle Gordon encountered was fundraising to run for the little-known office.

Donatucci, who was endorsed by the Philadelphia City Democratic Committee, reported spending more than $66,000 between the start of the year and two Fridays before the primary, according to campaign finance reports. Whaumbush reported spending $19,250 this year in an April campaign finance filing.

Gordon has yet to file a campaign finance report with the city, but she said she raised approximately $2,000. She credited social media with getting her message out and propelling her to victory.

With no Republican candidate for the post, Gordon likely will be elected to the $131,000-a-year job in November.

If elected in the general election, Gordon pledged to conduct an audit of the office and establish a program to engage and educate residents on the importance of making wills to prevent instances of tangled titles, which she called a crisis in the city.

Gordon also committed to lobbying the state to lower probate and transfer fees, which she said were regressive and disproportionately impacted low-income residents.

These issues, Gordon said, are now more pressing than ever before because of the massive transfer of wealth expected within the next 20 years as more Baby Boomers die.

“It means we’ve got to get it right,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure people can transfer their wealth and not end up in a tangled title because they didn’t make a will.”


mdonofrio@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5782

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.