Ahead of a February special election, residents in Pennsylvania’s 190th House District in West Philadelphia have started to weigh in on the changes they want their next representative to bring to the district.
Their previous representative, Movita Johnson-Harrell, resigned Friday after she was charged with siphoning funds from Motivations Education & Consultation Associates, a nonprofit she started.
The Working Families Organization gave residents the chance to sound off Wednesday evening in a town hall at a senior apartment complex where voters spoke of the need to elect someone trustworthy.
A candidate, they said, who could serve their full term without being charged with a crime.
“I’m really pissed off because I voted for [Johnson-Harrell] and I trusted her,” said Margaret Hunter, who came with her 9-year-old granddaughter and neighbor. “When you lose that trust, it’s hard to trust the next person coming along.”
Residents like Phyllis Harley were equally as frustrated with the latest scandal and called for better vetting of future candidates.
“Because this is the second time around,” said Phyllis Harley, referring to Johnson-Harrell’s predecessor, Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, who was also charged with corruption while serving the 190th district.
This time last year, Brown was sentenced to probation for taking bribes.
Still, residents could only spend so much time lamenting the situation.
“What we want to know is what does the 190th need?” asked moderator Nicholas O’Rourke, the Working Families’ Party new director of organizing.
In break-out groups, residents laid out what they wanted for the district’s future and wrote down what they were most excited about in the upcoming special election.
Hunter said the next candidate needs to be an ally in Harrisburg who will advocate for Philadelphia’s under-resourced schools, a plea echoed by several in the room, which was packed with more than 50 people.
Still, while describing her hopes, Hunter said she worries about the effect back-to-back scandals would have on voter engagement and turnout in 2020, which will bring three elections to the district, including the Feb. 25 vote to finish Johnson-Harrell’s term.
“[Voters] look at the politicians and say, ‘Oh, they’re all crooks anyway! So why should I vote? Why should I do anything? They’re all thieves,’” Hunter said.
Rendia Grady told her group she wanted someone who will “make the laws work for us … We need to get guns off these streets from these children,” referring to the city’s gun violence epidemic.
Robert Pierce also wanted someone who would help the district improve public safety.
“It’s not safe for us elderly people,” Pierce said. “I’m in the house before it’s dark. I do not want to walk up and down these streets at night.”
The solution to the issue, many said, was bringing better-paying jobs to the city.
“Because if people don’t have jobs, they’re going to go out and steal,” Hunter said.
Who will replace Johnson-Harrell?
Johnson-Harrell came to prominence because of her activism fighting gun violence after her son was fatally shot in 2011.
She worked in the victim services arm of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office before running for state office.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell stole more than $500,000 from her organization, which was created to help people with chronic mental illness, intellectual disabilities and substance use disorders.
Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell used the funds to pay for late mortgage payments, lavish trips in the U.S. and Mexico, and online shopping sprees at Ralph Lauren.
The Medicaid and social security disability funds that Johnson-Harrell diverted and spent left clients of her nonprofit living in squalor, state prosecutors said.
Philadelphia Democratic Committee Chairman Bob Brady told the Philadelphia Tribune he knew of at least four potential candidates who wanted to replace Johnson-Harrell — candidates some residents said they would like to start meeting.
But organizers at Wednesday’s town hall made no mention of specific candidates and did not refer to Johnson-Harell by name, which was fine by Alletta Paris-Olday.
She said the simple process of laying out her concerns was refreshing.
“For far too long the agenda has never been about what we wanted,” she said. “I’m very happy to find out that they want to hear what we want to say.”