Philly sheriff faces tough re-election battle

In this file photo, then-Pennsylvania Rep. Jewell Williams, D-Philadelphia, talks with a colleague as he sits at his desk on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

In this file photo, then-Pennsylvania Rep. Jewell Williams, D-Philadelphia, talks with a colleague as he sits at his desk on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams, dogged by allegations of sexual harassment over the past year, will face challenges from at least two candidates — both women — in the spring Democratic primary.

Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, an association of black police officers, and former Deputy Sheriff Malika Rahman say they’ll run for the office next year.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that three women who worked for Williams have accused him of sexually harassing them, allegations he denies.

One was paid a $30,000 settlement by the Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus when Williams was in the state legislature. The others, both former employees of the sheriff’s office, have pending federal suits against Williams.

In a court filing, one of the accusers, Marlaina Williams, attached a letter from the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations stating that her allegations against Jewell Williams had been sustained “by corroborative evidence” after a “thorough investigation.”

The letter said the “investigation has notified the [sheriff’s] department of the findings.”

Mayor Jim Kenney has called for the sheriff to resign, but noted that since he’s an independently elected official, that’s up to him.

Jewell Williams declined an interview request, but said through a representative that he will seek re-election next year.

The challengers

The first to announce her candidacy was Rochelle Bilal, 61, a former Philadelphia police officer and president of the Guardian Civic League, an association of black police officers. She’s also secretary of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.

Rochelle Bilal is a candidate for Philadelphia sheriff. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Bilal said in an interview she wants to bring more transparency to the office, as well as to reduce the number of foreclosure sales by giving homeowners in that situation more information.

The sheriff’s office is responsible for managing sales of foreclosed properties. It also provides prisoner transportation and courtroom security in the city’s criminal courts.

She said she also wants to build bridges between the police and communities.

“You can’t be an elected official in the city and not be working on all the problems in the city, including gun violence,” she said.

Bilal said Williams’ alleged misconduct toward women should disqualify him from office.

“If you are abusing your authority because women don’t want to take your sexual advances, then you retaliate against them? No, you don’t have the right to still be there,” Bilal said.

Making news

In 2013, while Bilal was Philadelphia police officer, she took a job with the Delaware County borough of Colwyn as public safety director, prompting a police internal affairs investigation into whether the dual employment violated department policy.

In response to an inquiry this week, the police department confirmed that the investigation concluded that Bilal had violated the department’s policy prohibiting “concurrent employment by any other department, or political subdivision of a municipal, state, or federal agency.”

No penalty was imposed because Bilal resigned her position in the Philadelphia department before the investigation was completed.

Bilal’s campaign manager, Teresa Lundy, said in an email that Bilal conferred with an attorney when she took the Colwyn job and was told it wasn’t a problem because it was a civilian position. She said Bilal resigned the Philadelphia post when she was informed of the department’s policy.

The deputy

Also in the race is Malika Rahman, 32, who until recently was deputy detective in the sheriff’s office.

Candidate for Philadelphia Sheriff Malika Rahman. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

After three years as a Philadelphia corrections officer, she joined the sheriff’s office in 2012, reaching the rank of detective in 2017.

While working in the prisons and the sheriff’s office, she also earned a bachelor’s degree from Chestnut Hill College and a master’s from Saint Joseph’s University.

Like Bilal, she wants the department to make information more readily available to homeowners involved in a foreclosure action.

“If a person is at risk of losing their home, they should be informed of resources to help them save their home, of if they can’t save it, options for alternative housing,” Rahman said in an interview.

She says the office needs more transparency, and Williams has to answer for his own conduct toward women.

“When you’re in a position of leadership, of power, and you abuse that power, you should be held accountable for those issues,” she said.

Another potential candidate is Dan Stevenson, a consultant to SugarHouse Casino.

If he gets in, he’ll bring the political asset of close ties to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, the most politically powerful union in the city.

Stevenson declined an interview, but said he’s considering a run.

The party: A rubber stamp?

A critical factor in races for down-ballot offices such as sheriff is the support of Democratic ward leaders and committee people, who relay recommendations to voters in sample ballots on election day.

Party ward leaders almost always endorse incumbent Democratic officeholders for re-election.

I asked U.S. Rep Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic city committee, whether the party will stand by Williams despite the claims of sexual harassment.

He said the allegations against Williams are very troubling “if they’re true,” but he wouldn’t predict what would happen when Williams seeks the party’s support.

“I don’t decide,” he said. “It’s up to the ward leaders.”

Candidates must file nominating petitions by March 12. The primary election is May 21.

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

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.