Philadelphia’s Democratic Party shows it still has some punch in 2019 primary

Robin Richardson cheers during an election party held at Reclaim Philadelphia and 215 People's Alliance headquarters on election night. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Robin Richardson cheers during an election party held at Reclaim Philadelphia and 215 People's Alliance headquarters on election night. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney prevailed easily over two under-powered opponents Tuesday in an odd primary election that saw the city’s creaky Democratic machine prevail over insurgent activists in some key races, even though three established Democratic incumbents were turned out of office.

Dispiriting contest at the top

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney joyfully thanks supporters at his primary victory party. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

No Philadelphia mayor has failed to win re-election since the current city charter was adopted in 1951.

Most incumbent mayors face only token opposition, and Kenney seemed peeved that he had to deal with two challengers who were both veteran elected officials: former City Controller Alan Butkovitz and state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

Kenney was largely absent from the campaign trail, while two labor-funded Super PACs spent $2 million advertising on his behalf.

Kenney called his opponents “annoying gnats” and often gave short, perfunctory answers in the two debates he consented to, leaving quickly afterward without taking reporters’ questions.

It was a strategy that made sense politically but didn’t give voters what many expect from a  mayoral election: a robust debate about issues confronting the city and the incumbent’s record. And his opponents raised several issues important to voters from Philadelphia’s rising homicide rate to a controversial city-backed proposal to create a supervised injection site to the sweetened beverage tax many residents and business owners have soured on.

Neither Williams, nor Butkovitz had the money to wage a significant media campaign (though the beverage industry spent $1.3 million attacking Kenney), so the main effect of the race was to depress turnout to levels even below the 30 percent in Kenney’s primary win four years ago.

Activists fall short

Progressive activists energized by the election of President Donald Trump mobilized hundreds of volunteers and paid staff to back candidates aligned with their policy goals in the primary, taking on the Democratic organization in several cases.

The results suggest they had an impact, but weren’t able to carry most insurgent candidates to victory.

The group Reclaim Philadelphia formed a coalition with the 215 People’s Alliance to back five City Council at-large candidates, two of them also endorsed by the party.

The two candidates also supported by the party did well and won the nomination, including incumbent Helen Gym, the biggest vote-getter in the field of 28 at-large Democrats.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym and Philadelphia journalist Solomon Jones are pictured at Relish Tuesday afternoon during the 2019 primary election. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

But the three candidates the progressives backed who weren’t on the party slate, Erika Almiron, Ethelind Baylor, and Justin DiBerardinis, failed to win the nomination, giving the Democratic organization a sweep.

Justin DiBerardinis high fives people at Reclaim Philadelphia and 215 People’s Alliance headquarters on election night. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Party-backed candidates, incumbent Lisa Deeley and Overbrook Committeeman Omar Sabir,  also won the two nominations for City Commissioner, handily beating candidates supported by other progressive groups.

“The party is strong. We kept it together,” City Democratic Chairman Bob Brady said Tuesday night.

The party distributed roughly $400,000 to ward leaders to fund election day field operations, money raised through assessments paid by party-endorsed candidates.

Brady said he was glad the party and Reclaim backed some of the same candidates.

“I never had any disdain for them,” he said. “They’re good Democrats, and they’ll be with us in the fall. We just have some differences along the way in primaries.”

Amanda McIllmurray, leader organizer for Reclaim Philadelphia, said the organization had clearly an impact on the election.

Amanda McIllmurray, founder of Reclaim Philadelphia (right), and Rick Krajewski, Reclaim’s lead criminal justice organizer, congratulate Tiffany Palmer (left), on her judicial election win. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

“One of our other candidates, Justin DiBerardinis, just lost out, and Erika Almiron, who we supported, far outstripped other candidates who had similar fundraising and ballot positions,” she said.

She also pointed to the victory of Common Pleas Court candidate Tiffany Palmer, who was endorsed by Reclaim and not backed by the party.

“We’re seeing that people are really thirsty and hungry for what we’re pushing. We just need to be able to reach more folks,” McIllmurray said.

Titans fall in West, South Philly

An era came to an end in West Philadelphia with the apparent defeat of 3rd District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.

Jamie Gauthier, an urban planner and former executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, waged an energetic campaign, outraising and outspending the 27-year incumbent.

Blackwell, 74, was criticized for her role in development projects in the district.

Gauthier also had the support of Philadelphia 3.0, a business-funded group that emerged in the municipal elections four years ago, committed to candidates leading “efforts to reform and modernize City Hall.”

Executive Director Alison Perelman said last week the organization had supported Gauthier with direct mail pieces, digital ads, and field work that would continue through Election Day.

It’s remarkable that Gauthier, a first-time candidate, could overcome the Blackwell name. Jannie Blackwell’s husband, Lucien Blackwell held the seat for 17 years before she occupied it.

An even more surprising upset Tuesday was the defeat of Register of Wills Ron Donatucci, Democratic leader of the 46th ward in South Philadelphia, and a 40-year incumbent of the office.

Longtime activist and former Deputy City Commissioner Tracey Gordon pulled off a narrow win in Tuesday’s primary.

Donatucci was supported by the Democratic Party organization, but he’s had health problems in recent years and didn’t campaign as energetically as he has in the past.

New Sheriff in town

Incumbent Sheriff Jewell Williams, who was accused of sexual harassment by three former female employees, lost to former police officer Rochelle Bilal.

Bilal, 61, is head of the Guardian Civic League, an association of African-American police officers.

Williams got only about 27% of the vote in a four-way primary field. The Democratic Party chose not to endorse a candidate in the race after questions were raised about Williams’ conduct toward women, but he was carried on the recommended ballots of many Democratic ward leaders.

Williams did not tell reporters his election night location, because, spokeswoman Thera Martin said, he believed he’d been unfairly treated by the media.

“He says he’s not had his day in court,” Martin said in a statement, “yet the local media has trashed him unfairly numerous times during this campaign cycle.”

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