On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Charisma Presley steps inside a cozy, stone twin on West Cheltenham Avenue for a brief, but important meeting with Rev. LeRoi Simmons.
The two have met before, but Simmons, a respected community stakeholder, has asked the first-time state representative candidate to stop by after church for a more in-depth one-on-one. It’s his intention to throw his support behind Presley if he likes what he hears.
“So you think you’re the person to do it?” Simmons asks the Democratic hopeful for the 198th district seat inside his Germantown living room.
“I know I’m the person who can do it,” Presley beams back confidently. “I know I have the compassion, the conviction, the work ethic.”
She tells Simmons she wants to shake-off the negative adjectives that often precede politicians and re-cast the role by being a sincere and active community partner.
After running through some of her platform points — improving education and increasing employment chief among them — Simmons begins to smile back.
“You know you got some sense and commitment. It’s unusual for a politician,” he says with a slight chuckle.
About 10 minutes into the sit-down, Simmons endorses Presley’s run to replace 18-year state Rep. Rosita Youngblood.
“The district has needed a real charismatic, Charisma type for a long time,” Simmons says on his porch afterwards. “The current regime has not been effective in moving this community forward. They have not been effective in bringing resources to this community. They really only campaign, raise money, throw parties and leave. She has already done more.”
“She is sincere. She is here,” he says.
An underdog candidate
Presley, 32, said she believes that showing voters that she is committed to being a consistent presence in the community will give her an edge in the three-way race. Malik Boyd, president of the Philadelphia Young Democrats, is making his second stab at the seat.
The Nicetown resident knows most don’t expect her to make much of a splash come April 24, the Pennsylvania primary. That’s just fine with her.
As long as she continues to truly connect with voters as she canvasses the diverse district, Presley doesn’t think the underdog label will get in her way. If anything, it motivates her.
“There are a lot of people with name recognition, but they aren’t doing anything in the community,” says Presley. “I think I excel best when I’m underestimated. Being an underdog means I’m going to work harder. I’m going to outwork both of my opponents.”
In some cases, Presley says she not only speaks to residents on the other side of an open door, but sits down with them in their homes for upwards of 20 minutes, sometimes to chagrin of her jovial, but schedule-oriented campaign manager Mungu Sanchez.
Presley can’t always help herself, though.
As an assistant director in Villanova University’s Center for Multicultural Affairs, she works closely with students to make sure they’re staying on track towards graduation. The job requires a lot of individualized attention.
“I’m better able to serve students when I know them, when I can put a face with their needs and then I can fight for them,” says Presley, whose residency and petition signatures were unsuccessfully challenged by the incumbent.
She sees a strong tie to the conversations she has with residents she hopes will soon become her constituents.
Will her approach work?
Joseph McFadden, president of the Nicetown Advisory Committee, a civic group, doesn’t think Presley’s strategy will pay off. He says she hasn’t spent enough time being active in the district to win the community’s support.
“You can’t just pop into the community and run for office. You need to build yourself up in the community first,” says McFadden, who was “shocked” when he learned of Presley’s plans to run for Youngblood’s post.
McFadden, a self-described Youngblood supporter, says the longtime official’s time in the community is a big advantage. She knows the ins and outs of constituent services and can refer residents to the proper people when she can’t address an issue herself, he adds.
“If she wants to run she can run, but the best candidate is going to win,” says McFadden, noting that he thinks Presley “is rushing to run for office right now.”
Presley acknowledges that she’s younger than most state representative candidates, but says she’s ready to work hard for the community if elected. She’s been thinking about running for office for at least three years now.
“We have a lot of show-boaters, but we don’t have a lot of workhorses. I’m a workhorse,” says Presley.
Bringing home state funding
Though certainly a political newcomer, Presley believes she has the skills necessary to be an effective representative.
Presley says, for example, that she is equipped to bring state dollars back to the community. It’s something she says shouldn’t be too much of a problem despite the General Assembly’s Republican majority, although conventional wisdom holds otherwise.
“It concerns me, but I think there’s definitely some room for growth with working with local leaders, working with community leaders here.” she says. “But I also think being a thoughtful and informed representative will gain me respect and allow me to join committees such as Education, such as Children and Youth. I think that will get me some appropriations that will help me, help my community and help Philadelphia.”
She says she’s got negotiation skills too and points specifically to Chelten Plaza as an example of where a more-involved state representative would have gone a long way.
The controversial strip-mall development in Germantown was the source of strong ire from a contingent of residents who felt, among other things, that the developer of the site was not honest about his intentions to add another dollar store to the neighborhood’s commercial landscape.
The $14 million shopping plaza was partially backed by $3 million worth of Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grants. Rep. Youngblood told NewsWorks last March that she was angry that those tax dollars were approved without her knowledge.
Presley doesn’t exactly buy that Youngblood was unaware of the RACP dollars.
“She knew it was coming to the district, but she didn’t follow through,” Presley says, “and I think the start is just as important as the follow-up.”
Odds against her
Presley knows, nonetheless, that she’s facing an uphill battle. Youngblood’s roots in parts of the district — which covers parts of Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, Germantown, East Falls Logan and Nicetown — are deep.
Standing by her husband’s black SUV after stopping off at a Chili Cook-Off in Mount Airy, Presley says the odds won’t scare her away. The district needs new leadership now. It can’t wait another two years, she says.
“I’m just going to keep showing up every day and keep on being pleasant,” says Presley. “I’m going to keep smiling until you have to say, ‘I like Rosita, but I like Charisma, too.'”
This week, NewsWorks will profile the three candidates running in the Democratic Primary for the 198th District state house seat. Still to come: Challenger Malik Boyd and incumbent Rosita Youngblood.