It’s a miserable day outside and state Rep. Rosita Youngblood doesn’t seem eager to canvass the streets of the 198th Legislative District.
“I should have brought my hat,” she says with a slight grimace as she stands in the parking lot behind her campaign office in Germantown.
The gray skies, cool wind and brisk temperature are certainly nibbling away at her personal motivation. But after nine bids for re-election, Youngblood knows residents will be less interested in answering the door, perhaps preferring to stay under the covers or take care of some overdue chores than talk politics.
“On a sunny day, yeah, you can walk up and down the block. But on a day like today, they’re going food shopping,” says Youngblood.
Yet with one more week of legislative sessions in Harrisburg to go before a short recess, the 18-year incumbent also knows she needs to make this Saturday count.
Even after the break, weekends will be her best opportunity to connect with her constituents and ask for their support.
So, she hops into her black SUV and heads for the Logan section of the city, her campaign manager and a couple of volunteers not far behind.
A familiar face
With less than a month to go before the Pennsylvania primary, Youngblood thinks her familiarity and a proven commitment to district residents will help her secure a 10th term in office.
She’ll face two primary challengers along the way, first-time candidate Charisma Presley and 2010 opponent Malik Boyd.
Over the years, some of her constituents have become like family, she says. They call her Rosita or simply “Ro” when they see her out on the street.
“People know that I’m fair, I’m receptive and if there’s a way I can help them, I will,” says Youngblood.
Those requests don’t always fall under the purview of a state representative, but Youngblood, a 30-year district resident, can’t turn folks away. She’ll at least provide them with the contact info for the right person to call.
“What are you going to do? You’re going to say, ‘I can’t help you because I’m not your Councilperson, because I’m not your senator,'” she says. “We even get immigration problems, which is federal.”
In one case, Youngblood traveled even farther beyond her role as a public official and covered the remaining balance – $200 – on a constituent’s funeral bill for her son.
It’s all part of a deep, personal investment she has to help create a tight-knit community of which many residents in the district want to be a part.
Does she still have it?
The answer of whether Youngblood still truly has that passion for the community she’s served for nearly two decades varies depending on who you ask.
While pulled over on the side of Wayne Avenue, Youngblood spots fellow Germantown resident Marcus Heppinstall walking his dog and calls out to him. The hair-salon owner crosses for a quick chat as his small pooch, perhaps a Chihuahua, shivers in his arms.
“Out of all of the candidates she is the one person I’ve seen in little things that the neighborhood is concerned about,” says Heppinstall. “It’s been a fantastic thing.”
Heppinstall says he’s been particularly impressed with Youngblood’s involvement in the ongoing discussions a large group of neighbors has been having with Philadelphia Housing Authority officials around the agency’s plans to demolish Queen Lane Apartments, a housing project high-rise in Germantown.
PHA plans on replacing the single building with a mix of townhomes and duplexes.
“Just to have her in there, and the knowledge that she has on the procedures that are going on and being able to snuff out B.S. and call it right there on the spot, that’s what makes me a supporter of hers,” says Heppinstall.
Asked about Youngblood’s opponents, Heppinstall has some strong words. He compares Presley and Boyd to the slew of Republican candidates looking to replace President Barack Obama who, Heppinstall says, is doing his job.
“You’re young, you’re college educated and you think you know it all, but you haven’t been out in the street doing stuff,” says Heppinstall. “And [you] come in with a suit on and pronounce what you plan to do is the same thing that she’s already been doing?”
The nay vote
Bishop Leonard Goins doesn’t think Youngblood deserves another two years in office. He points directly to a sense of commitment to the community that he’s seen dwindle over time.
“It’s not like an overnight situation,” says Goins, whose Pentecostal Clergy Political Affairs Committee is backing Boyd in 2012, “but I don’t think she has the heart of the people now.”
Goins, a long-time district resident, cites, among other things, ongoing issues related to affordable housing, infrastructure and unemployment as evidence of a representative that has become “insensitive” to the needs of her constituents.
On that last note, Goins recalls Youngblood’s opposition to a proposed casino development in 2006.
That year, Donald Trump and Pat Croce tried bringing TrumpStreet casino to the site of a large, vacant industrial building in the city’s Nicetown section.
Neighborhood groups became bitterly divided over the project and Trump ultimately backed down from his plans. Goins, though, thought Youngblood was too adamantly opposed to the plan and too unwilling to consider the project’s benefits — jobs, chief among them.
“Sometimes you compromise to improve the community,” says Goins.
The bottom line for the bishop, though, is that he doesn’t think long stints in office are good for the community. He says it ultimately saps the fight out of public officials and that residents suffer as a result.
“You make a career and you get entrenched and you may not be connected to the constituents you represent,” he says. “We can’t just be quiet and cool on the issues that affect our people.”
Work still needs to be done
Youngblood doesn’t disagree with Goins that the district still needs a lot of work.
As she knocks on doors around Birney Elementary School on West Lindley Avenue, Youngblood says even making basic improvements has become more difficult as funding for various programs has diminished or been put on hold.
Youngblood uses funding for infrastructure repairs — roads and sidewalks — as an example.
“You have to wait on federal block grants to come in through Transportation and Highways to fix any of this,” she says. “I don’t care where you drive in Philadelphia, you will find dents and potholes and things like that in the street.”
But Youngblood doesn’t see eye to eye with Goins when it comes to her tenure.
She sees her time in office as an asset in turning things around, especially at a time when Democrats don’t have the advantage in the General Assembly.
“With us being so deep into the minority and having both houses controlled by the Republicans and a Republican governor, you need someone that knows how to weave their way through the process,” says Youngblood.
That means being able to work with folks from both sides of aisle, in both the house and senate, she adds.
“You build relationships and partnerships so you can get things done,” says Youngblood before breaking off to greet a man patching up a window on a car.
Towards the end of the morning, Youngblood heeds her own advice and heads for Olney Plaza, a large strip mall development with a ShopRite at one end.
Turns out, she was right about folks not wanting to come to the door or not being around. Though her luck isn’t much better inside the supermarket, she is able to connect with a few voters milling around outside.
It hasn’t been an ideal chunk of campaign time, but so it goes. Youngblood says she’ll be back out next week after returning from Harrisburg.
“What keeps me going is my ability to help people and I will continue to help people because it’s very important,” says Youngblood. “I would want someone to be there for me if I needed help.”