Four candidates — possibly five — are gearing up to replace former state representative, now city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in the 186th District.
Former candidate for City Council Damon Roberts, former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris, ward leader Edward Nesmith and businessman Fawwaz “Jazz” Beyha have all thrown their hats in the ring.
It’s also rumored that former Rep. Harold James is going to try to recapture the seat he held for years.
James could not be reached Thursday for comment.
The race is complicated by several factors: the date for the vote, a special election, has not been set, and the boundary lines of the district are shifting under the state’s redistricting plan, so voters may be uncertain if they are even eligible to participate. In addition, the redistricting plan is facing a likely court challenge, which could further complicate things.
The speaker of the Pennsylvania House will schedule the special election to fill the seat.
Additionally, without an incumbent bringing the considerable resources typically commanded by incumbents to the race, the field is wide open. Johnson held the seat until January, when he resigned to take his new position as Council representative for the Second District. He held office as state representative for less than two terms.
James held it before that.
It’s likely that all the names on a potential ballot are familiar to voters in the district, which encompasses Southwest and a portion of South Philadelphia.
Roberts, a real estate attorney, has campaigned twice in recent years for the Second District Council seat. In his last campaign, he jousted against Johnson before ultimately dropping out and endorsing Johnson.
At the time, talk of a deal — denied by both candidates — surrounded the news of Roberts’ withdrawal. So it was widely expected that should Roberts run for the House seat, Johnson would endorse him. Instead, it was Harris who captured Johnson’s endorsement — and that of his sponsor and mentor state Sen. Anthony H. Williams Jr.
Roberts, for his part, remained philosophical.
“At the end of the day, every candidate is going to have their supporters and their detractors,” he said.
Roberts prefers to look to the future.
“I don’t believe that there is anybody better prepared to make a difference,” he said. Noting the diversity of the district, he added: “I believe I’m best prepared to represent everyone in that district. We do have a lot of issues, and I’m passionate about the issues.”
His career as an attorney will serve constituents well, he said.
“When you have a legislature that is so overwhelmingly Republican it’s going to take a master negotiator like me to get the job done,” he said.
Harris has the blessing of Johnson and Williams. That backing could give him a leg up among voters.
It will also give him an advantage if he wins, he said.
“Because of the relationship we have, we’ll be able to get a lot of things done,” Harris said. “And, to continue the work I started with Senator Williams and Councilman Johnson.”
Before resigning to run for office, Harris led the city’s Youth Commission. He has a history of community and political involvement, having first met Williams when he was still in high school, he said, and working with both the state senator and Johnson for years on various issues, among them Johnson’s Peace Not Guns initiative.
Harris said he felt compelled to give back to the community he grew up in and where he has spent his life.
I call myself a son of South Philly,” he said. “It’s my duty to give back.”
Nesmith, Democratic leader in the 2nd Ward, is a long-time ward leader, committeeman and activist. He sums up his qualifications in one brief sentence, “Experience, knowledge, service, the ability to get things done.”
Though the bulk of his political experience comes from being a committeeman and ward leader, that is not his prime qualification for the job, he said.
“I’m running on my service record, helping people,” he said. “That’s what people need to focus on.”
It is his second attempt to capture the seat. Nesmith ran for state representative against Harold James in 1994.
Beyha, too, is well known throughout the district, where most people know him as “Jazz.”
“I’m a community developer and a community employer,” he said, noting that he has six businesses in the district, from barbershops to a hair salon and a real estate development company. “I’m the largest minority employer in South Philadelphia outside of Kenny Gamble and Universal Companies.”
Beyha has never held elected office, but saw Johnson’s resignation as a chance to run.
He said he would bring greater community involvement to the post.
“I’m tied in on a community level,” he said. “As far as community ties are concerned, I’m the most connected to the community.”
Dry run of voter ID law, get out the vote efforts
Candidates, their campaign staffs, and city officials, were bracing for a particularly difficult Election Day today as Pennsylvania voters head to the polls to cast their vote in the spring primary.
“It’s an unusually complex environment,” said City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. “I think there is going to be a lot of scrutiny of this election.”
In addition to the typical challenges voters face — which candidate to choose — voters in this primary also have to deal with the “soft roll out” of the state’s new voter ID law.
Though the law does not go into effect until the Nov. 6 election, poll workers will be asking voters for a photo ID this time in an effort to get a handle on how many lack the identification required for the fall.
“This is just a dry run,” Singer said. “You will do nothing differently.”
But, the change has everyone from candidates to volunteers paying a little more attention.
“You are going to make this happen,” Damon K. Roberts, a candidate for the state House, told volunteers at a training session for polling place volunteers Monday morning at his Dickinson Street office. “Victory needs to be on your face.”
It was crunch time and similar scenes were playing out all over the city and state. Every seat in the state House is up for grabs, as are half the seats in the state Senate.
In addition, Pennsylvania voters will choose their party’s candidates for president, U.S. senator and representative, state attorney general, treasurer and auditor general. In Philadelphia, which is overwhelmingly made up of Democratic voters, the primary often determines who ultimately wins in the general election.
Roberts is locked in a tough contest with former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris for the 186th Legislative District, who is widely viewed as the favorite, and Timothy Hannah, a long-time community activist.
The race for the 186th is a prime example of the situation city voters face as they head to the polls. Though there is no incumbent in the race, Harris, who was endorsed by The Tribune Sunday, has the backing of the Democratic establishment — including city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who held the 186th seat until January, and state Sen. Anthony Williams. Roberts has run for state representative and City Council before.
In addition, voters in the district will be asked to choose someone to fill the remainder of Johnson’s term in the state House. The Democrat there is Harold James, who held the seat for decades before retiring in 2008, paving the way for Johnson’s win.
The race in the 186th is just one of several hotly contested races across the city. In other races to watch include the 188th District, which pits incumbent state Rep. James Roebuck against newcomer Fatimah Muhammad. The campaign has taken on a negative tone with a political action committee attacking Roebuck, who has the support of the teachers’ union, for his stance on public education. Muhammad told The Tribune the attack had nothing to do with her campaign, adding that she supports vouchers in principle, but does not endorse the proposal now in the House.
In the 197th District, Jewel Williams, daughter of former state Rep., now Sheriff Jewell Williams is seeking her father’s seat in Harrisburg. She faces several contenders in the race: J. Miranda, Kenneth Walker and Jamil Ali. Opponents have accused to Williams of fostering confusion among voters in an effort to get them to vote for her thinking they are voting for her father. Voters here will also be asked to pick someone to fill the remainder of Jewell Williams’ seat. The choice there is between ward leader Gary Williams or perennial candidate T. Milton Street, brother of former Mayor John Street, who once served in the state House and has since served time for tax evasion.
Eighteen-year incumbent state Rep. Rosita Youngblood faces two challengers this primary season: Malik Boyd and Charisma Presley. The development at Chelten Plaza, which sparked a neighborhood controversy, had divided constituents. Youngblood opposed the project after the developer altered plans to build at Super Fresh there. Boyd backed the change, which brought a Sav-A-Lot to the plaza along with a dollar store, saying they were more in line with what the district needed.
Despite the hype, and the new voter ID law, voter turnout is expected to be low — perhaps lower than usual because of voter confusion about the state’s new voter ID law.
Voter turnout in primary elections in non-presidential years is typically low.
Singer said she’s not sure what this year’s turnout will look like.
“I have been surprised at how much anger there is over the voter ID law,” she said, adding that she hoped that anger would translate in votes. “The best way to beat this is for Philadelphians to come out and vote.”
Most expect the confusion that surrounds the new law and traditional voter apathy to reduce turn out.
“Voting here and around the country is embarrassingly low,” said Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, an elections watchdog group.
Both declined to give estimates.
There were slightly more than 1 million registered voters in the 2011 primary — 797,762 Democrats and 127,165 Republicans with 90,000 others. But, only 17.6 percent of the registered voters turned out in the 2011 primary.
Roberts was well aware of the statistics and told his volunteers the contest is likely to be close — urging them to get their friends and neighbors to vote.
“This might come down to five or 10 votes,” he said.
Stirring voters’ passions can be difficult.
Roberts portrays himself as a community crusader battling the city’s political machine.
“Some people just go along with the agenda,” he said, getting his volunteers fired up.
But, he also made sure they knew he was a Democrat, telling the group that the Republicans who control Harrisburg have a “radical right agenda.”
He used education as an example — honing in on vouchers — a hot button issue in this election cycle, in part because the political action committee Students First has poured tens of thousands of dollars into several races in south, southwest and west Philadelphia.
“If they destroy our public schools, where are our kids going to go?” asked Roberts.
In one corner, Kevin Parks had been listening as he inserted flyers into packets that would go to every polling place volunteer in the district.
As Roberts talked, Parks had difficulty containing himself.
“The private schools can turn out the kids,” he said loudly, shaking his head.
With every seat in the state House up for grabs and voter turnout expected to be low, candidates rely on grassroots enthusiasm.
“You are going to make it happen,” Roberts told his people.
He hopes to have between 160 and 200 volunteers at polling places across the district. Some of those will be the volunteers that stand outside the polling places. Some will be poll watchers, who must be certified to stand inside the polling place.
City officials will be watching closely this year.
“We understand that there may be some confusion this year with the new voter ID law that is now in place,” said District Attorney Seth Williams. “We want to make sure that no one is discouraged about going to the polls … because of that confusion.”
He promised that his office would “go after any criminal activity and prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law.”
Cities United aims to build national movement
On Monday, Oct. 24, in the Philadelphia suburb of Darby Township, there was a drug-related shooting that left an 18-year-old Black male in critical condition and a 16-year-old under arrest.
Witnesses told police they had seen three young men talking about drugs in the Briarcliff vicinity around 3 p.m. Then a shot was fired and witnesses told police the 16-year-old fled the scene to a nearby house, where he was subsequently arrested. Police found 30 bags of marijuana at the scene of the shooting.
This one incident could easily be described as a microcosm of how violence is precipitated among young Black males — not just in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, but from coast to coast across America. Virtually every major city has a monstrously high murder rate among young Black males. And that level of violence, experts say, is far beyond a crisis. It has been allowed to become a catastrophe of horrific proportions.
Reducing, if not ending that violence is the focus of numerous community programs and organizations — and on Tuesday of this week, a group of mayors from across the state and nation gathered at the National Constitution Center to strategize on how to truly and adequately deal with the problem.
The gathering, called Cities United: Building Communities to Reduce Violent Death Among Black Men and Boys, was started by mayors who were joined by community leaders for the purpose of moving beyond just talking about the problem and taking action that goes above the programs, initiatives and solutions already in place to amplify them into a national movement.
Mayor Michael Nutter, who spearheaded the gathering, said what every resident of the Black community already knows: murder is the leading cause of death for African American males between the ages of 15 and 24.
That violence and the consequential fallout of incarceration and unemployment, Nutter said, has depleted the presence of Black men in the community.
“This is an epidemic that’s been going on too long,” Nutter said. “And unfortunately, you will find African-American males at the bottom of good categories and at the top of negative categories, all of which contribute to a degradation of the overall quality-of-life in Black neighborhoods.”
According to figures culled from reports researched by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 85 percent of the Black victims of homicide are male and 51 percent are between the ages of 17 and 19. Across the nation, Blacks accounted for 49 percent of all murder victims in 2005. Black males accounted for 52 percent. That violence, say those working the streets, is rooted in hopelessness, desperation and despair. It is also rooted in a sub-culture that acts out what it assimilates from a popular media that glorifies murder.
“I can actively count the number of murders that I’ve personally seen,” said Jordan Harris, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission and the co-founder of Youth Action Inc. “Growing up in South Philly, I watched people being killed. Many of our young people feel like they could be the next one killed - or the next one shooting someone. Part of the problem is that too many young men don’t have men in their lives. If that father figure is not present in the home, the streets will provide it.”
Brandon Jones, a young outreach worker with Philadelphia Cease Fire, agreed.
“Our young men are filled with hopelessness and they are desperate. If we want to solve this problem we have to bring them to the table and then listen, carefully, to what they have to say,” Jones said. Jones, who was recently released from prison for a drug-related shooting said one-on-one intervention is essential to ending the cycle of violence.
“It’s not easy to forge trust or relationships with these young men. We have one client that took six months to come around. I didn’t come from a broken home, I had a good family — father and mother — but I wanted to fit in. I now call it being a part of the ‘in crowd’ because you either end up incarcerated or in an early grave. I didn’t want to take the slow way to success.”
While participants shared information on the various causes of the high murder rate of African American males — absent fathers, poverty, joblessness, lousy public education — one issue kept returning to the top of the list: illegal guns.
“In our schools, our young people don’t have new books, but they know where to get an illegal gun,” Harris said. “It’s not hard to get an illegal gun, they know where to get them and if they get them and if they feel disrespected or otherwise insulted — for any reason — they will use them.”
Mayor Nutter, who said that illegal guns have become a plague in the Black community, pressed representatives from the federal government concerning what should be done to stop the flow of illegal firearms. Those representatives shared what is being done; but Nutter said he knows what federal prosecutors are doing.
“I know you’re prosecuting gun traffickers and federal time is federal time — you’ll do every bit of it. But this is what’s being done on the back end. We need to interrupt the flow of illegal guns on the front end. If someone opens up an envelope and finds powder inside it might just be Gold Medal flour but in a matter of minutes that entire area will be surrounded by federal officers. If someone finds a suspicious bag at my airport, my airport will be closed — shut down in minutes. I’m amazed by how quickly federal resources can be brought to bear anywhere in the country. We can fire a missile and put it in someone’s bedroom on the other side of the planet. Why can’t we get that same level of attention to the problem interrupting the flow of illegal guns? I would just like to hear the federal government say this is a problem. This is not a Second Amendment issue, I’m all for the Second Amendment, this is about stopping illegal guns from getting into the hands of young Black men.”
Officials urge cooperation between neighbors, police
“Cowards” and “thugs” were some of the words used during a press conference at the 17th Police District held by state Rep. Kenyatta Johnson in response to the shootings in South Philadelphia.
Johnson, noted for his work in the South and Southwest Philadelphia, expressed his outrage at those who threaten the lives of other citizens without regard for children, which is evidenced by the fact that two children were shot in the mayhem.
Joined by NAACP’s Jerry Mondesire, state Sen. Anthony Williams, and 17th Police District Capt. Anthony Washington along with a host of community stakeholders, Johnson described the conference as a “community plan of action.”
“This is a call to action,” said Johnson “Over the last month in South Philadelphia, we have had a spike in the incidence of gun violence. Most notably, a six-year-old and a two-year-old was shot, a senior citizen was shot, a 10-year-old was shot and, most recently and we’ve had two homicides.”
Johnson, a native of South Philadelphia’s Point Breeze section, informed the gathering press conference was held not only because of his position as an elected official but as a member of the community.
“We have come to promote a united front, to let those in the community know that enough is enough,” said Johnson, who went on to recount some of the previous marches and vigils, which he organized in the Grays Ferry section of South Philly.
“All of that work that we have done would have been in vain if we let these cowardly heartless thugs shoot up our neighborhoods rather it is in Point Breeze or Grays Ferry,” exclaimed Johnson.
Johnson revealed what he calls his “community action plan” which included working closely with community stakeholders, increasing police presence in South Philadelphia.
“We want to make sure that we also support the 17th police district and the first police district as they enforce the curfew hours, particularly in the hot spots in Grays Ferry and Point Breeze and put pressure on those individuals who do not have the best interest of our community at heart,” said Johnson.
Other measures will also include working closely with the Board of Probation and Parole.
“More importantly, we need the community to come forward with information. We need the community to step up to the plate, if you see something, say something,” said Johnson, promising to assist and support those who do so.
Washington stated that, although the perpetrators of the recent shootings have not yet been identified and apprehended, several individuals were being closely watched.
“Unfortunately, we do have individuals among us, numerous individuals who want to do nothing but harm others,” said Washington, explaining that patrols will be ramped up.
Washington believes that some of the individuals suspected of causing some of the violence in South Philadelphia were those who were previously incarcerated and returned to the neighborhood with the intent of continuing some of the criminal behavior, which led to their arrests in the first place.
Despite the recent rash of violent shootings, Washington said the 17th Police District has had a decrease in violent crime over the past several years.
“I don’t want people to come here today and have the opinion that this is just a complete war zone. That is not what we have going on here,” said Washington.
“We are here to condemn the immorality and any inhuman behavior regardless of the color of the perpetrators,” exclaimed J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the NAACP Philadelphia branch. “Today, this day, the NAACP is here to condemn in the harshest language possible the conspiracy of silence that has developed after the bloodshed which left a two-year-old child with a bullet in her belly.”
Mondesire pulled no punches during his address to those gathered exclaiming that “a community that sits silent after its children are slaughtered does not deserve to be called civilized.”
While speakers referred to the perpetrators of such shootings as occurred in South Phila as cowards, Mondesire noted that there are other cowards who are not often mentioned during such conversations.
“The cowards who won’t cooperate with law enforcement are not deserving of respect or consideration. There is no white conspiracy here, there is a Black conspiracy by cowards who will protect other cowards who will shoot any one of us here irrespective of their color,” said Mondesire, who urged members of the community who might have information about the perpetrators to step forward.
The Philadelphia Crime Commission has collected money for rewards for information leading to the apprehension of those responsible in these crimes and information can be given anonymously. Also, the NAACP is offering $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for shooting of the two-year-old child.
“We are not playing and we are not afraid to call it like we see it. Somebody Black shot that child, somebody Black knows who shot this child, somebody Black better come forward!” said Mondesire, sparking applause from the audience as he left the podium.
A vigil was also held at 6:30 p.m., organized by Jordan A. Harris of the Philadelphia Youth Commission. Rally organizers held a prayer vigil and rally against the violence on the streets by marching to areas where the shootings occurred.
During a scholarship award banquet held Thursday at the Yeshua Banquet Hall, located on the 2300 block of Snyder Ave. in South Philadelphia, state Rep. Kenyatta Johnson awarded the winner of a scholarship campaign with $1,500, and recognized community educators, students and parents for their commitment to education.
Millions of dollars that are set aside for college scholarships goes unclaimed each year despite the fact that rising tuition rates prevent many African Americans from continuing their education beyond high school.
This was the motivation behind the “Have You Done It Yet” (HYDIY) scholarship challenge created by Johnson. The HYDIY challenge awarded a $1,500 scholarship to the student who applied for the most scholarship dollars during the contest.
“Basically it was an initiative to encourage young people to apply for scholarships for school,” said Johnson. “We had young people apply for over $200,000 worth of scholarship money.”
The winner of the HYDIY campaign was 12th-grader Naheemah Salaam who attends Universal Audenreid High School.
According to Salaam, it took just two days to apply for over twenty available scholarships totaling some $175,000, enough to make her the HYDIY winner.
“It [the challenge] helped me to find a lot of scholarships out there because they are just giving scholarships away,” said Salaam.
Not only were there plenty of scholarships out there, but they were offered for lots of unique reasons.
“They are giving scholarships away just for wearing glasses or for being a heavy-set girl or being African American. Those scholarships helped me win this award tonight,” said Salaam.
What was the craziest award she applied for?
“The craziest scholarship I applied for was for being overweight and wearing glasses,” the scholarships were for $20,000 and $10,000 respectively said Salaam, who hopes to become a clinical psychologist for the military after graduating from college.
Salaam wasn’t the only award winner during the HYDIY event. Awards for Outstanding Educator went to William Manson, a youth tutor, and Alma Nazario and Tiphanie White who were given Outstanding Parents awards.
White, who recently received her associate’s degree from Eastern University while working and raising her children, sought to instill in them the importance of education.
“I always knew deep down in my heart that I was going to finish [college] and get my degree,” said White. She didn’t do so without adversity. As a teenager, White was shot in the back, the victim of a stray bullet intended for someone else. However, she refused to leave her South Philadelphia neighborhood where the shooting occurred and continued working in the community as an organizer and mentor to young girls while raising her own children.
Then there was the death of her mother in the summer of 2011.
“I recently lost my mom in July. She was like my backbone, my supporter. I just wanted my mom to be proud of me. I know she is, I know she’s looking down on me,” said White.
Also in attendance was former Youth Commission Chair Jordan Harris, who told the audience of proud parents and educators that education wasn’t just good for the individuals educated — but for the society in which they live.
“The best investment that a city, a state or even a nation can make is the investment in our children. For me, education has always been an equalizer,” said Harris. “If we are going to make an investment we need to make this investment in our children so that we could have a more educated citizenry.”
Johnson hopes to make the HYDIY challenge an annual event.
As the new executive director of the city’s Youth Commission, Jamira Burley hopes to engage both young people and adults in a conversation about the future of Philadelphia’s youth — bridging a generation gap that seems to be growing, to make the city and the lives of its young people better.
“There is no longer a village raising a child. A lot of young people in Philadelphia are raising themselves. Adults nowadays don’t realize the plight of young people,” Burley said. “They think they’re doing enough, but they’re not doing it the right way, so there are no results. There are a lot of genuine adults out there who care about youth but, unfortunately, they don’t know how to engage them.”
Keeping kids engaged is crucial to their success, she said.
“When people realize they’re being heard, they’re more likely to stay engaged,” she said.
Burley refuses to speak in sound bites and says others of her generation won’t be influenced by words — only by actions.
“This generation is not keen on catch phrases. They’re not swayed by words — they’re swayed by actions,” she said, noting that many adults talk but don’t follow through, particularly community leaders.
“They are so content with where they are that they’re afraid to let someone come behind them. Most people need to realize that when you empower a young person it doesn’t take anything from you,” she said. “You have to train the next generation of leaders; otherwise who is going to lead when you’re gone?”
Her advice to adults is “take a step back and listen, and consider how [young persons’] experiences impact the way they view the world.”
Burley started her new job as the executive director of the city’s Youth Commission on May 14.
The 23-year-old has taken all that a rough and tumble city like Philadelphia could throw at her and managed to overcome it.
“She is a role model in her family and throughout the community. I am confident that she will represent the values and priorities of Philadelphia’s young people,” said Mayor Michael Nutter.
The eleventh of 16 siblings, she grew up in Germantown and attended schools all over the city before graduating from Overbrook in 2007. Burley admits that for most of her time in school she was a poor student. Dyslexia made learning to read difficult. In the fourth grade she was reading at a first grade level. And, though he managed to improve, she entered her freshman year of high schools with F’s.
“My mom never went to high school, so sometimes bringing home homework was difficult,” Burley said.
Life at home was difficult.
Her father, who left the city to return to his native Virginia when Burley was a child, was in and out of jail. So was her mother and several of her brothers.
“My earliest memory in childhood was 5 years old, being in a courtroom watching two of my brothers being sentenced for murder. They were 15 and 16 at the time,” she said. “Watching that and my other brothers and both my parents go down that road made me realize in my neighborhood people kill or get killed — and you start to live the lifestyle that is projected in your neighborhood.”
The 2005 killing of another of her brothers forced Burley to re-evaluate some of the choices she’d made. By the time she graduated high school, a rarity in her family, she’d turned her life around.
She credits a string of mentors with helping her.
“At every segment of my life, I’ve come across someone who’s willing to take me under their wing,” she said.
It’s hard to say exactly how they influenced her. Some helped her iron out her reading skills, others assisted with college applications and the paperwork needed to get the $50,000 in scholarships Burley received when she enrolled at Temple University.
Others were just there.
“I started to realize that there was a life different from what I grew up with. There were people who were doing amazing work; people who looked like me — people who came from the same neighborhood I came from. So, for me it was just being exposed to those realities and life outside my zip code, my four block radius,” she said. “When you’re exposed to so much more, the idea of your possibilities and what you can do changes and expands.”
Before her horizons started to expand, she couldn’t see any further than the end of the block. It limited her entire outlook.
“If you’re used to people who only do drugs or get arrested that’s what you think is possible for you,” she said.
It’s a situation faced by many of the city’s 600,000 young people and one Burley hopes to change.
“A lot of it has to do with changing a young person’s perspective,” she said. “If you have a young person who doesn’t think they’re going to live past the age of 25, or much past 21, they don’t care much for the next person’s life. How do you make them think they have a future? That’s the biggest challenge.”
Burley is a perfect example of what can be achieved.
In May, she graduated with a dual bachelor’s degree in international business and legal studies.
Already, she’s thinking about going back to school for a degree in public policy.
“I actually want to work developing policy around youth development issues,” she said.
Asked if she’s optimistic about the city’s youth, Burley pauses.
“I’m very optimistic because young people are resilient. They will go through some of the worst experiences that people can go through and can’t even imagine and they are resilient,” she said, adding: “It’s really sad that young people don’t have the luxury of being optimistic … I know what I’ve done.”
The new director comes to the job with the blessing of her predecessor state Representative-elect Jordan Harris.
“I believe Jamira has what it takes,” he said. “With the issues of youth violence, education and unemployment and other facing our city’s young people, the Youth Commission is more important than ever.”
The Youth Commission is a panel of 21 young Philadelphians between the ages of 12 and 23 appointed by the mayor and City Council. There are currently seven vacant seats on the commission so Burley’s immediate task is to try and fill those vacancies. Commissioners offer recommendations and advice to the mayor and City Council on legislation and policies that affect youth and young adults.
The phrase “school vouchers” seems to hit a nerve among three Democratic candidates for the state legislature — but it’s unclear if it’s the controversy of the vouchers themselves, or the money behind a drive to create a voucher program in Pennsylvania that makes them sweat.
Candidates in contested primary races for three open seats — the 188th, 186th and 190th — in the state House of Representatives support vouchers, at least in principle, a fact that has given them each a financial boost. All three contend that their support of vouchers is just part of a broad promise to improve access to education in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I’m not the pro-voucher, send money to private schools person some people are trying to paint me as,” said Jordan Harris, campaigning in the 186th, in a Tribune editorial board this week. “I support quality education across the board. For me, that means we empower parents with the opportunity to decide where their children go to school. The parents should decide where their tax dollars are going to go.”
Harris said he would suggest some changes to current voucher legislation before he could support it.
“I’m not totally sold on the legislation as it stands now,” he said, noting the legislation prohibits schools from accepting voucher money and later kicking out students.
“But, what I will say is that there needs to be additional options. Vouchers are a part of the educational tool box. I don’t think it is the tool box — and I think I’ve been mischaracterized.”
However, Harris has received money — $20,000 — from Students First, an organization with financial ties to one of his mentors, state Sen. Anthony Williams, as have two other candidates with districts that overlap Williams’ Senate District 8.
It’s a fact that makes separating the politics and the finances of the issue difficult.
Though the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and vouchers are usually seen as a Republican issue, Williams has emerged as a vocal supporter of vouchers.
He was one of three state legislators to sponsor the voucher bill that Harris referred to, S.B. 1. It was approved by the state Senate last fall, and if passed in the House, would provide vouchers for low-income students in failing schools. It is still in the House, where it has been since October.
Williams drew attention not just for his position on vouchers, but also for the money his stance generated.
Money from Students First, which helped finance Williams’ failed run for governor, is now flowing into three contested House races in districts that overlap with Williams’ district in west, south and southwest Philadelphia.
The organization drew broad media attention after it gave Williams more than $5 million during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. The group’s financial backers include conservative hedge-fund managers Jeffrey Yass, Arthur Dantchik and Joel Greenberg.
They’ve opened their wallets again for candidates vying to be Williams’ colleagues in the state legislature.
In the 188th District, the group has given $25,000 to Fatimah Muhammad, who is challenging incumbent state Rep. James Roebuck, who has the backing of the teachers’ union and was publicly against Williams’ voucher bill. Another $10,000 was given to incumbent state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown in the 190th District. She is facing two challengers, Wanda Logan and Audrey Blackwell-Watson, the daughter of the late Lucien Blackwell, who also served in the state House and is the step-daughter of City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
Muhammad said she didn’t know how much Students First had given her campaign.
“That is one of many organizations I’ve received money from,” she said. “As someone who’s new to politics, I can’t afford not to take money from anyone.”
The donation has not tied her hands on vouchers, she said.
“In this campaign vouchers have been used by my opponent to try and pigeonhole me in a particular area,” she said. “My stance is to keep everything on the table. I want parents at the center of this — not for political gain or anything. My stance has always been empowering parents.”
Like Harris, Muhammad said she couldn’t support S.B. 1, without some changes.
“I have concerns about that bill,” she said, reiterating that she could not be classified as a voucher supporter or opponent. “I’m not going to be pigeonholed. This is a terrible distraction.”
Muhammad, who recalled being homeless as a child, said that her tough experiences and hardships created in her a passion to help others who are underprivileged and underserved.
Despite her tough beginnings, Muhammad later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with honors and said that it is now her wish to give back to others.
She received the endorsement this week of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity and the Guardian Civic League.
Brown said her support for vouchers was personal and had nothing to do with Students First.
“I work with Republicans every day,” she said. “There are some issues that we’re together on and some issues that we’re not. This just happens to be an issue that I’m very passionate about for personal reasons.”
Brown said before her election, she was a single, unemployed mom with a special needs child who wanted better for her son.
“It was early on that I saw that my child needed a lot more than the public schools were offering,” she said. “When I tried to send him to other schools, I could not afford those choices.”
The red spatters glistening on the sidewalk in front of Damon K. Roberts’ campaign headquarters looked like blood. In fact, that’s what Kellie Imaduddin thought it was when she discovered it Tuesday morning.
“I got here at 9:02,” Imaduddin, who works for Roberts’ campaign as a paralegal, said. “I noticed what looked like blood.”
It turned out to be red paint dripping from the campaign banner hung above the door of the office at the corner of Dickinson and South Broad streets.
“It was still wet when I got here,” she said.
But the most chilling discovery was yet to come.
Pressed into the window gate lock, just below the vandalized banner, was an ominous note with the words, “We out for blood nigga!!!” scrawled across it.
The latest incident, which happened Thursday morning, seems unrelated. A man tried to break into the office. Imaduddin was there alone when she noticed a man trying to force in the front door.
“I could tell that he looked high,” she said.
When he failed, he moved to cars parked along Dickinson Street, and police arrested him shortly after 9 a.m.
The incident, coming on the heels of the vandalism, has campaign staffers on alert — and on edge.
Roberts said there has been a series of events at his office intended to intimidate him.
He is running for the state House of Representatives in the 186th District. The seat was held by city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson until January, when he stepped down to take his seat on council. The two men have a history. Roberts wanted the council seat and ran against Johnson last year but eventually dropped out. Though both men denied it, insiders said there was a deal between the two that ultimately soured.
In the race for the 186th, there are several other candidates vying for the seat, but a protégé of Johnson’s, former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris, is widely considered to be the front runner and has Johnson’s endorsement.
No one yet knows who threw the paint, who left the malicious note — or exactly what they meant.
“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty exactly what’s going on,” Roberts said, adding that the vandalism and the note are just the latest incidents in what looks to him like a campaign of intimidation. “All I can say is that we have received two threats at the office in the past.”
According to Roberts, in early March, two men, on separate occasions, dropped in on him at the campaign headquarters, telling him that he needed to stay out of Harris’s campaign office.
Roberts said he dropped in at Harris’s office in an effort to meet his opponent. It was something he made a habit of doing, Roberts said, trying to meet opponents, as part of running a friendly campaign.
The idea apparently didn’t sit well with Harris’ supporters, Roberts said, adding that he wasn’t saying that Harris authorized the visits.
“A guy came into our office saying, ‘Look, I’m cousins with Jordan and Kenyatta … I’m not into this politics thing, but I’m from the street — and don’t be going back in that campaign office ‘cause… you know,’” Roberts said. “Two days later the same thing happened, at night.”
Roberts called police.
A police department spokeswoman verified that Roberts filed a complaint on March 6 for an incident that took place on March 1. Police classified the incident as a disturbance. No one has been arrested.
“We put in a complaint just to be sure,” Roberts said. “But, we said ‘It’s not big deal. They’re trying to intimidate us and make us lose focus.’”
After the first visit, Roberts said he called Harris.
“I gave Jordan a call and said, ‘Listen man, let’s squash this thing,’” said Roberts.
He thought that would be the end of it.
Harris said he was unaware that anyone had attempted to intimidate Roberts.
“I’m not sure of this whole allegation,” Harris said, when asked if the two spoke over the phone about the issue, Harris responded, “No. I’m not sure what he’s speaking of.”
“This is an unfortunate incident,” he continued. “If I had been made aware of this, I would have been the first one down there to help him out, because these kinds of things do not need to happen and should not happen in our community.”
Johnson, through his spokesman Zack Burgess, said he had no knowledge of the incidents.
“I have no idea what Damon Roberts is talking about and furthermore I am not a candidate in this race,” Burgess said, quoting Johnson. “I don’t condone this kind of behavior or campaign tactics, and I’ve never been associated with unfair tactics, so I’m disappointed.”
Roberts said the splash of red on the sign was not a complete surprise.
“We’d heard that there was a bounty out on the sign,” he said.
But, he assumed it was for the smaller signs taped to the office windows. They cover graffiti that was there when Roberts moved in and they have been ripped down almost every day for more than a week.
Roberts said he’s not going to be sidelined by the incidents.
“There are polls out right now … that say we are neck and neck,” Roberts said. “Since this has happened, people have been extremely supportive. What was meant for evil, God turned around for good,” he said.
There were few surprises on Tuesday, April 24 as voters chose their party’s candidates for the November election. Typically, in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, local Democratic primary winners typically go on to win office in November.
Though the primary included a number of high offices, ranging from president and U.S. senator to state representative and attorney general, the vast majority of registered voters stayed home.
Turnout was recorded at 17.3 percent — almost exactly where it was in last spring’s primary.
“People weren’t too much concerned about the races going on,” said political consultant Maurice Floyd, noting that the national seats got all the attention, but with Rick Santorum’s withdrawal, the contest took on less urgency. “It just didn’t measure up in terms of generating a turnout.”
In low turnout elections, the support of a core bloc of dedicated voters is what delivers.
“The winners organized and they had a solid base going for them,” said Floyd.
As an example, he pointed to a much watched race – the 197th District – where J.P. Miranda won over Jewel Williams, the daughter of Sheriff Jewell Williams.
Miranda won 40 percent of the vote with 2,977 votes. That compared to 38 percent for Jewel, which translated to 2,519 votes.
“The ward leaders and the street organizers, they were able to outmaneuver and out-organize her,” he said.
Jewel’s campaign in the North Philadelphia district raised eyebrows because she seemed to rely largely on possible voter confusion between her and her father, who held the seat until January when he resigned to assume the post of sheriff. Jewel campaigned little. Her campaign office was reportedly empty most days.
Miranda had a history of political involvement. He worked for Council President Darrell Clarke and state Sen. Shirley Kitchen. In addition, in 2004 he worked for the John Kerry campaign. He also worked with the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter as it worked to help federal officials with the U.S. Census.
“I’m ecstatic,” Miranda said Wednesday. “North Philadelphia united against a lot of disgraceful acts by my opposition. People were very disgusted with some of things they were seeing.”
Miranda will now run against Steve Crum, the Republican, in the Nov. 6 election. Miranda is confident he’ll win.
“I’ve stayed on the pulse of the community,” he said, noting that his real focus will be on getting out the vote in November for himself, and for President Barack Obama.
In addition to choosing in the primary, voters in the 197th District had to select someone to serve for the remainder of Jewell’s term and decided on Gary Williams over former state senator and perennial candidate for mayor T. Milton Street.
From a party stand-point, perhaps the biggest was an upset was in race for state House in the 182nd Legislative District, which covers much of Center City. State Rep. Babette Josephs, who has held the seat since 1985 lost to newcomer Brian Sims, who will be the first openly gay member of the general assembly.
The vote was close, with Sims netting about 52 percent of the ballots to Josephs’ 48 percent.
Josephs was co-vice president of the city’s delegation in Harrisburg. She faced frequent challenges in recent years but managed to hang onto her seat.
That changed Tuesday evening.
According to preliminary results, Sims won with 3,661 votes. Josephs had 3,428.
“We set out from the very beginning to run the largest, cleanest, most involved campaign that we could,” Sims said in published reports. “We reached out to all four corners of this district for volunteers, for support, for help, and we were blessed to get it.”
Barring a write-in challenge from a Republican, which is extremely unlikely, Sims should take the seat in the fall.
That too was largely due to the loyalty of a bloc, Floyd said, noting that gay voters flocked to Sims rather than Josephs.
“They were the group that would normally put her over the top,” he said. “But, they basically went with the gay candidate.”
Another widely watched race was the 186th District, which was wide open, with three contenders seeking to fill the seat vacated by City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Former Youth Commission won in a landslide victory – the widest margin seen in the city – with 76 percent of the district’s voters behind him.
“It’s just starting to sink in,” Harris said early Wednesday morning. “We put in a lot of hard work to get our message out to the community. The community has spoken loud and clear on the direction they want to go in. I’m just humbled and honored my community has that faith in me.”
With no Republican in the 186th race, Harris should sail through on Nov. 6.
Like Miranda, he said he plans on making sure voters hit the polls in November pushing the button for himself and for Obama.
Attorney Damon K. Roberts came in second with roughly 20 percent of the vote. He sought the seat before, and lost to Johnson. A third candidate, community activist Timothy Hannah came in third with about 5 percent of the vote.
Roberts’ biggest surprise of the evening was not his loss, but an incident that happened at around 10 p.m. at his Dickinson and South Broad streets headquarters. Roberts was forced to call police after he tried to pay staffers with checks rather than cash. When he ran out of checks, the crowd got ugly, and a melee started, forcing him to call police for his own protection.
He could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A police spokesperson said police arrived for a disturbance at 9:57 and remained on the scene until about 11 p.m. Poll volunteers were apparently promised $100 each, which Roberts was paying with the checks.
Voters in the 186th also participated in special election, choosing someone to fill out the remainder of Johnson’s term. They chose former state Rep. Harold James, who will return temporarily to his statehouse seat.
In most other races across the city, incumbents prevailed – including a contested three-person race in the Northwest section of the city where state Rep. Rosita Youngblood held on against Malik Boyd and Charisma Presley.
“People always underestimate Rosita,” Floyd said. “With her, there is not a lot of fanfare but she serves that district in a way that she’s entrenched.”
Youngblood got 47 percent of the vote compared to Presley’s 28 percent and Boyd’s 24 percent.
“Every time she’s run, she’s had a challenger or more - but ultimately she had been blessed again and again and again to come back and represent the people of the district,” said campaign spokeswoman Thera Martin-Milling.
In West Philadelphia, in a race that drew a lot of media attention and large political donations, challenger Fatimah Muhammad was still unable to beat incumbent Jim Roebuck.
“It didn’t matter,” Floyd said. “Roebuck has a solid core of supporters, and that’s what puts him over the top.”
Election results remain unofficial until the Pennsylvania State Department verifies them.
The special election to fill the vacant seat in the state’s 186th Legislative District, formerly held by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, seems to be shaping up into a contest between two front-runners — former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris and former state Rep. Harold James, who held the seat for nearly 20 years.
Six candidates — Fawwaz Beyha, Tim Hannah, Harris, James, Ed Nesmith and Damon Roberts — will appear on the April 24 ballot. But, James and Harris appear to have important backers within the Democratic Party that make them the candidates to watch.
Two well established lawmakers are backing Harris — Johnson and his political patron Sen. Anthony Williams. Harris has a long history with Williams. The two met when Harris was still in high school, he said. Harris also worked with Johnson for several years, most notably on Johnson’s Peace Not Guns initiative.
In addition, Harris has secured endorsements from several labor organizations that will be able to mobilize voters.
Over the weekend, Harris announced that he had secured endorsements from the AFL-CIO, Transportation Workers Union Local 234, the Laborers Local 332 and the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5.
Harris characterized his campaign as a community based “movement.”
“We are in the process of building a movement to engage a community that is often left out. We are building a movement of citizens who won’t sit quietly on the sidelines as they watch opportunity pass them by,” he said, noting the endorsements. “This is much bigger than an election and the community is an important part of this movement building.”
Backing from labor, Williams and Johnson would appear to give Harris, a political newcomer, a powerful boost in the contest for the seat.
But, according to one party official from South Philadelphia, who asked not to be named, the majority of ward leaders were expected to support James. It’s too early to tell if that will happen, or just how it might affect the race, but in Philadelphia ward leaders are political forces to be reckoned with. Many elected officials start out as ward leaders and retain the post after winning higher office.
James represented voters from the 186th District from 1989 to 2008.
According to the Tribune’s source, most ward leaders in the 186th would rather stick with a candidate they are familiar with and worked with for nearly two decades.
“They know Harold,” said the source.
James has been running a very low-key campaign. He has a campaign office at 20th and Federal streets, directly across the street from Harris’, but does not appear to have a website or Facebook page, two touchstones of modern campaigning.
He did not return the Tribune’s phone calls Monday afternoon.
In other special election news, Milton Street, brother for former Mayor John F. Street and perennial candidate for office, has reportedly withdrawn from the Democratic race in the 197th District to replace former state representative, now Sheriff, Jewell Williams.
Street reportedly plans to form his own party — the Milton Street Party — and run
Philly Clout reported that Street had withdrawn from the race where he faced a legal challenge to his nominating petitions but declined to say why.
“Now you’re looking for trade secrets,” Street told reporter Chris Brennan.