While all life is precious, it sometimes takes the killing of an innocent child, a prominent person or a police officer to shake the public’s consciousness.
When a police officer, whose sworn duty it is to serve and protect the community, is gunned down it sparks an outpouring of public anger and outrage.
Public anger grow deeper still when that same officer is a beloved member of the community and someone with a reputation of being devoted to his church and family.
This is why hundreds of people paid their respects for Officer Moses Walker Jr., a 19-year veteran, who was laid to rest Monday at Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia.
Officer Walker was shot and killed during an apparent robbery attempt as he walked to a bus stop after finishing his shift last week.
Mayor Michael Nutter was among those who attended the funeral service for Walker and
called for an end to violence and a rededication to peace.
“I am sick of the ignorance, sick of the violence, sick of death,” he said. “Let us all rededicate our lives to peace and let Moses Walker – Moses would lead the way – show us how to live our lives in peace, in truth, in love.”
Walker, 40, had changed into street clothes after an overnight shift and was walking to a bus stop about 6 a.m. on Aug 18 when two men approached him. Walker had time only to draw his gun before he was shot in the chest, stomach and arm, said police. According to police, the robbery attempt was similar to several other robberies in the area in the last few months.
Police have charged two men in the slaying. Rafael Jones, 23, believed to have been the shooter, was charged last week with murder, robbery, conspiracy and other counts. Chancier McFarland, 19, was charged with murder and other offences.
The slaying has sparked criticism of the Board of Probation and Parole, which allowed Jones to leave prison and go without an electronic bracelet for more than two weeks after being charged in connection with an earlier robbery.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila) has called on Gov. Tom Corbett’s office to lead an investigation into why Jones was on the street.
There should be an investigation outside of the Board of Probation and Parole into where the breakdown occurred in the handling of the Jones’s case.
Officials this week held a ribbon cutting, opening a new $38.8 million, 100-unit housing development in Southwest Philadelphia — hailing the new Paschall Village as the key to revitalizing the neighborhood.
“This is not about bricks and mortar; it’s about souls and lives,” said state Sen. Anthony Williams, at Wednesday’s ribbon cutting.
The new homes, built by the Philadelphia Housing Authority between Paschall and Woodland Avenue at 72nd Street, boast a number of green and sustainable features including: geothermal heating and cooling, solar hot water, solar panels, a rainwater irrigation system and ENERGY STAR appliances.
But, Williams and the other speakers hailed the development not so much for its architecture, cutting edge technology or amenities — but for its power to transform the surrounding neighborhood of Southwest Philly. The new village replaced a barracks-like slab of a housing project, built in 1966, that was renowned as a hub of crime until it was demolished in 2009.
“It was an antiquated, drug- and crime-infested area,” remembered Council president Anna C. Verna, who represents the Southwest, adding that the old 223-unit project riddled with courtyards and narrow alleys made a perfect hideout for criminals — and particularly dangerous for police.
In the months before the old complex was torn down, between January and April 2009, police said there were 11 murders and 15 rapes within a half-mile of the complex. It was so notorious for drug activity that in 2006 federal agents descended on the complex and arrested 22 people.
There was no evidence of that history this week.
The new houses are laid out in several neat rows and a new street, an extension of Saybrook Avenue, divided the block. At the corner of 72nd and Paschall, a new 4,000 square-foot community center, complete with computer center, anchored the village. New street lights and trees lined the streets.
Verna hoped the new homes will provide the catalyst for change.
“I see today as a great opportunity,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”
Williams, who lives just a few miles from the development, had even stronger words for new residents, and exhorted his new neighbors to resist letting the development again become a safe harbor for drugs and crime.
“We have a beginning here. I want us — the people, the neighbors — to reclaim our dignity, our humanity, our compassion,” he said, adding that new residents needed to tell anyone inclined to push the neighborhood backwards: “You’re not bringing that drama back to my neighborhood.”
The new complex has 12 one-bedroom, 52 two-bedroom and 36 three-bedroom units and 20 handicapped accessible units. All have off-street parking.
“The housing authority has come through again,” said resident liaison Nellie Reynolds. “But, you have to make it a home. We can’t do that for you. Do it with pride. Do it with love.”
The development has already won the 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania Award — and PHA director Michael Kelly expects it to win more.
“It is a shining example of PHA’s commitment to building green, energy-efficient, sustainable developments,” Kelly said. “We intend to be a leader and set an example in this field.”
Last month, PHA opened another green development, Mantua Court, in West Philadelphia. The $28.1 million, 101-unit public housing development replaced Mantua Hall, a notorious 18-story tower at 35th Street and Fairmount Avenue.
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.”
Members of the community flocked to join the members of the Church of Christian Compassion during the ribbon cutting ceremony to announce the opening of their new facility at 6121 Cedar Ave. in West Philadelphia, Saturday afternoon.
The new building, years in development, will serve as the new site for the churches growing congregation and provide space to conduct its services to the community. The church, founded in 1981, is pastored by Pastor W. Lonnie Herndon, who prides himself on overseeing a church heavily invested in the community which focuses on outreach.
Herndon said the mission of the church, “is to be a church in the heart of the community with the community at heart.”
According to a press release, “As more churches grow to stadium proportions, small and mid-size congregations see their diminutive size as an asset for missions to enrich their communities by bridging the gap between the church and the community.”
“This is the grand opening of the Church of Christian Compassion,” Herndon said. “This is the dedication service of this building, a building which will seat 3,000-plus members,” said Herndon. “We’re grateful and thankful that, in the midst of a recession, to put up such an edifice and it’s the hard work of the people and the grace of God which has blessed us tremendously.”
Despite the accomplishment, Herndon said that the actual building of the church was secondary to the larger goal of serving the needs of people.
“Most of all we are interested in building lives and building this community back up,” he said.
Herndon admits that there were obstacles to completing the construction but says that such things could be expected in the pursuit of good and noble endeavors.
“These [obstacles] are meant to build you and make you better; they are meant to test your character,” he said. “We’ve met some obstacles, we built this in the middle of a recession but our congregation was great and God was great to us, and the people never stopped believing that today will finish the first leg of the race.”
Following the ribbon cutting ceremony a service was held during which a video detailing the journey taken to construct the new church as well as the congregation’s history was shown. The service was well attended by residents of the area, members of the church and local and state officials including state Sen. Anthony H. Williams and City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
Pastor Herndon and the Church of Christian Compassion is noted for its annual “Great Family Gathering” during which thousands of homeless people residing in Philadelphia shelters are treated to a traditional Thanksgiving meal with all of the fixings, including live entertainment.
During this event, the homeless, many of whom are transported via chartered busses, are given an opportunity to be served by elected officials who have taken the oath of service, as well as others in the community who volunteer to serve on that night. In the past Blackwell and state representative Ronald G. Waters have donned hair nets and aprons to meals.
Gearing up for what is expected to be an ugly battle for the White House, the Obama campaign this week rolled out a Philadelphia “Truth Team” to counter “scurrilous Republican attacks.”
“This is a team of people from across the nation to make sure that people know the truth about what the president has done while in office, and also to respond to anticipated and expected scurrilous Republican attacks,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, one of six local elected officials who announced the launch of the local “Truth Team” Thursday at city hall. “We remain committed to insuring that our constituents know the truth. That would be t-r-u-t-h, clearly a word that the Republican Party and Republican candidates have difficulty spelling and saying on their own.”
Similar teams were put in place across Pennsylvania and the nation.
Members of the Philadelphia team were: Nutter, State Rep. Babette Josephs, District Attorney Seth Williams, state Sen. Anthony Williams, city Controller Alan Butkovitz and city Councilwoman Cindy Bass.
While there is a great deal of uncertainty as to who the Republican nominee will be heading into November, the campaign is likely to get rougher as the GOP fumbles to rally behind one candidate and the focus shifts to that nominee and President Barack Obama.
“We’ve seen these attacks already and know they will be coming soon to Pennsylvania,” Nutter said.
The Republican contest has narrowed, it seems, to three potential nominees: former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney; former speaker of the U.S. House, Newt Gingrich and former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum.
Nutter took a jab at two out of three.
“Mitt Romney will literally say anything to win, distort the president’s record and his own at the same time,” said the mayor. “[Santorum] remains clearly out of step with the needs of most Americans. Pennsylvania voters clearly rejected him, soundly, when his name was last on the ballot.”
In addition to the team, the campaign unveiled three websites designed to respond to Republican attacks: KeepingHisWord.com, AttackWatch.com and KeepingGOPHosnest.com. All three are intended to serve as quick, comprehensive resources to help set the record straight. The websites contain videos and information on the president’s record, and fact checks on Republican claims about the president and themselves.
The sites also contain tools for sharing materials via Facebook, Twitter and email. The goal, said a campaign release, is to ensure that “grassroots supporters can take ownership of the campaign and share the facts with the undecided voters in their lives.”
More than a million people took action as part in similar effort called “Fight the Smears” during the 2008 campaign. The goal of the Truth Team is to double that number, reaching two million grassroots supporters.
Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams went before members of City Council on Tuesday requesting additional money to hire more prosecutors, and said that among the nation’s 22 largest counties, Philadelphia is the second lowest for funding for a prosecutor’s office.
Williams also said that underfunding is also an indication that murder rates are often higher where the funding is lower.
“It’s almost directly inversely proportional — the rate of funding to the rate of violent crime,” Williams said, adding that the latest statistics show the murder rate is up 9 percent. “Philadelphia has the second worst funding, and one of the highest murder rates. We find ourselves in the midst of unacceptable levels of violent crime. All types of violent crime have risen so far this year. As of April 15, there have been 102 homicides in the city. Aggravated assaults with guns are up 19 percent, and violent crime is up 4 percent. Philadelphia continues to fare much worse than the country as a whole, with murder and robbery rates four times the national average during 2009 and 2010.”
Right now the city’s budget allocates $31 million for the District Attorney’s office. That figure remains unchanged, Williams said, which essentially amounts to a budget cut. Taking into consideration the current budget constraints, he’s not asking for more new money, he believes, but that his department be returned a portion of the millions of dollars they’ve saved through new programs and initiatives over the last two years. Specifically, Williams is requesting an increase of $636,675 that would be used to hire 13 new assistant district attorneys.
The additional attorneys would free up seasoned assistant district attorneys to prosecute more violent offenders.
“Being able to hire them will permit me to have our more experienced prosecutors handle our increasing numbers of violent cases, especially homicides, non-fatal shootings and rapes,” Williams said.
As of May 2 there have been 114 murders in Philadelphia. One of the victims was Clarice Douglas of the 1500 block of Corlies Street. Douglas was gunned down in the middle of the afternoon when two young Black males began shooting at each other. Douglas, who was standing on her porch waiting for her children to come home from school, was struck several times.
One of the suspects was wounded and is under arrest but the second suspect, Shekinah Williams, remains at large. Williams, 28, from the 2100 block of Sears Street, has been incarcerated before. There is a $5,000 reward being offered for his arrest and conviction; $2,500 was donated by State Senator Anthony Williams and $2,500 from developer Mark Nicoletti.
“Regarding this recent shooting, we have one person being held and we recovered a gun. We have some direction on the second suspect. As for the other recent incidents, there could be a lot of things causing the violence in that part of town,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey regarding the investigation. “Basically, there is no shortage of thugs with guns who are not afraid to fire over any dispute.”
The district attorney echoed that sentiment at the budget hearing, and said one of the consistent problems that drive violent crime is the proliferation of illegal guns. Making it clear that law-abiding gun owners are not the problem, he said a new practice being used is asking high bail for those caught with illegal firearms.
“St. Louis began this practice last year and quickly cut its homicide rate by about 20 percent,” Williams said. “It is unlikely that most individuals caught carrying an illegal weapon will be able to post high bail. Therefore, they will remain in prison until their trial. Regardless of the verdict and sentence they receive, these offenders will already have served several months of incarceration. Both they and their criminal acquaintances will have seen and witnessed the new reality — if you carry an illegal gun you will be incarcerated, full stop. Moreover, in these cases we will almost always ask for prison time and no probation.”
As opponents of Pennsylvania’s controversial voter ID law, or Act 18, await a final decision by Judge Robert Simpson, the results of a recent study regarding the expected impact of the law were announced this week.
During a teleconference on the validity of the law, Keith W. Reeves, director of the Center for Social and Policy Studies at Swarthmore College, said that original state estimates were wrong. Reeves said the research shows that as many as 400,000 eligible voters would be turned away from the polls in November because they lack proper identification.
“We surveyed 227 actual voters who participated in the last primary election,” Reeves said. “Of that number, 49 percent were African-American, 18 percent Latino and the rest a mix of other ethnicities. We wanted to know if the voter ID law was being implemented fairly and evenly. What we found were half of the voters surveyed were asked to show a valid photo ID. Fifty-nine percent had a driver’s license, 13 percent had some form of military ID and 3 percent had employee photo identification. There were 4 percent of those who turned out that had no photo ID at all. That 4 percent translates into 400,000 eligible voters who would be barred from voting. The survey also showed that the 4 percent who had no photo ID were non-white — none of the white respondents were affected. Clearly that shows there is some racial disparity here, and we have a lot of work left to do in order to educate voters.”
Democratic State Sens. Anthony Hardy Williams, Vincent Hughes and NAACP CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous were also on hand for the teleconference and offered their insights into how the Voter ID law would disenfranchise thousands of voters. Jealous said that voter suppression was always the intent behind the legislation, and Williams referred to it as one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation.
“What the Reeves Report clearly demonstrates is what we’ve been saying all along, that if voter ID goes forth as is on Nov. 6 — just six weeks away — otherwise qualified voters will lose their rights,” Williams said. “These are the facts. They cannot be denied. They cannot be ignored. So no matter what the administration says, let me be clear: Act 18 is unconstitutional. It cannot be fully implemented in time to prevent voter disenfranchisement this November.”
According to Reeves, his research team conducted exit polls at 13 separate wards in Philadelphia during the April 24 primary elections. The team also polled voters in Allegheny and Butler counties and the August 7 special elections, taking random surveys. The surveys determined that enforcement of the law was arbitrary and 4 percent of those voters — all people of color — possessed no forms of valid photo identification at all.
Jealous said voter suppression, particularly of African Americans and other minorities — segments of the population most inclined to vote for Barack Obama in November — was always the intention.
“The 4 percent number suggests those who would be affected by this is much larger than the state suggested,” Jealous said. “This says to me that senior citizens, many of whom fought against the Jim Crow laws and poll taxes, would be significantly affected — and after so long now they’re going to see that repeat itself. This report shows that was the intent of the law, Senator Mike Turzai said that was the intent and if not for the courts this will be successful.”
In June, Republican State Sen. Mike Turzai stated during a party function that the state’s Voter ID law would help presidential candidate Mitt Romney win in Pennsylvania. In August, Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson, also a Republican, upheld the law. Simpson stated in his decision that opponents who were asking for an injunction that would halt its implementation didn’t adequately demonstrate that voters would be adversely affected.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, which challenged the law, appealed to the State Supreme Court, who, in a ruling on Sept. 18, kicked the decision back to Simpson. Ruling 4 to 2, the justices ordered Simpson to consider whether or not all eligible voters will be able to obtain acceptable ID if the law is upheld. The high court asked Simpson to submit a supplemental opinion on the availability of alternate IDs by Oct. 2nd.
“This is empirical evidence of what Turzai stated, and what we and my colleagues have been saying all along. This is all about assisting Romney through voter suppression,” said Hughes. “This is real evidence of what the actual intent was, and shows that the state is nowhere near ready to implement this failed law, which is what it is. Even if all the data was in place, when we escort people to PennDot centers to get their state photo ID’s, they get mixed and conflicting information about what they need. There are significant problems here. At best this law needs to be thrown out, and at worst, its implantation should be halted.”
The eyes of the nation are on Pennsylvania this week as court hearings opposing the state’s controversial Voter ID law opened on Wednesday.
The law, which opponents say was nothing more than an attempt by Republican lawmakers to hand the commonwealth over to Mitt Romney in the presidential elections under the guise of fighting voter fraud, is being challenged on the grounds that it violates the state constitution. But that’s just one front on which the legislation is being attacked. This week the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division stepped into the ring and has ordered the state to prove the law does not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits voting requirements that would disproportionately impact minorities, which opponents of the law say it was designed to do.
“This law is not about protecting against voter fraud, it is about the very real, systematic disenfranchisement of approximately 750,000 individuals, mostly the poor, the elderly, students and racial minorities,” said Democratic State Senator Vincent Hughes during a rally in Harrisburg on Tuesday on the steps of the Capitol building. “It is voter suppression, plain and simple — and we must not stand for it. Let the people vote. The Voter ID law is about a Republican attempt to win the presidential election in November. The dubious claims of voter fraud made by the Republican majority and Governor Tom Corbett simply do not exist. That has been proven.”
From the very beginning the law, which was supposed to be a firewall against voter fraud, came under fire from Democratic leaders who maintained that the legislation was always meant to stack the upcoming November elections in favor of the Republicans. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler and Governor Tom Corbett quickly signed off on it once it passed the Senate and Pennsylvania House of Representatives, making the state one of 16 to have such a law. The vote in the House was split exactly on party lines with three Republicans, Reps. Christopher Ross, Marguerite Quinn and Kurt Masser stepping across the aisle to join the Democratic opposition.
The law requires that a registered voter produce either a valid state driver’s license or non-driver’s license identification card. Other acceptable forms of identification would be a valid student’s ID, passport or military identification. One of the problems, opponents say, is many elderly voters don’t have and cannot produce documentation of their birth — a requirement for obtaining the state identification card. Many of those individuals have been registered voters for years and would be turned away from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Many female voters could also be adversely affected since their married names aren’t the names on their birth certificates.
Hughes said that attorneys for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania allege there have been no known cases of voter fraud committed in the state. He also said that when Corbett was state attorney general he never prosecuted one single case of voter fraud.
ACLU attorneys think they have a strong enough case to block the law. In May, shortly after Corbett signed the bill into law, the ACLU, the Public Interest Law Center, the Advancement Project and the law firm of Arnold & Porter filed a law suit against it. The case, Applewhite v. Pennsylvania, argues that the law violated the state constitution, and in their brief, outline several points that will be expounded upon during proceedings:
• The commonwealth now admits that it cannot identify even a single instance in which a person voted improperly in Pennsylvania because they were able to impersonate someone else at the polling place.
• The commonwealth's new estimates of voters without acceptable ID — about three quarters of a million people — are understated based on the commonwealth's own records and based on survey evidence gathered by petitioners, and that the actual number is that one million or more eligible voters do not have the necessary ID to vote in November.
• The commonwealth has not adequately informed the public that they need to undertake a time consuming task simply in order to vote as they have in years past. An estimated 37 percent of residents are not even aware of the voter ID law or believe there is no photo ID law. More importantly, the vast majority of people who do not have valid ID under the law mistakenly believe that they have acceptable ID (13.1 percent of total eligible voters and 11.8 percent of people who voted for president in 2008).
"George Washington didn't need a voter ID card,” said State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams during the Harrisburg rally. “John Adams didn't need a voter ID card. Ronald Reagan didn't need a voter ID card. If it wasn't good enough for the Founding Fathers, it's not good enough for me."
Commonwealth officials formally acknowledged in a stipulation agreement that there’s been no reported in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania - and there isn’t likely to be in November. The agreement also states that Pennsylvania “will not offer any evidence in this action that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania and elsewhere” or even argue “that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absense of the Photo ID law.” Neither Governor Corbett nor the state attorney general will testify during the hearings, per the agreement.
The United States Department of Justice has also jumped into the legal battle, ordering Commonwealth officials to prove that the law does not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; a law forbidding any voting requirements that would disproportionately affect minority voters. In a letter sent this past Monday to acting secretary of the Commonwealth, Carol Aichele, the DOJ requested the state turnover the complete voter registration list, including voter history and race of registered voters and the current Pennsylvania driver license and ID list.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Acts states that: No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.
The Justice Department also wants any documents supporting Gov. Tom Corbett's March 2012 statement that 99 percent of Pennsylvania's eligible voters already have acceptable photo ID. The state has 30 days to comply. Similar laws in South Carolina and Texas were successfully blocked by the Justice Department.
“The stipulation says that the state is ‘not aware of’ any incidents of voter impersonation, which the Voter ID law is allegedly designed to address, and that the state is not prepared to present any evidence in support of the existence of such fraud. This should end the argument that the Voter ID law would prevent any voter fraud in Pennsylvania,” said State Senator Daylin Leach in a press release. Leach also said that since there is no evidence of voter fraud, Republican State Representative Mike Turzai told the truth when he said at a recent partisan event that the law would help Romney win Pennsylvania.
“Also, filings indicate the Commonwealth will argue that the court should adopt a rational-basis standard for reviewing the law's Constitutionality,” Leach continued. “Anyone who has completed a semester of law school will know this means the administration, incredibly, believes that voting is not a fundamental right. The only remaining justification for the law is to prevent future incidents of fraud, of which there is also no evidence. That’s quite a thin argument to justify a law that disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of voters, and this proves that Representative Turzai was telling the truth. This law is about nothing more than helping Republicans win the election this November.”
The “food fight” over Mayor Michael Nutter’s Actual Value Initiative intensified Thursday with the mayor and state Sen. Anthony Williams firing back at opponents of the initiative, which appears stuck in City Council.
“Our message is pretty straight forward and pretty simple. At this point, we have a property assessment system that has been broken for … generations,” Nutter said. “Many Philadelphians … because of a flawed system have been paying much more than they should be in taxes. At the same time many individuals have been paying a lot less than they should, essentially being subsidized by the poorest individuals in the city. In the end, all taxpayers are losers.”
AVI would change the way the city assesses real estate, moving from assessments based on a fraction of property value to the full market value.
“No more fractions. No more complications. You should not need a math degree to be able to figure out what your taxes are,” said the mayor.
Williams was a little more outspoken in his defense of the plan, chastising members of the city’s delegation in Harrisburg for breaking ranks in Harrisburg.
“I’ve watched some public officials tear to shreds the validity of AVI, so I found it very important to go public,” he said, accusing opponents of “fear mongering” and adding that the divisions among local lawmakers could ultimately dissuade the state legislature and governor from taking action on several state bills needed to implement AVI.
“Harrisburg is watching us. Those bills were moving through the state legislature quite effectively, the governor was prepared to sign them until Philadelphia decided to have its own food fight,” he said.
Williams declined to call out legislative colleagues for their opposition.
But, two weeks ago a group of state legislators — joined by Councilmen Bill Green and Mark Squilla — announced their opposition to AVI, calling on the administration to delay implementation for another year. At that time, state Sen. Larry Farnese announced that he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would give Council the option to wait another year.
Waiting is not an option, Nutter said this week.
“Once the new values are in, we have to use them,” Nutter said, adding that not to was “asking for litigation.”
Critics cite three reasons for their opposition. First is the fact that new assessment figures will not be available until July, after City Council is expected to vote on a budget based on Nutter’s AVI figures. Second, because Nutter’s proposal includes an additional $94 million in revenue for the school district, critics charge the mayor with trying to push through a tax hike by another name. And, finally, many worry that AVI will mean higher taxes for their constituents.
Nutter countered all three arguments at his press conference.
Implementing property tax reform this year is needed, the mayor said, because the system has been “broken” for generations. The additional revenue is not a tax increase, he argued, simply a way to “capture” the increase in property values since the last reassessment in 2004. And, while admitting that taxes will go up for some, they will come down for others.
Ultimately, the fate of AVI lies in the hands of City Council, which has been debating the issue for months. Members are now looking at 14 budget related proposals.
Council leaders have been reluctant to discuss what direction those talks have taken.
“I never say what a majority of members are interested in until they do it,” Council President Darrell Clarke told reporters after this week’s Council session.
He did say that Council seems committed to providing some added funding for the school district, but would not say if it would meet the district’s request for $94 million.
“The biggest question centers on where that money is going and how it’s going to be spent and what levels of accountability can be put into place,” he said.
A proposal by Clarke would provide about $85 million. Several council members have said they would like Council to have more input on how district money is spent.
“Whatever process is established in this particular funding cycle for the school district, we would like to see a little more dialogue.”
Majority Leader Curtis Jones compared Council’s approach to that of a pilot preparing his plane for takeoff. Members are looking at several options and will decide which one to take on after factoring in a variety of conditions.
“We are a plane that has to have several runways — and we’re running out of time to take off,” he said.
Jones would not be drawn into a discussion of which of options might be gaining traction, calling all of the proposals as “alternate Plan A’s.”
“We want to be prepared for any eventuality,” he said.
Council seems prepared to put its muscle where its mouth is, this week approving a resolution urging the School Reform Commission to go back to the negotiating table with SEIU 32BJ in an effort to avoid the layoff of 2,700 union employees in a district effort to balance its budget, which is includes a $218 million deficit.
Much of Council’s negotiations are now going on behind the scenes.
This week members met in small groups — to avoid violating the state’s Sunshine Law — in private meetings to discuss their options.
“Our process, particularly at this point, is a process that requires significant conversations within the body,” Clarke said. “Trying to do that in an extremely public way is probably not conducive to us getting a budget.”
A public hearing has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday and Council will meet for its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday.
Technically the deadline for budget approval is June 1. But, Council has often recessed, rather than adjourned, its last meeting in May allowing a vote beyond the deadline.
Clarke said Council would have a budget passed by July 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year. He noted that many of the proposals before Council also require some action by the state legislature, which would need to approve, for example, a homestead exemption.
In other news, Council unanimously agreed to change the name of the Criminal Justice Center to the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice. A chorus of civic leaders urged Council to rename the court building in Stout’s honor. A long serving municipal court judge, she was the nation’s first female Black judge and the state and nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice.
Finally, Councilman Brian O’Neill introduced a bill that would give grandchildren of firefighters and police officers at 10-point advantage on the exams required to secure departmental jobs. A similar break is already given to children of both.
Looking ahead to a new legislative session, state Sen. Anthony Williams recently unveiled his agenda – which includes a proposal to end a phenomenon called “passing the trash” – and discussed several other items that will have a major impact on Philadelphia.
Williams met with The Tribune’s editorial board to discuss legislation being mulled over in the upcoming session. The Senate will reconvene March 5 and the House resumes March 12.
There are several controversial proposals circulating in the General Assembly, and with both chambers controlled by Republicans and a Republican in the governor’s office, the GOP has the ability to move just about any legislation over the objection of Democrats.
That fact worries Williams, who noted that Republicans from both branches are focused on a pushing their version of conservatism though legislation.
“This administration is the most ideological I’ve ever seen,” Williams said.
Chief among them: a voter identification bill, a concept endorsed by Gov. Tom Corbett, legislation that would require voters to provide a state approved ID at the polls before they can vote.
The Senate and House both have their own versions.
Williams said he expects the Senate bill to move out of the state government committee this spring.
“They’re going to try and make it happen,” he said. “I don’t know if the House is lined up, but I’m quite clear that they’re trying to line up the Senate.”
Supports say the proposals would cut down on voter fraud. Critics, including many elected officials from Philadelphia and the surrounding region, charge that it keeps minority and poor voters from casting their ballots.
Another item, which has generated ripples across the state, is a Welfare Department plan to impose an asset test on food stamp recipients. Under the administration’s latest proposal, a household with more than $5,500 in eligible assets for the typical family or $9,000 for a household with an elderly or disabled member, would be barred from receiving food stamps.
Those numbers were an increase from an earlier proposal, in which people under 60 with more than $2,000 in savings or other assets – including an automobile – would have
been barred from receiving food stamps. For people over 60, that threshold was set at $3,250. Asset testing will go into affect May 1.
An estimated 440,000 Philadelphians receive food stamps.
Williams, and a number of other Philadelphia legislators, have proposed a bill that would remove the welfare department’s power to put eligibility restrictions in place without legislative approval.
“We’re trying to eradicate this,” he said.
It was too early to tell if the proposal would be approved by the General Assembly, he said.
The asset test plan now proposed can be put in place without legislative approval because as part of last year’s budget approval process, Corbett and the legislature agreed to trim the welfare department’s budget - and could do so without coming back to the table for more approvals.
Williams has sponsored several other proposals he hopes to see some action on in this session.
Among them is a bill that would hold parents or guardians responsible for crimes committed by a minor in their care.
“It would now rise to a criminal offense,” he said, noting that it would be a third degree misdemeanor.
Under the plan, parents or guardians who “intentionally and knowingly” commit acts that cause their child to become involved in a crime could be prosecuted. The proposal does allow parents to enter, with the approval of the district attorney’s office, a diversion program that requires them to take part in parenting classes.
“Then their record would be expunged,” said Williams.
If they fail to complete the program they would be referred back to the courts for criminal prosecution.
Finally, Williams has also put forth a bill that would force elementary and secondary schools, public and private, to release employment histories for employees and independent contractors, and their employees who come into contact with children if they have ever faced allegations of abuse or sexual misconduct.
“This is a pre-emptive step to protect children before a crime is committed,” he said. “It’s one that’s worked in other states, and we hope it will work in Pennsylvania.”
Personnel files are confidential, and separation agreements negotiated in the wake of accusations usually are too.
“That places the protection of the accused predator above the safety of our children.”
Opposition is expected from the teachers’ union, Williams admitted.
But, he said its time to stop a pattern called “passing the trash” where employees who are accused of abuse or sexual misconduct leave quietly, and then get a job at another school where they can abuse again, all without the knowledge of those who hire them.