During his first months as a member of City Council, Kenyatta Johnson continued much of the work he started in the state House of Representatives.
Chief among his priorities has been a continued interest in curbing gun violence. During a year poised to break Philadelphia records for murder, Johnson was part of a group of Council members who sat down recently to discuss new ways to end the epidemic of violence.
“In order for us to move forward as a city, we have to have a safe city,” Johnson said recently. “I’m here to make sure that as we move forward, we have a progressive and an aggressive agenda focusing on the issue of gun violence.”
Johnson, like his colleague Councilman Dennis O’Brien, is new to City Council — but hardly new to politics. He served one and a half terms in the state House representing the 186th District, an area that overlaps much of his councilmanic district.
In previous interviews, he said he preferred a council seat because he thought it would give him the greatest opportunity to affect change in his community.
“Municipal government is where you can really make a difference,” he said. “It’s where the rubber meets the road. I’ve loved serving my constituents in the legislature, but I know I can do even more for them as a member of City Council.”
The transition was not without its politicking. Johnson narrowly won a primary battle against South Philadelphia realtor Barbara Capozzi — winning the party nomination with a margin of just 46 votes. And even then, only after a third competitor, Damon Roberts, withdrew. Johnson and Roberts reportedly reached a deal earlier, in which Johnson agreed to back Roberts for the state legislature after Roberts dropped out of a contest against Johnson for City Council. Roberts never received the backing. During the special election to fill the remainder of Johnson’s House term, Johnson remained silent on Roberts and the seat went to its former occupant, Harold James, who will serve the remainder of Johnson’s term.
Since arriving at City Hall, Johnson has pursued an agenda similar to the one he followed in the state capitol.
Largely quiet during this year’s contentious budget process, Johnson has been active in his district working to help keep E.M. Stanton Elementary School open by spearheading a public private partnership to raise $80,000 for the school’s continued operation after the School Reform Commission slated it for closure.
“We have to engage the business community in doing these partnerships,” Johnson told the Tribune at the time. “And I am glad the SRC put the kid’s educational value first in keeping Stanton open, and giving the school a second chance and allow the community’s residents and parents an opportunity to answer [the SRC’s] concerns.”
His other landmark initiative was the formation of the Peace Not Guns Task Force.
The task force combines the resources of the Department of Human Services, the District Attorney’s Office, Family Court, CeaseFire Philadelphia, the Philadelphia School District’s new Public Safety Advocate and more than 20 community leaders in an effort to combat gun violence.
“We will work to get a handle on gun and youth violence,” said Johnson.
Johnson was the only one of the six freshman Council members unable to sit down with the Tribune to discuss his first six months in office. Through his spokesman Zack Burgess, who is also a part-time Tribune contributor, Johnson said he simply didn’t have time. After one scheduled meeting was canceled, he declined to be interviewed over the course of several weeks in late July and early August.