By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia African-American candidates are on track to make history during Tuesday’s general election.
Black female candidates are expected to win the races for sheriff and register of wills — a first.
The Democratic Party has endorsed three Black candidates to fill seven at-large Philadelphia City Council seats and a Black third-party candidate has mounted a strong campaign for another at-large seat.
Mayor Jim Kenney will lead the Democratic ticket as he seeks a second four-year term against Republican challenger Billy Ciancaglini. Kenney has refused to debate his challenger in the lead-up to the election.
The 17-member City Council, city commissioners, and a flurry of Philadelphia judicial races are also on the ballot. Voters will also decide three ballot questions.
Black women breaking barriers
Democrat Rochelle Bilal is the only candidate running for sheriff. She knocked out incumbent Sheriff Jewell Williams in the May Democratic primary and will become the first Black woman to head the office.
Tracey Gordon, a Democrat, is running unopposed for register of wills. Gordon toppled long-time Democratic incumbent Ronald Donatucci in the primary. She will become the first African-American woman to hold the position.
A strong third party
Seventeen candidates are on the ballot for seven at-large City Council seats, who garner votes citywide. Voters can cast up to five votes for these seats.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 7-1, allowing Democrats to confidently expect to win the top five vote-getting positions. The remaining pair of at-large seats are reserved for the top two finishers from minority parties, which Republicans traditionally have won.
Although people of color have held more than three of at-large seats in the past (including on the current City Council), never have voters citywide sent three at-large Black candidates to City Council.
At-large Democratic incumbents Helen Gym, Allan Domb and Derek Green are seeking to maintain their seats for another four-year term. They are accompanied on the Democratic ticket by newcomers Isaiah Thomas and Katherine Gilmore Richardson.
Two at-large Republican incumbents are running to stay on City Council: David Oh and Al Taubenberger. Also running on the GOP ticket are Matt Wolfe, Bill Heeney and Dan Tinney.
Third-party candidates running for at-large City Council seats are: Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke on the Working Families Party ticket; Joe Cox and Clarc King are running on the Independent ticket; Maj Toure is running on the Libertarian ticket; Sherrie Cohen, a former Democrat who dropped out of the primary, is running as a A Better Council candidate; and Steve Cherniavsky is running on the Term Limits Philadelphia ticket.
Third-party candidates have had little luck in Philadelphia politics. No third-party candidate has won an election for City Council.
In 2013, a third-party candidate running under the Modern Whig Party won a minor office as a judge of elections in a Northeast ward.
David Dix, president of the government relations firm Luminous Strategies, said a fault line in this election has been Brooks’ campaign.
Brooks has secured endorsements and coordination from city and state Democrats, as well as a handful of city ward leaders over the objections from the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee. Her campaign has raised more cash than any third-party candidate ever — $147,000, according to the city’s campaign finance reports.
“That’s unprecedentedly different,” Dix said. “You never saw Democratic ward leaders talk about a third-party before.”
Good turnout anticipated
Turnout is typically poor in off-year elections in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
Approximately 23 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the primary this year and the 2015 mayoral general election had a turnout of 27 percent.
In the 2018 congressional and gubernatorial elections, Philadelphia turnout reached a historic 53%, a figure not seen in decades.
Al Spivey, who served as chief of staff for Democratic City Councilman Curtis Jones for a decade, said he expected the series of firsts for African-American candidates combined with the interest in national politics to motivate voters to head to the polls.
“The national narrative around the Trump administration has created an interest by people to participate in the electoral process,” said Spivey, who now serves as the senior vice president at the public strategy firm Mercury.
Yet the Democratic City Committee’s election effort was lackluster in recent days both in terms of manpower and money spent, Dix said, raising questions about whether its leadership can still reliably turnout its voters.
“Through this weekend,” he said, “we have not seen the kind of get-out-the-vote effort that is normally placed into a weekend before a general election.”
Polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and close at 8 p.m.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.