Johnson-Harrell case trips up Dems in the 190th District — again

Movita Johnson-Harrell (Courtesy campaign Facebook page)

By John N. Mitchell 

Back in January, Pete Wilson and other Democratic ward leaders thought they had done as thorough a job as possible of vetting Movita Johnson-Harrell in their search to replace Vanessa Lowery Brown as the next state representative in the 190th District in the state House of Representatives.

“She had worked with us on some anti-gun, anti-violence initiatives,” said Wilson, one of seven ward leaders in the district. “But it’s hard to tell what people have in their history as far as their background and other things.”

Those “things” came to light on Wednesday during a press conference where Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced that Johnson-Harrell, winner of a March special election, would give up her seat in the state House and plead guilty to stealing more than $500,000 from her nonprofit.

As the news spread, local Democrats who will once again be required to find Johnson-Harrell’s replacement to run in yet another special election to fill the seat expressed disappointment and shock at the latest development.

“In the first case, you can’t have someone follow them around and make sure that they aren’t taking money from people, walking around Harrisburg handing out money,” Philadelphia Democratic Committee Chairman Bob Brady said of Lowery Brown.

“In the case of Johnson-Harrell, we vetted her thoroughly. She’s a good person and she was doing a good job. But you can’t keep track of everything that people are doing. You just have to hope that they are being honest about everything. The bottom line is that we’re going to have to vet the next person more because this just can’t be a regular thing.”

Willie Jordan, leader of the 44th Ward, agreed.

“It’s not like we were looking to find a candidate that had something in their past, place that person and then have something like this happen,” Jordan said. “We did the best we could. And we’re going to continue to do everything and use everything at our disposal to find good candidates. This is something that, unfortunately, we missed.”

Finding someone to represent the 190th District in the state House has, in fact, proven to be a headache for the city’s Democratic Committee, as there were other hiccups along the way.

After Lowery Brown’s resignation, lawyer Sonte Revis emerged as the front-runner among the Democratic leaders of the seven wards in the House District until it was discovered that Revis did not live in the district, Brady said.

The party immediately threw its support behind local barber Daryl Thomas. Then party leaders learned Thomas had been voting in both Pennsylvania and Delaware over the last two months, Brady said.

They shifted their support to Johnson-Harrell, who they thought was a solid candidate.

Back in January, Johnson-Harrell was dealing with financial issues — a bankruptcy and the shuttering of a personal-care home she operated, and some tax issues — that she disclosed. She was also working as a supervisor for victim services in the District Attorney’s office where she was highly respected. She resigned her post in the DA’s office to run for election to the state House.

“We knew about the bankruptcy — it’s not a crime,” Brady said. “She squared that away and was working on other things that we knew about. Also, she came highly recommended from Larry Krasner’s office.

“But, you know, we don’t have a crystal ball,” Brady continued. “The one thing I do know is that if you get elected to office, you can expect someone like the attorney general to look all the way down your throat. If there is something there that we missed — that we couldn’t find — they have the resources and the money to go looking for it. That’s what happened here.”

John N. Mitchell is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.