On Tuesday, Philadelphians have a lot of decisions to make in the Pennsylvania primary. Here’s what they’re going to be looking at.
By Denise Clay-Murray
If we’re honest with ourselves, the 2023 Pennsylvania primary, at least in Philadelphia, started sometime in November 2022.
That’s when the first group of City Council members started to resign to run for the Democratic nomination to become the City of Philadelphia’s 100th mayor. At one time, the number of people running for just this office was in the double digits.
While it didn’t end up being as large a group as the number of people running for City Council at Large — the number of people vying for the five Democratic openings and three Republican candidate openings in this race is a lofty 29 — it was a large enough group to make it so 20% of city residents still don’t know who they think the next mayor should be.
On top of the mayor and city council races, there are several competitive contests for the Supreme, Superior, Municipal courts, Court of Common Pleas and Superior Court judges, the Sheriff’s office, the Register of Wills office, several district council races, and even the City Commissioners are up for election.
That’s a lot to sift through. So, we here at the SUN want to help you get through it by giving you a bit of the lay of the land. While it’s not our job to tell you who to vote for — everyone from the Building Trades to Sen. Bernie Sanders is trying to do that without us joining in — giving you a road map is what our responsibility is as a news organization.
So, here we go.
Here come the judges
On the one hand, it would make more sense for me to start with the mayoral race, seeing as it’s the top of the ticket.
But at a time when criminal justice and ending the city’s cycle of gun violence is top of mind for many voters, it seemed to make more sense to talk about the people who will be responsible for sentencing those who commit crimes when they’re tried and convicted.
Because of how judges have to campaign for office, there’s no real record of how they’ll rule on a particular issue should they win. There has to be at least a perception of impartiality for those on the bench, so their campaign materials just tell you things like where they went to school, how long they’ve been a justice, their button number, and whether or not they’ve been recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association.
The Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth Courts are statewide courts that are tasked with deciding if verdicts from lower courts have been handed justly. Currently, two people of color — Superior Court Justice Carolyn Nichols and Commonwealth Court Judge Lori Dumas — occupy seats on these important courts.
Judge Timika Lane hopes to join Nichols and Dumas in the ranks of women of color in the appellate judiciary. Lane is currently a Common Pleas Court judge and is also running for retention to that bench. Since one is a statewide race, and the other local, that is allowed. She has been rated “Highly Recommended” by the Bar Association.
Also running for the Superior Court is Patrick Dugan, President Judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court. He was elected President Judge in 2019 and oversees proceedings in one of the nation’s busiest courts. He was recommended by the Bar Association.
Superior Court Judge Daniel McCaffrey is hoping to move up to the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court. He was appointed to the Court of Judicial Discipline by the Supreme Court in 2020 and comes “Highly Recommended” by the Bar Association.
There are also several people running for the Municipal Court and Court of Common Pleas, and those candidates and recommendations by the Philadelphia Bar Association can be found at: https://philadelphiabar.org/?pg=News&blAction=showEntry&blogEntry=89441.
Row, row, row offices
For much of the last 20 years, there has been a movement to get rid of some of the City’s row offices, most notably the Sheriff’s Office.
But until that movement gains steam, or until there are several statewide constitutional changes or amendments to the City Charter, offices such as Sheriff, Register of Wills and Controller are still with us.
Incumbent Rochelle Bilal is running for re-election to the Sheriff’s Office. While she is endorsed by the Democratic City Committee and a variety of high-powered unions, that hasn’t kept her from being challenged due to scandals involving how money in the office has been managed during her tenure and the discovery that one of her former deputies was selling guns from the office, including a gun used in the killing of a Roxborough High School football player.
Among those challengers is Jackie Miles, who currently serves as director of security for the NBA’s Washington Wizards and attorney Michael Untemeyer, who has run for district attorney in the past.
Tracey Gordon, who was not endorsed by the Democratic City Committee, is the current Register of Wills. She took over the office from Ronald Donatucci, who had held the office for more than 30 years. While her focus on helping people keep their homes due to her focus on untangling so-called “tangled titles” which is when the people living in a house don’t have access to the title when someone dies due to the lack of a will has been admirable to many, she’s also ruffled feathers by allegedly firing politically connected people in the office and using her office as a storefront for her children’s entrepreneurial ventures.
She’s being opposed by John Sabatina, who has deep connections to the Democratic City Committee and has been endorsed by the body, Rae K. Hall, who is currently Mayor Jim Kenney’s Chief of Staff and Elizabeth Hall Lowe, compliance support lead at Glaxo Smith Kline.
Currently, Philadelphia technically doesn’t have a Controller. Under the City Charter, Christy Brady, the woman appointed to the seat after Rebecca Rhynhart resigned to run for mayor, had to resign to run for the seat. So, while she could technically be considered the incumbent, she actually isn’t.
Her opponents include John Thomas, who was a deputy controller for 10 years, and Alexandra Hunt, a public health researcher and former exotic dancer who last opposed U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans for his seat wearing t-shirts that alluded to her diverse experiences.
The big offices
Many of the members of City Council that decided to drop out to run for mayor came from the At-Large ranks of the body. Councilmembers Sharon Vaughn and Jimmy Harrity replaced former Councilmembers Derek Green and Allan Domb, but replacements for Helen Gym and David Oh haven’t been seated as of yet.
That’s what’s at stake with the City Council At-Large races this year. While current At-Large members Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Isaiah Thomas, and Harrity have the benefit of Democratic party connections and incumbency to help them, there are several people running — former Human Relations Commission head Rue Landau, NOW Philadelphia President Nina Ahmad, activists Erika Almiron and Melissa Robbins and former Philadelphia Black Chamber of Commerce President Donavan West — that are getting some notice.
When it comes to District Council seats, many are unopposed. But newly minted 7th District Councilmember Quetcy Lozada is facing a challenge from Andres Celin, a community organizer. 8th District Councilmember Cindy Bass faces a challenge from union organizer Seth Anderson-Oberman and 9th District Councilmember Anthony Phillips, who won the office in a special election after Councilmember Cherelle Parker resigned to run for mayor, faces challenges from James Williams, a newspaper publisher, and Yvette Young, director of facilities for the Pottsgrove School District.
The biggest office
Although 20% of the Philadelphia electorate is described as undecided, there is a top-five when it comes to the mayor’s race.
As of press time, grocer Jeff Brown, former Councilmembers Allan Domb, Helen Gym and Cherelle Parker, and former Controller Rebecca Rhynhart are within the polling margin of error of each other, making the race a statistical tie.
So, if you’ve been watching any television at all, you see that all of the stops have been pulled out in terms of trying to get their candidates to stand out. Currently, $33 million has been poured into the race in the form of campaign contributions and “get out the vote” efforts are being ramped up as the last weekend of the campaign approaches.
If you need to find out where to vote in this year’s election, visit the Philadelphia City Commissioner’s website at: https://vote.phila.gov/.
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