Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell blamed her loss in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election on the pro-development political action committee that backed her opponent, Jamie Gauthier, and the group’s funders, who, she said, bought control of the district.
“Several people have come to me and said it wasn’t about me," she said after the City Council session, in her first public remarks about losing reelection. "It was over my head. It was about my area that all those who have the money, the 3.0 and others, came after my district big time, that was the issue.”
Blackwell, 74, who has represented West Philadelphia’s 3rd District since 1992, and worked for her husband, Lucien, who held the seat before her, called the loss “kind of unbelievable."
She described the PAC Philadelphia 3.0 as “coming after me,” backed by developers eager to make money in the district, which includes the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the University of the Sciences, and the Philadelphia Zoo.
“I’ve got quite an area. I represent a great deal of institutions, universities, and many monied interests and companies,” she said. “They decided it was time that they took over, and so they decided. It wasn’t about me; it was about them taking control of my district, and that’s what happened.”
Gauthier, who beat Blackwell by about 3,000 votes challenged that narrative. “Tuesday’s election wasn’t about me, Councilwoman Blackwell, or any third-party groups that supported me or her. The election was about the voters and their desire for new ideas and new leadership to help make housing more affordable, tackle poverty, and improve public education,” said Jamie Gauthier.
Philadelphia 3.0 spent at least $300,000 advocating for Gauthier in the final two weeks, sending out mailers attacking Blackwell as too cozy with developers, as well as funding digital advertising and field teams to get supporters to the polls. The group has supported challengers since its founding, noting that it’s incredibly difficult to beat incumbents in Philadelphia. Blackwell is the first district Council member to lose reelection since 1995.
Philadelphia 3.0’s primary funders this cycle were venture capitalists Richard Vague and Josh Kopelman (who is chairman of the board of Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of The Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com). Philadelphia 3.0 has not had to report all donations because it has an affiliated nonprofit that does not have to disclose its backers. The group was started by parking magnates and is considered pro-development.
But a look at campaign finance reports shows Blackwell also had support from various real estate developers during her campaign, though her biggest donations came from unions.
And while Philadelphia 3.0 played a key role, Gauthier also raised more money than Blackwell early. She benefited from higher turnout in neighborhoods that have become wealthier and whiter in recent years. She also secured votes in older black neighborhoods that were considered Blackwell’s base.
Gauthier had said throughout the race that while she is grateful for the support of the 3.0 organization, she isn’t beholden to it or its donors.
Blackwell was asked Thursday if she’d failed to connect with newer residents in the district and whether she thought she campaigned hard enough. She referenced her record.
“I work seven days a week, all my legislation comes from the people. … I go to meetings all the time,” she said. "No, I don’t think I lost touch. I don’t think it was about me.”
The mood surrounding her Thursday was somber. Before the meeting started, colleagues approached Blackwell, bending to kiss her on the cheek or give her a hug and condolences. Blackwell dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and signed resolutions for the upcoming meeting. One Council staffer, watching the parade of people going to greet her, commented that it felt like a funeral, “only she’s sitting right here.”
Her colleagues on Thursday described her as a tireless advocate for the homeless and a dedicated public servant.
“She is one of the great ones," Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said. “What I’ve learned is, your public policy passion has nothing to do with your political reelection. So whatever you do for the public, you should do from your heart, and then you also have to have your political stuff, because people don’t care what you did for them yesterday.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown said Blackwell "opened up her heart, sometimes to her own detriment.”
“She was one of the examples of what a public official is all about," said Councilman William K. Greenlee. “All you had to do is walk by her office and see people waiting every day in those chairs. I think it’s a loss. And no disrespect to Jamie Gauthier — the people chose — but I think there’s a loss when you lose someone like Jannie Blackwell. This was her life.”
Blackwell said she wished Gauthier all the best, though she has yet to talk to her and shrugged when asked if she’d act as an adviser to her. She said she doesn’t know what’s next but has seven months remaining as a Council member. She’ll spend that time sitting in the same seat her husband used from 1974 to 1992.