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Movita Johnson-Harrell wins state House special election in West Philly

A solidly Democratic seat in West Philadelphia stays in the party's fold after a special election Tuesday.

Movita Johnson-Harrell, supervisor of victim services, looks on during a press conference at the District Attorney's Office in January.
Movita Johnson-Harrell, supervisor of victim services, looks on during a press conference at the District Attorney's Office in January.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff photographer

Democrat Movita Johnson-Harrell handily won a special election Tuesday to represent West Philadelphia’s 190th District in the state House, replacing longtime State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, who was driven from office by a bribery scandal.

The 190th District has long been a reliable win for Democrats, since 87 percent of the district’s registered voters belong to that party. Brown won reelection in November, after a jury in Dauphin County convicted her on bribery charges in October. She resigned from the state House in December after being sentenced to 23 months of probation.

Johnson-Harrell, 52, was supervisor of victim services for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and formerly owned a personal-care home. With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Johnson-Harrell had an insurmountable lead with more than 2,900 votes, or 66 percent of those cast.

She did not immediately return a request for comment.

Reducing gun violence was the dominant campaign for Johnson-Harrell, whose father, brother and 18-year-old son were shot to death at different times in her life. She established the Charles Foundation, named for her son, to advocate legislation aimed at reducing access to guns.

“Last year, we saw unprecedented numbers of Moms Demand Action volunteers run for office and win,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said in a statement. “I am delighted that Movita Johnson-Harrell has joined their ranks and is adding ‘lawmaker’ to her portfolio of gun safety activism.”

Members of the state chapter of the Moms group did door-to-door canvassing for Johnson-Harrell.

Rep. Leanne Kruger of Delaware County, head of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, congratulated Johnson-Harrell on her victory in a statement, calling it “our first step to get ready to fight for the majority in 2020.”

Two Democrats who did not win their party’s nod, Amen Brown and Pastor Pat Williams, were on the ballot as independents. Brown was running second with about 20 percent of the vote. Michael Harvey, the Republican nominee, finished in last place with less than 3 percent of the vote.

Replacing Vanessa Lowery Brown had developed into a new kind of headache for Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee. Lawyer Sonte Reavis was the front-runner for the nomination among the Democratic leaders of the seven wards in the district. But a “Clout” column in The Inquirer in January noted Water Revenue Bureau bills showed zero water usage for two years at the home where Reavis was registered to vote.

The ward leaders regrouped behind Daryl Thomas, a barbershop owner. But another Clout column reported that Thomas had been registered to vote in Delaware from 2001 to 2017. Thomas withdrew from the race.

The Democratic nomination fell to Johnson-Harrell. But that required a 90-minute meeting at the Democratic City Committee headquarters, where her recent financial woes were discussed. Johnson-Harrell last year closed the personal-care home she operated, and she filed for bankruptcy in November, citing $607,429 in liabilities.

That includes a $465,000 default judgment from a loan secured by the properties where she ran her business. She also has been the subject of several liens for unpaid Philadelphia property taxes, including three more filed by the city last week.