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A bar fight, a heart attack, and 12 years of sobriety: Jimmy Harrity’s path to Philadelphia City Council

Harrity said he is grateful for the second chances he has had in life. But he's worried some Philly kids aren't even getting a first chance now.

Jimmy Harrity, a longtime aide for State Sen. Sharif Street, is a Democratic nominee in the upcoming City Council special election.
Jimmy Harrity, a longtime aide for State Sen. Sharif Street, is a Democratic nominee in the upcoming City Council special election.Read moreCourtesy of Jimmy Harrity

In 2003, during former Mayor John F. Street’s acrimonious reelection campaign, Jimmy Harrity was at a Delaware County bar, wearing a Street button. Another patron, who like Harrity was white, snarled a racist epithet about a white man who was supporting a Black politician.

A heavy drinker with a hot temper, Harrity wasn’t going to let the comment pass. He had briefly served in Street’s administration and was then campaign manager for a Black judicial candidate.

“Eventually words turned into fisticuffs, and that was that,” Harrity recounted. “It was a mistake that I made when I was younger.”

A bar fight ensued, and Harrity ended up pleading guilty to simple assault and getting probation.

At the time of the fight, Harrity, who is poised to become a Philadelphia City Council member after winning the Democratic nomination for a Nov. 8 special election, hadn’t yet hit rock bottom. That would come in 2010 after he survived a heart attack and quit drinking.

But the bar fight bears the hallmarks of Harrity’s unlikely journey to elected office: a rough-and-tumble past, a fervid approach to politics, and a decades-long connection to the Street family that, as Harrity tells it, ended up saving his life.

Raised in Southwest Philadelphia in a working-class Irish Catholic family, Harrity bounced around high schools before dropping out when he was 17.

After working in the restaurant industry and getting his GED at the Community College of Philadelphia, he tried to strike out on his own and bought the Famous 4th Street Cookie Co. stall in the food court of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, the famed South Broad Street hub for Philly politicos.

Harrity, 50, bought the franchise from a partnership that included Larry Ceisler, a longtime political insider, who now owns a public affairs consulting firm. Harrity wasn’t involved in politics at the time and never developed a significant relationship with Ceisler. But Ceisler indirectly jump-started Harrity’s political career.

City Controller Jonathan Saidel had been a regular customer at the Famous 4th Street stand, and he continued coming for his coffee and cinnamon raisin cookies after Harrity took over.

They became friends, and Saidel hired Harrity as an investigator in the controller’s office, bringing Harrity into the fold of local Democratic machine politics. That would eventually land him a job working on Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

All along, Harrity was becoming an alcoholic, driven in part by the loss, during his first marriage, of a son in childbirth. His addiction eventually made it impossible to work in government.

Harrity then worked construction jobs as a member of Laborers Local 157, including major highways in Bucks County and the Doylestown courthouse.

“I was on a spiral, so I was drinking a lot, getting in trouble,” he said. “With the union, as long as you show up for work, you’re good.”

After surviving a heart attack, Harrity quit drinking and started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He volunteered on political campaigns, and in 2016 worked on the successful state Senate campaign of Sharif Street, the former mayor’s son, and left construction to join Street’s office.

Two years later, he became the executive director of Street’s Senate office, a position he held until becoming political director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party after Street was elected party chairman earlier this year.

“Senator Street definitely gave me a second chance. There’s no doubt about it,” Harrity said. “Sharif is my best friend. He kind of saved my life. He never left me, even when I was hard to be with.”

Harrity moved to Kensington 15 years ago to be with his girlfriend, Marnie Aument Loughrey, who recently took over her mother’s role as Democratic leader of the 33rd Ward. Harrity, who serves on the board of the addiction nonprofit One Day at a Time, said Aument Loughrey also deserves credit for saving his life.

“A lot of women tried to change me,” he said. “Marnie didn’t do that. She waited until — God bless her — I had enough. You can’t do it for anybody but yourself.”

Harrity now identifies as a “workaholic” and has a reputation as a tireless loyalist of Street and the local Democratic establishment.

“Harrity just helps everybody, forever,” said Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee. “He’s been around working for Senator Street. Street gives him all the latitude to do what he has to do, not only in the senatorial district but citywide. Now he’s got a chance to get what he deserves.”

Harrity says he’s grateful for the second chances he has gotten in life. But seeing Kensington’s decline amid the opioid crisis has made him realize that he had it lucky even before his life went off the rails. He said he wants to work on Council to ensure that others have the same opportunities.

“I think about a first chance for the kids in my neighborhood,” Harrity said. “They’re not even getting a first chance. I had a good family behind me — no matter how much I messed up. [Life] is about second chances, but it’s also about somebody getting their first chance.”