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How Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and two other entrenched Philly incumbents fell on primary night

Three longtime incumbents were ousted in Tuesday's Democratic primary, with varying causes but some commonalities in each race. For one thing, the winners all were younger women.

Jamie Gauthier with family member at her watch party at Booker’s Restaurantin West Philadelphia. Gauthier estimates she knocked on 1,000 doors, distributing fliers and personally introducing herself.
Jamie Gauthier with family member at her watch party at Booker’s Restaurantin West Philadelphia. Gauthier estimates she knocked on 1,000 doors, distributing fliers and personally introducing herself.Read moreRAYMOND W. HOLMAN JR.

Jamie Gauthier sensed an under-the-radar swell of support early in her campaign. She wasn’t seeing it in big donations or hearing people take up megaphones for her, but in individual meetings and smaller events in the living rooms and kitchens of West Philadelphia, something was building.

“It did feel like I had a lot of silent support," said Gauthier, who defeated longtime Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election. "People were kind of afraid to be public about their support of me, afraid of retaliation. But they were ready for a change.”

The upset was one of three Tuesday that defied the long-held belief that in low turnout elections, party-backed incumbents tend to win.

Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci, with 40 years on the job, lost the Democratic nomination to Tracey Gordon, a former deputy city commissioner with little apparent support. And Sheriff Jewell Williams, under a cloud of sexual harassment lawsuits, was ousted by a former police officer, Rochelle Bilal, in a four-way primary race.

The reasons vary, but the races share key characteristics. In each, voters chose a fresh name, and each victor — expected to coast to election in November — was a woman who knocked out an older member of the party establishment.

Blackwell’s loss marks the closing chapter of a dynasty in Philadelphia politics. Blackwell worked with her husband Lucien Blackwell on his Council staff, beginning in the late 1970s, before taking over his seat in 1992.

Mustafa Rashed, a political consultant, said Gauthier proved to be an ideal candidate.

“If there was going to be a candidate to dethrone a longtime incumbent, it would have to be someone with a compelling story,” Rashed said. “She’s a mom from the neighborhood … I think she captured a sentiment that she had a vision for the district.”

Gauthier estimates she knocked on 1,000 doors, distributing fliers and introducing herself. She said she thought people needed to meet the challenger to the legendary Blackwell name.

Also important was the support of Philadelphia 3.0, an independent political action committee that poured $300,000 into the race, in the form of mailers accusing Blackwell of being beholden to developers. The group itself was founded by parking magnates and developers and has traditionally supported political newcomers.

“I think all of the help we got helped us,” Gauthier said. “But I don’t think there’s anything that can replace the real dialogue that we had with voters.”

Blackwell, who had never had a credible challenger, also failed to mount a robust campaign. Her party, too, didn’t mobilize behind her. Party leaders in at least one key ward — the 44th, which includes Parkside, West Powelton and Mill Creek — put Gauthier’s name instead of Blackwell’s on its sample ballots. The results from the 19 divisions there ended up almost split evenly between the seven-term incumbent and the newcomer. Blackwell carried 10 divisions, Gauthier nine.

Blackwell is the first district incumbent to lose reelection since 1995, when Dan McElhatton lost his reelection bid in the 7th District. McElhatton lost to machine-backed Rick Mariano, who was later convicted of bribery.

Gauthier benefited from a gentrifying district, with a growing population in the areas that produced big numbers for her, such as Spruce Hill and Cedar Park. She was able to win pockets of support in the older, more African American neighborhoods.

Blackwell left her campaign party Tuesday night without talking to reporters, and again declined to give interviews when she showed up for work Wednesday morning. A steady stream of advisers, friends and supporters filtered in and out of the office she’s worked in — either as councilwoman or a staffer to her husband — for 45 years.

“Life moves forward and the true and loving God still lives on,” her scheduler, Belinda Church, told a woman who came by Wednesday afternoon, upset by the outcome. “We are OK,” Church told the woman, who declined to give her name. “Life moves forward.”

City Hall staffers, present and past were shocked. "Everyone thought (Blackwell) was going to win. Everyone,” said one former staffer. “We all feel like our grandma just died and we wish she could have just gone out on retirement.”

Democratic Party boss Bob Brady said he was disappointed about Blackwell’s loss, but could see how that happened — Gauthier raised significant money and had direct mail ads.

In the sheriff’s race, Brady said, it was obvious that Williams’ #metoo scandals caught up with him.

“We just know what happened with that one. Everyone does,” Brady said.

What remains a mystery is the race for register of wills. How did Donatucci, a 71-year-old South Philadelphia ward leader who heads of an office known as a source of Democratic patronage, lose?

“I still can’t figure out what happened,” Brady said, noting that perhaps Gordon was helped by her top ballot spot and by being a woman.

In a three-way race, Donatucci had the third ballot position. But his name wasn’t hidden from voters, unlike more crowded races that had dozens of candidates. And other party-backed candidates with bad ballot positions still won in larger races.

“Maybe we took it for granted," Brady said. "We paid a lot of attention to (Council) at-large and judges. We probably should have paid more attention to this one.”

One party insider said that voters didn’t necessarily know what the Register of Wills does.

“Everyone scrolled down, saw Tracy, Jacque and Ron Don and said ‘What … is this office?’" the insider said. “She was a woman at top of ballot for a race no one knows what it is.”

Rashed agreed that there were barely any conversations during the campaign season about the office or the candidates. Gordon ended up getting more than 70,000 votes, one of the best showings.

“It was an aberration and people thought they were voting for something else,” Rashed said. “I’m hard pressed to believe 70,000 people showed up to vote for her.”

Gordon, who didn’t respond to calls or text messages requesting comment on her victory, beat Donatucci in Brady’s own ward, which is mostly African American. The party leader speculated many voters went with Gordon because she is black.

Other ward leaders also failed to deliver votes for Donatucci, including party treasurer Sonny Campbell and two ward leaders who work in the Register of Wills Office.

“When the party wants to win, it wins,” said another Democratic Party insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity to honestly assess the party’s performance. “There’s no reason he should’ve lost.”

For his part, Donatucci said Wednesday that he hasn’t looked at any formal analysis on his loss.

“The numbers don’t lie. I know there will be a million reasons from the ward leaders,” he said.

Donatucci, a devout Catholic, spent his morning at a mass for the Feast Day of Saint Rita of Cascia. By midday he still hadn’t been to City Hall and was running errands. His office, though, hummed to the sounds of keyboards clacking and printers running. It was like any other day; people needed wills, birth certificates and marriage licenses.

Donatucci said he wishes Gordon luck and will help her transition, should she win in November.

“Look, the voters spoke and I’m moving forward,” he said. "There’s a lot of other things in my life that can keep me busy — the Board of City Trusts and different boards I’m on — and I’m fortunate.”

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.