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Rochelle Bilal, who won Democratic nomination for Philly sheriff, finds the city’s politics ‘disturbing’

Rochelle Bilal, a former police officer who ran for Philadelphia sheriff on a reform platform, ousted the two-term incumbent Tuesday with little money and support. Here is her story.

Rochelle Bilal is surrounded by supporters as she wins the Democratic primary for Philadelphia Sheriff on May 21, 2019.
Rochelle Bilal is surrounded by supporters as she wins the Democratic primary for Philadelphia Sheriff on May 21, 2019.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Rochelle Bilal won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia sheriff Tuesday over two-term incumbent Jewell Williams and has no Republican opponent for the general election.

But she isn’t yet making plans to move into the South Broad Street offices.

“I’m still running a campaign up to November,” Bilal, 62, said Thursday. “I am still going to talk to people, I’m still going to be out in the community, I’ll go to the events, raise funds for November, outreach, raise funds … up until the November election is over.”

The odds are long she won’t be the new sheriff in town come January, the first female elected to the $130,000-a-year job.

Bilal’s victory — she tallied 41 percent of the vote, compared with Williams’ 27 percent — was impressive in several ways. The former veteran Philadelphia police officer was a first-time candidate in a four-way race that featured the 61-year-old incumbent as well as two former sheriff deputies. One was a woman, whose presence on the ballot threatened to split the vote among those who wanted to elect a woman. And while Williams was ensnared in three sexual-harassment lawsuits, he is a ward leader and still has clout within the Democratic Party.

Despite her victory, Bilal walked away with a sour taste for the local political process. Even though the Democratic City Committee rescinded its endorsement of Williams after backlash, factions in the party found ways to make it appear as if the incumbent was the party’s preferred choice.

“The politics of this city is disturbing,” Bilal said in an interview.

According to city committee boss Bob Brady, 55 percent of the wards requested that sample ballots for their voting precincts be printed with Williams’ name as the choice for sheriff. The Fraternal Order of Police also endorsed Williams, citing police officers’ distaste for Bilal because of her support for defense lawyer-turned-District Attorney Larry Krasner. (She also left the Police Department in 2013 amid an investigation into a second job she held with Colwyn Borough.)

So Bilal and her small campaign team, led by 29-year-old Teresa Lundy, targeted Democratic committee members, the lowest elected position within the party structure.

“The committee people are the ones at the polls and they were the ones who personally requested that they wanted Rochelle’s ballots,” Lundy said. “So every time we got one of those calls, we pushed out our ballots.”

Mustafa Rashed, a political consultant, said Bilal’s strategy throughout the campaign in talking about what the office does — and could do — likely helped voters connect her name to the office.

“They didn’t have considerable amount of resources and they didn’t have any citywide support,” Rashed said. “But I thought they were able to have a real conversation on what the office does … and she was able to connect herself as the best person to share the functions of that role.”

The Sheriff’s Office has a $26 million budget and 400 employees. It is charged with handling court security, transporting prisoners to court, and managing court-ordered sales of foreclosed and tax-delinquent properties.

Bilal, who now runs the Guardian Civic League, a nonprofit that represents about 2,000 black police officers, made a point to focus her campaign on the ability of the Sheriff’s Office to help people save their homes from foreclosure. She talked about creating programs to help distressed families keep their homes, a message that resonated with many communities facing increasing real estate taxes and gentrification.

“They are worried about their future,” Bilal said in Thursday’s interview. “They are worried about their homes. They are worried about taxes going sky-high on them. They are worried about education. They are worried about crime. They are just worried about what’s happening in the city.”

Williams has not conceded or called Bilal to congratulate her. Williams’ spokesperson, Thera Martin, said Friday the sheriff was “not ready to talk.”

In addition to the sexual-harassment lawsuits — two of which have settled, with one pending — Williams has drawn scrutiny for doubling the size of the office’s budget and overspending its overtime allocation by millions.

The Nutter andKenney administrations have been unable to get the Sheriff’s Office to comply with the city’s procurement process. Some of the sheriff’s contracts have gone to campaign contributors, a practice that has continued since John Green was sheriff. (Green recently pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy charges that he steered $35 million in contracts to a campaign contributor who also showered him with gifts, including home renovations and a no-interest loan.)

For her part, Bilal said she didn’t want to comment on whether she would use the city’s procurement process until she got into office. She did say, though, that the city’s procurement system has “a whole lot of red tape.”

The Committee of Seventy and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority have called for eliminating the Sheriff’s Office, arguing that its duties could be handled by the courts and police.

In an interview during the campaign, Bilal said she would consider relinquishing the office’s role transporting prisoners, which is said to contribute to the surge in overtime costs.

“We need to look at why we have prisoner transport. Because you have prisons that transport their own prisoners to and from court,” she said. “And [maybe] we can streamline it better or we can look into whether other entities that transport prisoners can do that.”

As for shuttering the entire office, Bilal said she was open to that conversation. But campaign manager Lundy, who sat in on the interview, jumped in, saying: “No, no. The office should not be eliminated. Just no.”

Bilal laughed. When asked again, she said: "No, right now — but if there’s a situation where we need to evaluate that in order to save the city money … then we will have that conversation.”

Lundy added: “Probably after the first two terms."

But first, Bilal needs to secure the November election.