The last time there was a primary election for City Council in Philadelphia, only three of the 10 district representatives faced challengers.
But this year is shaping up as a different kind of election season. More than 30 people are slated to run for one of the seven at-large seats. And all 10 of the district seat-holders have at least one opponent, with three months to go.
Dual protests this week forecast what could be a stormy race — at least for one incumbent.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is running for her eighth consecutive term in West Philadelphia’s 3rd District, and has drawn a challenger viewed as credible. Over the last three days, demonstrators crashed her reelection gala and the weekly City Council meeting to protest the entrenched power of Council members like her.
The latest confrontation unfolded Thursday when several people from the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative walked into Council’s weekly meeting and demanded an end to councilmanic prerogative, the long-held but unwritten rule that gives district Council members final say over land use in their districts. One protester, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, cofounder of the collective, was led off in handcuffs.
In a video of Muhammad’s arrest, Shani Akilah, another cofounder of the cooperative, can be heard shouting “Who are you building for? Not us!” as Muhammad is pinned to the ground and handcuffed.
The incident was a reprise from Tuesday evening, when Akilah and about a dozen others protested Blackwell’s campaign announcement at the Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia. (Muhammad, who is managing Sherrie Cohen’s campaign for Council at-large was not at the event Tuesday night). Video from that evening shows protesters being thrown out — violently, some said — and threatened by Blackwell supporters.
Aurica Hurst, 28, said Thursday that she was assaulted while being kicked out of the event. “They came up behind me, pulled my hair, and hit me,” Hurst said.
She said her alleged assailants were wearing buttons in support of Blackwell. “One of them said to me, ‘That’s what you get when you come on our territory.’”
(A supporter of Blackwell’s, Taleah Taylor, said she saw protesters getting physical with Blackwell supporters.)
A video of Tuesday night’s event shows Michael Youngblood, a former aide of Blackwell’s, shouting, “You wanna be raped?” and then directing an even more vulgar question at a offscreen protester.
Youngblood, who was in Council chambers Thursday, said he’d directed it at a protester whom he had caught in the bathroom of the Enterprise Center having oral sex earlier in the night.
“I said, ‘What you need to do is, you need to go to jail, and then maybe they can rape you, and then you can legitimize what you’re saying,’” Youngblood said when asked about the video.
Youngblood, who was convicted of extortion, bank fraud, and tax evasion in 1999, said he is no longer on the councilwoman’s payroll. “She’s a friend. Listen, if you can’t protect a friend, who can you protect?” he said.
Another member of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, Dominique London, said she witnessed Youngblood’s outburst and called his account a lie. She said he had been directing homophobic comments at members of the group.
London, 34, said her organization is trying to protest councilmanic prerogative across all districts, not just Blackwell’s. She cited recent news reports about Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s approving several city land sales to a friend who flipped the properties for a high profit, and of a judge who bought and sold publicly owned lots making 16 times what he’d paid for them.
Blackwell recently was criticized for apparently stalling the sale of the former Provident Mutual Life building at 4601 Market St. to benefit a developer.
“It’s not about her specifically," London said. “It’s just that the people who are speaking now just happen to be her constituents. Councilmanic prerogative should be dismantled entirely. The city can’t seem to keep track of its land. They’re not fit to keep track of it, and it should be turned back over the community.”
Blackwell brushed Tuesday night’s incident off as politics as usual, while acknowledging this reelection bid could be one of the most heated. She was first elected to Council in 1992 after working for years for her husband, Lucien Blackwell, a 16-year councilman who was elected to the U.S. House and is now deceased.
“People come up, and they want to create a mess, and I guess that’s life in the big city,” Blackwell said. “It’s been a long time since I been in a big one … but in a public place, you have a minority of people who want to create fights.”
Blackwell, who is being challenged by Jamie Gauthier, former head of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, said she would not accept an invitation to debate her challenger.
“I don’t owe my opponent anything," she said. "My opponent hasn’t run before. … I’ve been here since the Rizzo years. I’ve been here a long time, and my record speaks for itself.”
Gauthier’s campaign released a statement after news of Tuesday night’s incident broke condemning the way protesters were treated.
“The actions reported last night, including threats of sexual violence against women, are deeply disturbing," Gauthier said. “All Philadelphians should be able to dissent and exercise their right to free speech without being met or threatened with violence.”