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Babette Josephs, fiery longtime progressive state representative from Center City, dies at 81

The longest-serving woman in the state House of Representatives, 28 years, Rep. Josephs was an outspoken advocate for people she considered oppressed, ignored, or in need.

Rep Babette Josephs sometimes worked in her stocking feet in her Center City office.
Rep Babette Josephs sometimes worked in her stocking feet in her Center City office.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / INQ SAUL

Babette Josephs, 81, a progressive, hard-driving, Pennsylvania state representative from Center City who championed LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, abortion rights, racial equality, and environmental responsibility, and won 14 consecutive terms representing Philadelphia’s 182nd district in the state House of Representatives, died Friday, Aug. 27, of cancer at home in Eugene, Ore.

Rep. Josephs was raised in Queens, N.Y., and had moved in 2019 to Eugene to be near her daughter. But her impact as state representative on her district in Center City, and Pennsylvania at large, highlights her professional career for thousands.

From 1985 to 2012, she connected people from Fairmount, Queen Village, Market East, and other neighborhoods to the power brokers at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

The longest-serving woman in the House, 28 years, she used that link mostly as an advocate for people she considered oppressed, ignored, or in need. Feisty and opinionated, she did not hesitate to criticize opponents and hold up legislation she did not like.

She worked hard to get reelected, was a board member of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and left a lasting impression on her son when she confronted then-Mayor Frank Rizzo on TV over school funding.

She was concerned about the minimum wage, crime and delinquency, health care, racism, and the arts. A Democrat, her name is attached to dozens of legal, social and political regulations, movements, causes, and organizations. She founded and directed abortion rights and education support groups, and hosted a public access TV show.

She is remembered by supporters as dogged, passionate, aggressive, unyielding, and fun. Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a fellow Democrat, called Rep. Josephs a “force of nature,” and Mayor Jim Kenney, another Democrat, said she was “the original liberal lioness.”

Critics called her abrasive, exclusive, out of touch, and said she endorsed identity politics. In 2008, Sen. John Eichelberger (R., Blair) said Rep. Josephs derailed legitimate legislation and that her “games are very harmful for the process.”

She had many notable clashes with Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican from Cranberry, Pa., and said in 2011 regarding a bill about citizenship, “I would flip an [police] officer off if they or anyone else asked me about my citizenship.”

Her son, Lee Newberg, said Rep. Josephs was “a person who cared deeply about all sorts of things.”

He said, “She wanted to fight for the people who didn’t have the power. Not the CEO. The little guy.”

Her daughter, Eliza Master, said Rep. Josephs was “a wonderful mother. She was my best friend.”

During her years in state government, Rep. Josephs also addressed taxes, transit, voting rights, children’s rights, separation of church and state, energy efficiency, support for seniors and low-income people, and other issues.

She was not thrilled at the lack of other women in the Capitol. In 2012, when asked to describe her experience in Harrisburg, Rep. Josephs told The Inquirer, “Well, there’s men, and there’s more men. Anything else you’d like to know?”

She chaired or sat on dozens of legislative and party committees, from the powerful State Government Committee to the Game and Fisheries Committee. Outside of government, she worked on the Jewish Labor Committee, the Center City Proprietors Association, and other civic groups.

In 2015, after her 2012 Democratic primary election loss to Brian Sims, she told the Daily News, “It’s a little dull being a private citizen.”

Her children said Rep. Josephs was pretty much the same around the family dinner table as she was in public. Engaged. Intense. Empathetic. “Looking out for our neighbors, for others,” her son said. “She wanted to make a difference in the world.”

Rendell said Rep. Josephs made a difference with bulldog-like energy. He interacted with her as both mayor and governor, and said her “untiring energy and undiminishable passion” sometimes rubbed other politicians the wrong way.

“When she was on a cause to get money for this, or to get a regulation changed, etc., she never relented,” Rendell said. “When she was determined to do something, she got it done.”

Kenney said she “never wavered from the things she believed in.”

In 2014, Rep. Josephs told The Inquirer, “I’m indefatigable.”

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee, said Rep. Josephs was an impassioned progressive in the city before it was popular.

“I enjoyed her,” Brady said. “She was fun.”

On her website, now seen only in archives, she wrote. “I believe strongly that a commitment to diversity and economic development are inextricably intertwined.”

Born in New York Aug. 4, 1940, to a dentist father and chemist mother, Rep. Josephs earned a bachelor’s degree from Queens College in 1962, and law degree from Rutgers–Camden School of Law in 1976. She worked as a Philadelphia schoolteacher in the 1960s, a lawyer in the ‘70s, and founder and director of energy, abortion, and education advocacy groups in the ‘80s.

She won her first House term in 1984, defeating incumbent Samuel Rappaport by 413 votes to win the Democratic primary. She had three close calls before losing by a few hundred votes to Sims in 2012. Chafing as a political outsider, she tried to return and unseat Sims in 2014 but did not get the required 300 signatures from registered voters on her primary nomination petitions.

Off the clock, Rep. Josephs liked to doodle little bits of art, and dabbled in painting and fiction writing. She liked to cook and was a vegetarian for much of her life. She held open houses on snow days, and hosted big parties at Passover at the family’s home in Center City.

She was married to lawyer Herbert Newberg for 30 years, and they moved to Philadelphia in the early 1960s when he got a job as an assistant Philadelphia solicitor. He died suddenly in 1992.

She never remarried. “I think my job scared off men,” she said in 2015. “And now there are not many men left.”

She adopted a rescue dog, Sweetpea, a pit-bull mix, after she retired.

Regarding her representation of the Gayborhood in her district and overall support for the LGBTQ community, Rendell said, “She pushed all of us to a greater understanding of the challenges.”

In addition to her children, Rep. Josephs is survived by six grandchildren, a brother, and other relatives.

Services are pending.

Donations in her name may be made to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, P.O. Box 60173, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102, and Planned Parenthood Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center, 1144 Locust St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19107.

Staff writers Sean Walsh and Chris Brennan contributed to this article.