Sometimes — OK, often — politics in Philadelphia feels more like farce than reality. Take these recent Democratic Party shenanigans: First, Sheriff Jewell Williams, accused by three women of sexual harassment — two of whom have received a total of $157,000 in taxpayer money — was endorsed by the Democratic City Committee, led by former Congressman Bob Brady. Then, after swift and appropriate outrage, he was un-endorsed.
End of story — at least as far as the committee is concerned.
But is it? The whole thing was a relic of machine politics, where loyalty to each other matters more than loyalty to voters. Worse, it speaks to a sense of inevitability: It’s as if our local Democratic Party leaders assumed no one would care if they recommended a thrice-accused sexual harasser.
Meanwhile, two women, both African American, are also vying for the sheriff’s post: Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, the black police officers’ association; and former Sheriff’s Deputy Malika Rahman. (A pastor, the Rev. Larry King Sr., has also thrown his hat in the ring.) Either would be the first woman elected to the office. But how would you even know that? Not from the leaders of their own party, who declined to endorse either of them. Not from members of the media, who were up in arms over Williams’ endorsement but who haven’t spent a lot of time telling voters about the alternatives.
Could it be that Brady and his colleagues are right? Does no one really care? Are we tied to the same-old, for the same old tired reasons?
Both Rahman and Bilal said they were surprised by the initial endorsement of the Democratic City Committee because it showed so little respect for, and belief in, women of color. It’s hard to know which, if either, of these women could make the Sheriff’s Office relevant and accountable to Philadelphians.
In fact, it’s hard to know what the office needs — or, even, why it exists as a separate office run by an elected official, except as a way for Democrats to give jobs to loyalists.(The office has doubled in size in the last decade.) The job oversees two divisions: one that guards courthouses and transports prisoners and one that runs sheriff’s sales for foreclosed houses. The sheriff has no term limits, little oversight, and reports to no one but the voters — that’s why, despite even Mayor Jim Kenney’s calls for Williams to step down in the wake of harassment allegations, he has not had to. There seems no reason why the duties of the office couldn’t fall under the mayor, as it does in other places.
Making that change would require a vote of 12 City Council people to put eliminating an elected sheriff on the ballot as a charter change — something few have said they’re willing to consider, despite a decade-long effort by the Committee of Seventy and other good-government groups. There’s that inevitability again: Every four years we wonder why we need this office — and then we just move on.
Even Bilal and Rahman acknowledge that constituents don’t know what the office does. “That’s a failure,” Bilal says. But they both also note something that is true: As long as the office exists, the sheriff should be someone the city can count on to be honest, to work for residents, to be independent-minded — and to be a person of integrity.
“The office is not the problem,” Rahman says. “The problem is with the people who have gone into the office and not done it right.”
“Should we get rid of the office? That is a conversation we may need to have,” Bilal says. “But until then, it needs to be cleaned up.”
Rochelle Bilal, 61, is a 27-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, where she worked in the sex-crimes and drug-trafficking units, before becoming public safety officer for Colwyn Township, overseeing both police and fire, in Delaware County. As head of the Guardian Civic League, she is the counter to the Fraternal Order of Police’s John McNesby, who oversaw his union’s endorsement of Donald Trump and who has clashed with District Attorney Larry Krasner. Bilal, representing the Guardian Civic League, called Trump an “outrageous bigot” and endorsed Krasner in his successful race; Krasner, in turn, has shown support for Bilal.
In her years as an advocate for African American police officers, Bilal has earned a reputation for taking no guff. In 2009, she helped shut down Domelights.com, a website run by a Philadelphia police sergeant that turned into a forum for racist cops — many of whom posted from their desks. She has also defended black officers accused of antiwhite bias for calling out unethical behavior and has launched a Police Academy program, Steer Straight, that emphasizes ethics.
Bilal has no experience in real estate, the most prominent part of the job.. She says, instead, that she will consult with experts to assess how well the office functions and to work on ways to prevent foreclosures before they happen.
Bilal makes the case that as an outsider, she is the one most poised to bring needed change to the Sheriff’s Office.
Meanwhile, her seven years’ experience in the office is what Malika Rahman, 32, says makes her the more qualified woman in the race. Like Bilal, Rahman offers law enforcement experience: After graduating from Chestnut Hill College, she spent three years as a corrections officer and then seven as a deputy, mostly in the courts. She also founded the nonprofit Be A Great You, a mentorship program that has worked with about 1,000 youth.
Rahman is not worried about her lack of real estate experience. After years of working with mostly men decades older than she is — often appointees she says are there because of politics, not experience or ability — she says it’s leadership the office most needs.