Voters specifically changed guard in two row offices facing leadership turmoil: the Sheriff and the Register of Wills. Row offices, which are unfamiliar to many voters, perform government duties from independently managed offices run by elected officials with four-year terms. The Sheriff’s Office transports incarcerated people to court, serves writs and warrants, and conducts sheriff’s sales of real estate and other property because of tax delinquencies or foreclosures. The current sheriff, Jewell Williams, has been the target of three sexual-harassment allegations, one which was settled while he was a state representative. Last year, an internal investigation corroborated claims made by a former staffer which have also been settled by the city.
Now we have a new sheriff in town. Rochelle Bilal won decisively in a four-way race, garnering 1.5 times the votes cast for incumbent Williams, who was supported by a host of unions and wards and the favorite per conventional wisdom. Voters were clearly paying attention and spoke loud and clear against business as usual. Bilal’s campaign video on social media begins with her commitment to ending sexual harassment and building back the trust of all Philadelphians. Her platform includes reducing the number of properties that go to sheriff’s sale and instead helping homeowners keep their properties, educating the public about how the Sheriff’s Office can work for them instead of against them, and policing with compassion. Bilal pledges to clean up the Sheriff’s Office and remove corruption. Voters liked this message.
The other row office with a surprise election, the Register of Wills, receives wills for probate, collects inheritance taxes, maintains records of wills, estate inventories, and other documents, and issues marriage licenses. This office has drawn attention for lax oversight, including misappropriated money from the marriage license bureau and accepting a counterfeit will to establish inheritance.
In this race, Tracey Gordon ousted a 40-year incumbent. Gordon, who started her long history of activism as a block captain so her children would have a safe and healthy place to play, won 44.12% of the vote in a three-way race. She proved pundits wrong: You don’t need huge fund-raising totals to get the job done. Shoe leather and excellent social media skills helped her reach voters. She educated many voters along the way about what the office does, and gave a taste of the public servant she would be. As she carries out the duties of the Register of Wills, Gordon will engage with communities about the importance of wills and avoiding “tangled” titles — that is, where the person living in the property and claiming an ownership interest is not actually listed on the deed, which impedes future generations from inheriting the asset.
The Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Millennials In Action, and other local organizations looking for change endorsed both candidates. Their victories hopefully lay to rest “low-information voter” stereotypes that promote racist and classist misperceptions about who does and doesn’t vote. These two candidates crisscrossed Philadelphia to reach voters where they lived, listen to their issues, and share their own vision of change, galvanizing voters even though neither candidate widely advertised on TV or had support from party bosses.
I am a very hopeful Philadelphian who sees a silver lining in these election results, and I thank all Philadelphians who came to the polls to exercise their most precious franchise. This emerging trend of energized voters responding to authentic candidates indicates that politics as usual (party bosses, TV ads, and money) is losing ground. That the foot soldiers driving this trend are women candidates with a proven record of community engagement is a continuation of what we saw in 2018. Our own Bilal and Gordon locally, alongside politicians like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar nationally, are candidates who did not kiss the ring. Is this the new normal?