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Family advocate now becomes lawmaker

West Phila.'s Vanessa Brown takes the next step in public service.

Vanessa Brown, a 41-year-old single mother and deli manager from Philadelphia, knocked out sitting Rep. Tommy Blackwell. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Vanessa Brown, a 41-year-old single mother and deli manager from Philadelphia, knocked out sitting Rep. Tommy Blackwell. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

HARRISBURG - Vanessa Brown flopped back in a desk chair in her barren office in the Capitol complex late one afternoon last week, exhausted after two days of freshman orientation.

She and 14 other newly elected House Democrats had just finished a crash course in Democracy 101. They had learned how a bill becomes law, how to draft legislation, how to address fellow lawmakers in a debate.

"You never address another member by their name," said Brown, her Pennsylvania House of Representatives pin attached to the lapel of her magenta jacket. "That's to dispel anger so the debate doesn't turn personal."

As Brown stared at her empty bookcases and started discussing what she would fill them with, her assistant opened a newly arrived brown package on her desk. It was a copy of History of Women of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives 1923-2008, an official state publication.

"Maybe I'll be in that book one day," she said.

Challenging opportunity

Talk about timing.

If not for a few chatty presidential campaign aides and a long line to file ballot petitions here in February, Brown would not be preparing to take office.

A year ago, she embarked on a near-impossible journey for the second time: She decided to try again to take on Rep. Thomas Blackwell, scion of one of Philadelphia's most powerful political families, for his 190th District seat in West Philadelphia.

"I was a broke, single, unemployed mom" when she challenged Blackwell's ballot petitions, Brown said.

Presidential campaign workers, waiting in line with Brown to file signatures at the Department of State, had suggested the idea.

"I had no idea what a ballot challenge was," said Brown, 42, who had run against Blackwell in 2004. "They told me he had just dropped off petition forms."

She ran out to the car, where her father, a retired Philadelphia homicide detective, was waiting, to borrow $20 to make copies of Blackwell's petition. Immediately, she noticed problems with the signatures.

"Page after page was in the same hand," she said.

Brown knew she needed legal help and connected with Adam Bonin of the Cozen O'Connor law firm in Philadelphia.

"It took some real smarts to recognize the opportunity that was there," Bonin said. "There were pages that were clearly invalid. At the end of the day, either there were 300 valid signatures or not."

After a hearing in March, a Commonwealth Court judge found that Blackwell - son of late U.S. Rep. Lucian Blackwell and stepson of City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell - had not collected enough valid signatures, and his name was struck from the ballot.

Brown easily defeated Republican Rahim Foreman in November and was on her way to Harrisburg.

Voice of experience

A native of West Philadelphia, Brown moved with her family to Mount Airy to escape the neighborhood gang wars of 1960s.

She graduated from Holy Cross parish school and Philadelphia High School for Girls before attending Howard University in Washington, but returned to the neighborhood before getting a degree to run a cafe with her father.

Brown married, and had a baby in 1992. When the cafe went under, she ran a lunch truck to make ends meet, sold water ice, and worked at a call center where she met other young mothers frustrated by dead-end jobs.

She got involved in politics by working as a block captain as her marriage crumbled.

"We had a rocky marriage," said Brown, who sought restraining orders against her husband.

She ended up on welfare, living in a shelter with her young son, Alexander, now 16. There she first recognized her abilities as an advocate for the less fortunate.

"I had different gifts than other women," she said. "There were women there who knew how to take care of their kids when there was no money, but I knew I could use my voice as a speaker for them."

Brown went on to work for the Philadelphia Unemployment Project and as an activist for low-wage workers protesting outside the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, and testifying on the need for job training at a 2002 hearing before a U.S. House committee on welfare.

It was 9/11, though, that focused Brown's energy on elected office.

"There was so much suffering here, but the support was going to another country," she said. "I didn't see a safety net to catch people here."

During her 2008 campaign, Brown was one of about nine candidates for General Assembly seats supported by the Pennsylvania National Organization for Women.

"We endorsed her because of her strong stances on women's equality across the spectrum," said the group's president, Joanne Tosti-Vasey. "For instance, economic justice, disability rights, education of women and girls.

A focus on families

On Jan. 6, Brown will be sworn in on the floor of the ornate House chamber. She said she was already planning an ambitious agenda.

She said she wanted to concentrate on issues that affected women and children, such as domestic violence, and urban neighborhoods.

Brown wants to expand financial-literacy programs, strengthen food banks, and create more farmers' markets. She also wants to help children whose parents struggle with drug addiction or other problems by allowing low-income grandparents to live legally with their grandchildren in subsidized housing. Under rules governing subsidized housing, seniors must live alone.

Brown said she still planned to finish her college degree one day but for now will take classes when she can fit them in at the Community College of Philadelphia.

She laughed and said, "Maybe my kid and I will graduate together."