Councilman Kenyatta Johnson on Tuesday shrugged off controversy over his use of a council veto over land sales in his South Philadelphia district to win the Democratic primary in his rapidly-gentrifying turf.
With more than 94 percent of the vote counted, Johnson had garnered 60 percent of the votes in a race against Lauren Vidas, a lawyer, lobbyist and civic activist.
After his win, Johnson said that if elected this fall he would work to limit the negative aspects of gentrification and to protect longtime residents from being displaced. He also pledged to focus on reducing gun violence.
The primary in the Second District pitted Johnson, a two-term incumbent, against a challenger critical of his backing for what is called councilmanic prerogative. That’s the tradition that gives council members a veto over zoning and the sale of city land in their districts.
Johnson, 45, said Tuesday night that he sought to use his veto to make “sure our constituents have a voice when it comes to development.” But he said city housing decisions too often reflect a “broken system” that he said needs more transparency and ways to reclaim properties if developers don’t keep their promises.
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After conceding Tuesday night, Vidas, 38, said of her opponent: “I hope the councilman in the next four years take this as an opportunity to work for the residents of he district instead of for his financial supporters.”
Johnson has been the subject of a critical news stories spotlighting his use of this clout. In 2016, a federal jury awarded a developer $34,000 in a civil case contending that Johnson had abused his veto power to punish the developer, who was a political foe.
Vidas’ campaign manager, Paul Feingold, said it was tough to unseat an incumbent endorsed by the Democratic organization. "It just goes to show how the establishment, the (Democratic) City Committee and the machine continue to run this city,” he said.
The sprawling district includes 15 neighborhoods, including South Philadelphia west of Broad Street and all of Southwest Philadelphia.
Parts of the district have undergone dramatic gentrification, a process that has drawn in 7,500 new residents in the past decade, a 5 percent increase.
In Point Breeze, the scene of the most rapid change, the median housing price soared from about $30,000 in 2000 to $234,000 in 2016. While racial change in the district has been minimal overall, Point Breeze changed from nearly 80 percent African American to 46 percent African American over this period.
Vidas moved a decade ago into the Graduate Hospital area, next to Point Breeze, which some said put her into the newcomers’ camp. However, she said if elected she would work to make sure longtime district residents were not driven out and that development proceeded fairly.
A lawyer, Vidas has worked as a lobbyist for the soda industry. While a critic of the city’s sugared-drink tax, she has said she would not vote to repeal it.
Johnson, a supporter of the tax, was born in Point Breeze and made his background a key part of his campaign with his slogan: “From Here. For Here.”
Michael Bradley, an Army veteran and head of the Grays Ferry Civic Association, was unopposed for the Republican nomination.