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Philly primary election shows the power and limitations of incumbency in city’s politics

Sheriff Jewell Williams, a ward leader and longtime party favorite, saw his political career come crashing down Tuesday. He wasn’t the only incumbent toppled, but in a crowded primary, holding office proved crucial for other candidates, like Mayor Jim Kenney.

Rochelle Bilal is surrounded by supporters after winning the Democratic primary for sheriff.
Rochelle Bilal is surrounded by supporters after winning the Democratic primary for sheriff.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The power of incumbency goes only so far in a Philadelphia election. Just ask Sheriff Jewell Williams.

Williams, a ward leader and longtime party favorite, saw his political career come crashing down in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. He wasn’t the only incumbent topped Tuesday.

But in a crowded primary, holding office proved crucial in bids for reelection for other candidates. Mayor Jim Kenney, for one. And three current Democratic City Council at-large members.

Williams was a distant second in a four-candidate race, losing to Rochelle Bilal, a retired police officer who ran on cleaning up a scandal-prone office and ousting an incumbent beset with sexual harassment suits.

Williams played a keep-away game in his bid for a third term, avoiding the media and showing up for few public events. When he did speak, he insisted he had been wrongly accused.

>> READ MORE: Blackwell political dynasty falls in West Philly, but incumbents dominate other City Council district races

The Democratic City Committee last month leaned toward endorsing Williams but then voted to take no action. Still, many wards included his name on election-day sample ballots.

In a low-turnout election, like Tuesday’s primary, incumbency is usually favored. It worked out that way in other races. But not in all.

City Council at-large

Three Democratic incumbents holding City Council at-large seats — Helen Gym, Allan Domb, and Derek Green — all won Tuesday’s primary despite all being in their first term, challenged by a historically large field.

Two of the five seats held by Democrats are being vacated, due to retirements by Blondell Reynolds Brown and Bill Greenlee. Katherine Gilmore Richardson, who appeared to secure one of those seats, enjoyed incumbency by proxy as Reynolds Brown’s former chief of staff. She and Isaiah Thomas, another at-large winner Tuesday, were backed by the local Democratic Party and politically powerful labor unions.

>> READ MORE: Party-backed millennials come out on top in at-large City Council primary races


Kenney’s bid for a second term displayed the most public use of incumbent power. Kenney, who had limited contact with two primary challengers, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, spent the closing days of the race barnstorming the city for official events.

There was a kickoff to “paving season” in a city riddled with potholes, a “Day of Play” to highlight expanded pre-K programs and “Rebuild” events where neighborhood recreation centers are receiving long-needed repairs.

Williams and Butkovitz accused Kenney of abusing his office to secure reelection. Kenney’s campaign slapped back, deriding the complaints as “last-minute desperate attacks by desperate candidates.”

The other ‘Row Offices’

Incumbency failed to protect Register of Wills Ron Donatucci, who was seeking an 11th term, challenged by Democrats Tracey Gordon and Jacque Whaumbush.

Gordon, a former deputy city commissioner, appeared to win the primary by a narrow margin over Donatucci, with Whaumbush trailing.

>> READ MORE: Results and scenes from the 2019 primary election

Donatucci, 71, a ward leader, received support from the Democratic City Committee and from most wards. His two opponents didn’t do much to raise money and didn’t even disclose whether they had raised any money leading up to the primary election.

The City Commissioners race was the most competitive of the row office races with 13 people running for what is usually two seats for Democrats (at least one of the three seats is reserved for a minority party). The crowded field was prompted by the retirement of Commissioner Anthony Clark, a Democrat.

Commissioners Chairwoman Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir, who both won the endorsement of the Democratic City Committee, secured primary victories with less than 25 percent of the vote each as the crowded field split the rest.

Al Schmidt, the lone Republican on the board, was unchallenged in his party’s primary.

>> READ MORE: Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir win Democratic nomination for Philadelphia City Commissioner

The 2023 race for mayor begins

Kenney still has to secure a victory in the Nov. 5 general election. But in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 7-1, his chances look strong. So his fellow Democrats will start positioning themselves to seek the Mayor’s Office four years from now.

Three members of City Council — Domb, Cherelle Parker from the 9th District, and Maria Quiñones Sánchez in the 7th District — are already the subject of strong speculation for that future race.

Parker introduced Kenney at his victory party Tuesday night. He called her “strong enough, smart enough” to do the job as mayor earlier this month.