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Inside Jamie Gauthier’s tumultuous first year on Philly City Council — and what comes next

Gauthier’s role offers the city’s rising progressive movement an opportunity to test policies in West Philadelphia that a majority of Council won’t support.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, center, talks with a resident who was vaccinated at a community COVID-19 vaccination clinic operated by Penn Medicine and Mercy Catholic Medical Center at the Francis J. Myers Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia on Feb. 27.
Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, center, talks with a resident who was vaccinated at a community COVID-19 vaccination clinic operated by Penn Medicine and Mercy Catholic Medical Center at the Francis J. Myers Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia on Feb. 27.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Jamie Gauthier had a busy first year in City Hall.

Three months after she was sworn into Philadelphia City Council, the coronavirus pandemic forced lawmakers to begin meeting virtually. Two months later, law enforcement inundated and deployed tear gas in parts of her West Philadelphia district during the spring and summer’s civil unrest, and she helped defuse one standoff between police and protesters by getting Mayor Jim Kenney on the phone with a young activist. She negotiated with leaders of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway homeless encampment; pushed for police reforms after the killing of Walter Wallace Jr., one of her constituents; and feuded with Kenney over the city’s gun-violence crisis, which has sharply increased shootings in her district.

Gauthier, who won a shocking 2019 upset against Jannie Blackwell for a seat that had been held by Blackwell or her husband for four decades, said she isn’t surprised that the tumultuous events of her first year disproportionately affected communities she represents.

“I represent Black neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested, so it’s not a coincidence that the same neighborhoods that have suffered [disproportionately] from coronavirus are suffering from gun violence, are suffering from police brutality, are suffering from an affordable-housing crisis,” she said during a series of interviews over the last month. “It’s been hard on all my constituents, but it’s also been a topsy-turvy year for me as a first-term councilperson.”

Last year ushered in a new dynamic on Council, with Gauthier and fellow freshman Kendra Brooks joining Helen Gym to form a reliably progressive bloc on what was long a more center-left body. The three of them — Philadelphia’s version of “The Squad” of progressive Democrats in Congress — are looking to push city policy to the left on issues such as housing and policing. But Gauthier, a former nonprofit executive, took a different path to City Hall than her allies, who both emerged from the activist movement. And she faces a different challenge as the only member of the trio who represents a geographic district.

From dealing with constituent services to managing land-use decisions, Council’s district members have very different jobs than their colleagues who hold citywide at-large seats. The 10 district representatives usually focus on nuts-and-bolts government, while the seven at-large members often tackle special causes or take more ideological approaches.

Gauthier, 42, is trying to do both. Her role offers the city’s rising progressive movement an opportunity to test policies in West Philadelphia that a majority of Council won’t support. But it also poses challenges as Gauthier balances the needs of her constituents with her ideological aims.

Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who has piloted innovative zoning and housing programs in her Kensington-based district, said she’s advised Gauthier on this tightrope.

“You could be a show horse or a workhorse,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “I said to Jamie, ‘You don’t have the luxury of being both.’ If she wants to be the workhorse, she’s going to be able to demonstrate that progressive policies can work in her complicated district.”

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Gauthier’s district covers the heart of West Philadelphia, from the bustling corridors of University City to long-underserved Black neighborhoods like Cobbs Creek. It includes major institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, but also had a poverty rate of 35% before the pandemic, 10 points higher than the city as a whole.

The district is ground zero for the gentrification debate because it’s seeing the largest amount of “naturally occurring” affordable housing replaced by new development, said Leo Addimando, president of the Building Industry Association, a trade group.

“A number of those buildings have been very publicly emptied and renovated,” he said. “The optics have not been good.”

The younger, wealthier, and whiter newcomers represent a paradox for Gauthier: While her primary focus is preventing the displacement of longtime residents, she also benefits politically from the newer arrivals, who have formed some of the city’s most reliably progressive pockets.

‘An idealist’

A single mother of two boys who are often seen walking through the background of her screen in meetings, Gauthier is friendly but unafraid to speak bluntly.

While she is well-liked in City Hall, some members see her as naive about Council’s machinations, preferring public debate to Council’s practice of hashing out deals behind closed doors and rarely forcing colleagues to take difficult votes.

As chair of the housing committee, Gauthier in June called for a vote on a bill to temporarily institute rent control even though it did not have enough support to pass. The move angered lawmakers because it forced them take a position that could vex activists.

Four months later, committee members struck back during a hearing on a bill to extend an eviction moratorium. When it came up for a vote, the other members left the virtual hearing, denying Gauthier a quorum.

She described it as a learning experience.

“It’s not the first time that I have been labeled as naive, but I see that more as I’m an idealist,” Gauthier said. “I’m always pushing toward my highest goals, and I think we should be pushing for the best.”

» READ MORE: Kenney had plans. Then the pandemic hit. Can he avoid lame-duck status and get Philly ‘back on track’?

Addimando said that while developers sometimes disagree with Gauthier’s approach to housing policy, they value her frankness.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air to have a person ... who is transparent and super up-front about what her priorities are,” Addimando said. “Everyone who is looking for some kind of zoning relief in her district knows what the conversation is going to be.”

Addimando said he expects clashes with Gauthier over issues such as calculating what rental prices constitute affordable housing.

“If you push too hard on affordability, you could break the equation” of whether a developer can afford a project, Addimando said. “How far she pushes it remains to be seen.”

From nonprofits to politics

Two decades ago, a crusading attorney named Leon A. Williams waged two long-shot campaigns against legendary Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham with a message that presaged today’s debate over racism in criminal justice.

Williams lost. But his renegade approach to politics rubbed off on his daughter, Jamie Gauthier, who also ran without the political establishment’s approval. Gauthier, however, won on her first try.

“My dad has always, always been someone who has bucked the system,” Gauthier said. “I learned from watching him that you should question things.”

Gauthier grew up in Kingsessing and Wynnefield, graduated from Central High, and earned a bachelor’s in accounting from Temple and a master’s in urban planning from Penn before pursuing a career in nonprofits.

She led a group that advocates for environmentally conscious businesses, and later the Fairmount Park Conservancy. Along the way, she established Mommy Grads, a group for single mothers working their way through graduate school.

”I saw some of the confidence being built,” said Randy Belin, who worked with Gauthier when she founded Mommy Grads. “She had a full-time job, she was a young mom, and I’m like, ‘Wow, now you’re doing a program on the side.’”

Gauthier had long eyed Blackwell’s seat and increasingly felt that tackling affordable housing would require a leadership change.

“I had been working in the nonprofit sector to address those issues, but that’s not where the biggest levers were. ... The biggest levers were in government,” she said. “There was just something really compelling about running against Blackwell and doing that in a head-to-head race and making a very stark contrast.”

Gauthier hoped for support from progressive groups like Reclaim Philadelphia, which was founded by veterans of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. But many activists were skeptical because she had significant support from Philadelphia 3.0, an enigmatic outside spending group that was seen by the left as representing corporate interests.

Gauthier’s primary victory was seismic, unseating the type of old-school politician-for-life who wasn’t supposed to lose. She has since won over liberal activists. If 3.0 is still a supporter, it’s not saying so: It didn’t respond to requests for comment.

‘All of that has to go’

Gauthier campaigned against the uniquely Philadelphian tradition known as “councilmanic prerogative,” in which members have absolute authority over land-use decisions in their districts.

The practice has been criticized for effectively dividing Philadelphia into 10 fiefdoms with separate development philosophies — and for opening the door to corruption. Blackwell wielded the power aggressively, micromanaging zoning and holding up sales of city-owned land.

Prerogative is an unwritten rule, sustained by other members’ support for whichever colleague represents the area in question. Gauthier has shown a willingness to buck tradition. She voted to uphold Kenney’s veto of a preservation district in Councilmember Mark Squilla’s district.

“District Council members should absolutely expect and welcome scrutiny regarding that tactic and the way that they are using prerogative, and I strongly believe that land use or property disposition should not be about these backroom deals or involve political favors,” Gauthier said. “All of that has to go.”

But Gauthier has also made ample use of prerogative herself, recognizing it could allow her to quickly carry out her priorities in West Philadelphia.

She and Quiñones-Sánchez, for instance, are experimenting in their districts with mandatory inclusionary zoning, in which developers are required to include affordable units in new housing projects. Developers oppose the policy, and a citywide proposal is unlikely to pass anytime soon. But Gauthier and Quiñones-Sánchez hope to pass legislation for their districts this year.

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“Councilmanic prerogative is used for good when we as district Council members are able to amplify the voices of people who are routinely pushed out of housing policy,” Gauthier said.

It also gives her leverage over higher-education and medical institutions that often need zoning changes or city approval for new development.

A Penn alumna, Gauthier has nevertheless taken a harder line with her district’s mega-institutions, demanding commitments like increased affordable housing when they need something. The relationship, she said, is “complicated” and “can get tense.”

“The institutions were built on top of Black communities, and people were displaced because of that,” she said. “People lost their wealth because of that, and it was never compensated.”

Leigh Whitaker, a Penn lobbyist, said Gauthier has been “very responsive and very receptive.”

“I get the sense that she appreciates the things that Penn does, but certainly wants us to be mindful of how we interact with the community,” Whitaker said.

’Where do people go in a crisis?’

Kevin Brown, who works for the nonprofit People’s Emergency Center, deals with folks who need help fast. Whether their electricity has been shut off or their house is being put up for sheriff’s sale, his clients need someone who can quickly cut through red tape.

Jannie Blackwell was a perfect ally.

“People would get a run-around about something, and they could go to Jannie, and Jannie would make the phone call,” Brown said. “Jannie did it really old-school, and I think the people of West Philly took that for granted, so I feel like that part’s missing. Where do people go in a crisis?”

Brown said he understands Gauthier can’t be expected to pull strings like Blackwell yet, but he’s watching to see if she will make constituent services as much of a priority.

Gauthier said that it’s a top priority and that she and her staff take about 100 calls every day from residents, on issues ranging from trash collection to relocating gun-violence victims.

Helping constituents navigate bureaucracy is also good politics for the member, who stands to gain a loyal voter with each pothole filled or property tax exemption secured. From Council to Congress, some lawmakers do little else.

Gauthier is aiming for more. She wants to help transform city government. But she can’t afford to overlook what her constituents need now.

Being the only member of Council’s progressive wing to hold a district seat is “an opportunity for me to work on the things that will really benefit people in this district, in particular people who have always always been left behind,” she said.

“I don’t want to tinker around the edges.”