Voters throughout the 3rd District denied long-time City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell a chance at an eighth consecutive term in Tuesday’s primary.
Her failure to connect with voters began in her home ward.
Leaders of other wards attributed Blackwell’s unexpected loss to her lack of campaigning, a change in the district’s demographics and a smear campaign by outside groups.
“New people are moving in and they’re picking somebody younger,” said Bernadette Wyche, the Democratic leader of the 24th Ward who endorsed Blackwell.
“It’s not that she did anything bad, it’s just that everything is changing.”
At the first City Council session after the primary on Thursday, Blackwell said losing the primary feels “unbelievable.”
The 74-year-old councilwoman deflected blame for losing the seat she’s held since 1992, saying, “It wasn’t about me; it was about my area that all those who have the money — the [Philadelphia] 3.0 and others — came after my district big time.”
Philadelphia 3.0, a pro-business independent political action committee, backed Gauthier.
Blackwell said she remains closely connected to her constituents.
“I work seven days a week,” she said. “No, I don’t think I lost touch. I don’t think it was about me.”
Whispers of support
Gauthier was Blackwell’s first competitive challenger in this century.
And Gauthier said she found a groundswell of “silent support.”
The 40-year-old political newcomer said she campaigned on improving education and reducing gentrification in the district. She attributed her victory to running a robust campaign schedule of calls, canvassing and events.
But on the campaign trail, she discovered a dissonance between what political insiders and voters were saying.
“There was this notion that Councilwoman Blackwell could not be beat that was held by a lot of political insiders. But I talked to the voters … and I was hearing that people were ready for change,” said Gauthier, the former executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy.
Blackwell received the endorsement of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee and several wards in her district. Bob Brady, the chairman of the city committee, did not return a call for comment.
But Gauthier won six of the nine wards, capturing 56% of the vote (13,200 votes) compared to Blackwell’s 44% (10,439 votes), according to unofficial results with 99.7% of precincts reporting on Thursday.
The 24th Ward, which includes the neighborhoods of Mantua and Powelton, was one of the wards that endorsed Blackwell, but Gauthier took it with 62% of the vote, according to unofficial election results.
The 27th Ward, in the well-heeled neighborhood of University City, endorsed Gauthier.
Carol Jenkins, a Temple University political science professor and leader of the 27th Ward, said Blackwell had not done enough to improve education in the district (Blackwell is chairwoman of the City Council’s Education Committee) or improve green spaces, including Clark Park.
Blackwell also left a trail of dissatisfaction across the ward by doling out perks to friends and supporters, and alienated others by refusing to update the district’s zoning maps, Jenkins said.
“She’s been in office — in a lot of these people’s point of view — for too long,” she said.
Nonetheless, Blackwell’s loss was a surprise, Jenkins said. Blackwell has a loyal base and is well known as a hard worker, frequently attending community meetings, which resonates with many residents in the district.
“But at the same time, things have changed and, as I just mentioned, it is something she has not changed with,” Jenkins said.
Gentrification has come and settled into the 27th Ward. The area has attracted younger, well-educated and whiter residents compared to other parts of the 3rd District.
Wyche said she has seen similar changes — an influx of young professionals and families in their 20s, 30s and 40s — in her own ward.
Gregory Spearman, the Democratic leader of the 60th Ward, which includes Cobbs Creek, and Garden Court, endorsed Blackwell. That ward, also went to Gauthier.
Spearman said groups that are “not from our neighborhood” worked to discredit Blackwell.
And he blamed himself for Blackwell’s loss.
“I would have spent more hours; I would have had more events; I would have put out — knowing what I know now — more literature explaining the divisive techniques of politics that were really being put on the community,” he said.
On Thursday, Blackwell said Philadelphia 3.0 and similar interest groups decided the primary was “about them taking control of my district.”
Although Blackwell declined to answer more questions on Thursday, she took aim at those groups, who labeled her as having a cozy relationship with developers, during a previous City Council session.
“So in spite of my opponent, who thinks that knowing a developer is just about the wrong thing, I’m proud of my relationship,” Blackwell said during City Council on April 4.
“So take that and twist that, too,” she added at the time. “They tell me don’t be shy. You can only take so much crap from these people, you know?”
Philadelphia 3.0 did not return requests seeking comment.
City Councilman Curtis Jones said Blackwell’s loss serves as a cautionary tale.
Jones, a Democrat who won his 2nd District primary race, said Blackwell has fought for educational issues and reducing poverty throughout her decades on City Council.
Advocating for issues “from your heart,” however, does not always win votes, he said.
“You have to be careful on the politics side because there’s not a direct correlation between doing what’s right and getting re-elected,” Jones said.
Blackwell will remain in office until her term ends at the end of the year.
Spearman, the leader of the 60th Ward, said the district is losing a mover-and-shaker with deep knowledge of how the city operates, who is the “hardest working councilperson in Philadelphia.”
“She is actually a living legend,” he said.
For Wyche, however, the effects of Blackwell’s loss remain to be seen.
“I can’t say at this point,” she said. “I don’t know if we’re going to lose anything.”