This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This year’s crowded campaigns for City Council, judge, and city commissioner feature several public school parents and teachers running for the first time.
The parents who responded to the Notebook’s request to interview first-time candidates told us they felt compelled to make the leap into politics to help other Philadelphia families.
Court of Common Pleas
Tiffany Palmer is running to become a judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, a contest in which names on the ballot are often unfamiliar to voters. Of the 25 judicial candidates on Tuesday’s primary ballot, Palmer is one of just four who are “highly recommended” by the Philadelphia Bar Association.
Both of Palmer’s parents were public school teachers. Her daughter attends J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts & Sciences, Chestnut Hill’s neighborhood school, where Palmer and her wife helped found the local “Friends of” group. Palmer acts as the group’s pro bono legal counsel.
“The two of us wanted to make a commitment to be part of the Philadelphia public schools,” Palmer said. “We both have backgrounds as social justice lawyers and view public education as a social justice issue.
“When parents invest their time, energy, and resources to improving public education, it doesn’t just benefit your child, but all the children in the school and all the children who may come after them.”
While in law school, Palmer got a two-year grant to start a program in the William Way LGBT Community Center in Center City to provide free legal representation in family court to low-income members of the LGBTQ community. Five years later, in 2003, Palmer started her own law firm in Germantown. She practices in family and civil courts, with a focus on what she calls “modern families.” Those families can be single parents, grandparents, or guardians with custody, among others.
“I’ve been trying to expand the definition of family to reflect the diversity of our city,” Palmer said.
Palmer hopes to work in the family court division. “Our family court has been under a lot of scrutiny in the past few years. People’s rights as parents have been egregiously violated,” Palmer said, adding that the court has been too focused on removing children from their homes.
“The majority of people in Philadelphia’s family court face a judge without any legal representation, so the judge plays an important role,” she said. “We need more people who understand the impact that the law has on people’s personal lives. I felt I needed to step up.
“I’d like to work within the system to improve the inefficiencies that we currently have and make sure that people don’t lose their rights because of delays within the system. No one should lose their kid when they didn’t get their day in court.”
She understands from personal experience that some families face unorthodox problems often overlooked by the system.
“My wife and I have been together for 19 years, but our marriage was only legal for four of those 19 years,” she said. “So for 15 years that we lived together, we had to protect ourselves legally. My wife adopted our daughter to make sure both of us are recognized as parents. So I understand the perspective of people who’ve been disenfranchised in the court system and what it’s like to have to fight for your rights.”
Another crowded field is for the position of city commissioner – the office in charge of Philadelphia’s elections infrastructure and get-out-the-vote efforts. The office has come under scrutiny in recent years. Last year, one of three commissioners decided to retire after the public discovered he rarely showed up for work despite collecting a $138,000 salary. This year, commissioners have faced backlash over the process for selecting new electronic voting machines, which critics say are less secure than other options.
Commissioner candidate Moira Bohannon is a single mom with a 7th grader at Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP). She has worked in communications on Democratic political campaigns and dealt with the bureaucratic elections process herself. She said she wants to use the office to make things simpler for voters, including getting them information on candidates and removing barriers to voting such as complex rules around casting absentee ballots.
Bohannon saw the system’s flaws firsthand while volunteering for Malcolm Kenyatta, who went on to win his race for state representative in 2018. After reviewing her ballot on election day, she realized it wrongly listed the state representative who was running in an adjacent district. So she asked the City Commissioners’ Office whether votes cast for state representative on that ballot were disqualified.
“No one has given me a clear answer, and it seems the votes on those machines weren’t counted,” Bohannon said. “I want to improve communications with voters so people know their commissioners and get help. … This was a big part of why I’m running for commissioner.
“Instead of just complaining about these mistakes, I want to step up and start fixing them.”
That wasn’t her only run-in with the system’s flaws. Bohannon’s friend was sitting beside her husband’s bed in an emergency care unit and mentioned not being able to vote in the upcoming election. So Bohannon offered to get her an absentee ballot.
“It was not just an intricate process, but very poorly described on the website,” Bohannon said. “On Sunday before the primary, I printed out the forms. We then realized only her husband is covered by the emergency absentee ballot because it was just her husband in the hospital.
“She didn’t want to leave his bedside, because it was touch and go. She had to appear before a judge just to get her husband the ballot. … I took it to the City Commissioners’ Office, but because she was the one who signed her name on the original form, the office wouldn’t take it from me. So she had to leave the hospital again to deliver it.
“None of this was clear on the website.”
The ACLU is currently suing the state over its absentee ballot process.
Bohannon doesn’t want the intricate processes and a lack of information about them to deter new voters.
“There needs to be an audit of the website so we can build one in the most user-friendly way,” she said. “We don’t want confusion to be a barrier to voting.”
Moira Bohannon and her son Henry. (Photo: Courtesy of Moira Bohannon)
City commissioner candidate Jen Devor’s daughter attends G.W. Childs Elementary, where Devor is a founding member of the “Friends of” group. In 2012, she was part of a program called the Center for Progressive Leadership, which trains people interested in running for office in several swing states, including Pennsylvania. She spent a couple of years touring the state, where she learned about other municipalities.
“Every time we came back to Philly, I thought it was overwhelming and unclear how all the city departments serve us,” said Devor, even though she is politically active as a block captain and committee person. “That’s how I first learned about the City Commissioners Office. We have this entire infrastructure dedicated to voter turnout, but we weren’t actually seeing any results.”
Devor decided to run for the office in late 2017, because she could “see the potential it has.”
As part of a fellowship with five others, she worked with the city’s Committee of Seventy, a good-governance nonprofit, to design the We Vote app, which is still being tested. The app would allow community networks and businesses to share nonpartisan information about upcoming elections.
“It’s hard to vote in Philly,” Devor said. “Voting for judges is really complicated, and charter questions are written in complex ways. … Information is not widely available. You can seek it out, but not everyone has the time.
“It can be by design, sometimes, that people don’t understand who they can vote for. I see the office as a tool that can be empowering and educating Philadelphians. … This is an office that belongs to the people. That’s what I’m interested in doing – bringing it back to the people.”
Devor wants to couple the existing political infrastructure of committee people and block captains with local nonprofits to disseminate information on elections “year-round.”
“A lot of people who can vote don’t realize they can vote,” she said. “For example, if English is not your first language, walking into a voting booth and asking for help on election day is a big barrier.”
Referring to swaths of the city where voter turnout is still low, Devor said, “As Philadelphians, we have underutilized power. If we increase turnout locally, we can win state and national elections for Pennsylvania.”
Jen Devor helps her daughter with homework (Photo: Jen Devor campaign)
Luigi Borda, a teacher at Masterman and parent of recent public school graduates, is also running for city commissioner for the first time. He was profiled by the Notebook in January.
City Council at-large
Katherine Gilmore Richardson graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls. In college, Gilmore Richardson majored in education with a concentration in history. But in her third year, she transferred to political science and went on to become a staffer in the office of Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, where she worked her way up to chief of staff. During that time, she also took a job as a long-term substitute with emergency certification, teaching math at Overbrook High School.
“Overbrook was a very different environment from schools such as Girls’ High and Masterman,” Gilmore Richardson said. “It opened my eyes to the barriers that young people face.”
Gilmore Richardson has a daughter attending Carver High School of Engineering & Science and another daughter who will soon enroll in kindergarten. She’s “leaning” toward sending her to Samuel Gompers Elementary School, where Gilmore Richardson went to school and where her niece now attends. Gompers is a community school, a model that she likes and wants to expand.
“I’m excited about their out-of-school-time opportunities,” Gilmore Richardson said. “It helps to have the wrap-around services right there in the building for the parents.
“I had a wonderful counselor there, Ms. Deborah, who worked with my parents my entire school career.” It was Deborah who encouraged her to apply to Masterman.
While teaching at Overbrook, she had a young man in her 9th-grade class who eventually became her adopted son. At the time, Terrell “made teaching very challenging. It was completely unlike anything you read when you’re studying education in college. … He was being raised by his grandparents and really just needed that extra touch.”
Years later, she learned that he had dropped out of high school. So they reconnected, and Gilmore Richardson helped him get his GED and an OSHA certification. But after a long struggle to find work, he wound up in prison.
“I sent him letters and envelopes of snacks,” she said. “I’m committed to supporting him for the rest of my life. … Right now, he’s out of prison and gainfully employed.”
Gilmore Richardson said the state has underfunded Philly’s public schools, but she would also like the city to further contribute to the District.
“Our public schools deserve all of the funding they need to adequately support our young people and make sure they’re prepared at graduation for college or a career,” she said, particularly so that the District can hire more support staff. “Not all of our young people will want to go to college, but they should be college- or career-ready at graduation. So one priority would be to focus on CTE schools. I would love to see a new CTE school helping young people on pathways to employment in trades and technical industries.”
Gilmore Richardson supports changing the 10-year tax abatement to raise money for the city’s schools, but does not want to end it entirely, given recent indicators that the country is due for another recession. Instead, she wants to recoup the portion of the abatement, 55 percent, that would otherwise go to the city’s schools.
The article is not a comprehensive list of first-time parents and teachers running for office and does not constitute an endorsement.
Katherine Gilmore Richardson with her family (Photo: Katherine Gilmore Richardson campaign)