It’s telling that, in the days after she announced her candidacy to the 3rd District in City Council, three City Hall insiders, independent of one another, greeted the news of Jamie Gauthier’s entrance into local politics with the exact same insight. Without knowing her, all observed that she seemed like a “real person,” and all seemed to do so with the same surprised lilt in their voice.
Fact is, we don’t get many “real” people running for local office, especially on Council. Historically, when Council seats haven’t been held on to for dear life by professional pols, they’ve been bequeathed to said pols’ progeny like Eagles seat licenses (at one point, junior versions of legendary political names like Rizzo, Green and Goode all served together) or gone to whatever staffer was seen as next in line. That’s what’s otherwise known as the Not Ready for Prime Time factor, a category, sadly, that Omar Woodard might have consigned himself to when it was revealed last week that he didn’t garner enough signatures in order to challenge Council President Darrell Clarke, a bad self-inflicted wound.
Moreover, with few exceptions over the last half century, we’ve been represented on Council by many for whom the seat was the best job they’d ever had or would have: The six-figure salary, the car, the 20-plus weeks off, the city pension.
Hence, the surprised whispers that someone “real” would run for Council. Jamie Gauthier, 40, doesn’t hail from local political royalty and isn’t a career political player who has patiently waited her turn. Instead, she’s someone who has lived a life and served her community in the nonprofit sector. As the former executive director of the Sustainable Business Network, it was Gauthier (pronounced GAH-di-ay) who was one of the driving forces behind Council adopting a tax credit for businesses, like B Corps, that extend their mission to a triple bottom line: People, Planet and Profits.
More recently, as head of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Gauthier, who has a master’s degree in city planning from Penn, walked the talk of placemaking, raising millions for the park system and activating residents to help clean up green spaces.
We don’t often get Council candidates with CVs like this, folks. Which is why, when I caught up with her recently, my first question was, of course: Why? Yes, we need more citizens taking back the reins of local government—something we champion at The Citizen. But accomplished folks often shy away from getting off the sidelines due to the kamikaze nature of our byzantine political world, where up is down and down is up, where strange creatures called ward leaders wield untold influence and traditions like Councilmanic Prerogative find legislative representatives essentially moonlighting as all-powerful developers.
“My whole career has been about connecting people to opportunity, and City Council is a way to do that on a bigger scale,” Gauthier says.
Gauthier’s answer harkens back to what we say we want in our local elected leaders—a sense of patriotic duty. “I was born in Kingsessing, moved to Wynnefield, and lived in West Philly my whole life,” she says. “I’m running because we can do a much better job in the District and across the city empowering people in communities by connecting them to opportunity. My dad’s whole family is from this area, and, one by one over the years, he has lost several family members, whether to alcoholism or criminality or depression. But I’m convinced that, really, poverty was at the root cause of all these losses. My whole career has been about connecting people to opportunity, and City Council is a way to do that on a bigger scale.”
Gauthier is quick to praise the longstanding contribution of “the Blackwells”—before Jannie’s 27 years of service, the seat was held by her late husband, who, in a classic Philly moniker, was known as “Lucien the Solution”—but the fact is that nearly 45 years of their leadership hasn’t actually yielded a helluva lot in the way of solutions. Without attacking the Blackwells, Gauthier makes the case that it’s time for a fresh face and new ideas.
This old versus new theme was on stark display during Blackwell’s recent announcement of her candidacy. There, in support, were State Senators Vincent Hughes and Tony Williams, as well as party boss Bob Brady. There, also, were protestors heckling Blackwell for her practice of Councilmanic Prerogative; the confrontation turned ugly when a series of violent threats and an alleged attack broke out between the activists and Blackwell staffers.
The incident brought back into the spotlight an infamous name that once symbolized much of what is wrong with Philly politics. That would be Michael Youngblood, the former Blackwell aide who was convicted of 34 counts of extortion, bank fraud, tax evasion, and failure to file tax returns back in the 90s; at the recent Blackwell announcement, he was reported to direct rape threats at the activists. (Was there a statement later released by any of the elected officials in attendance, condemning such behavior and striking a note for civility? What do you think?)
Councilmanic prerogative is the gentlemen’s agreement that cedes to District members all-encompassing powers over development in their districts. It makes district council members into de facto unchecked mini-mayors and it obscures the sunlight that would otherwise disinfect city land sales. Blackwell has mastered it as a dark art. It’s what enabled her to hold up the move of the Barnes Museum to Center City for years by blocking the relocation of the city’s Youth Detention Center to her West Philadelphia district—until she got a $12 million grant for a community center named after her late husband. And it’s what led her most recently to almost derail the sale of the long-vacant Provident Mutual Insurance Building at 4601 Market Street, reportedly at the bidding of a powerful developer and campaign donor.
“We have to change the way Philadelphia does business,” Gauthier says, seeing these cases not as isolated incidents but—critically—as emblematic of a system that doesn’t prioritize the common good. “I see this as a relay race. It’s time for a new generation of leaders to take the baton and work with our residents to make change. We need a different type of politics that empowers our citizens. Knocking on doors, I’m encountering frustration with how our politics works and who benefits.”
“I’ve learned that the best outcomes are when you build partnerships between residents, businesses, community organizations and government,” Gauthier says. “And the most effective partnerships are when residents are in the lead.”
Gauthier acknowledges the real fear of gentrification in our neighborhoods, but says the answer to it can be found in her nonprofit work—and not in more backroom dealing. “I’ve learned that the best outcomes are when you build partnerships between residents, businesses, community organizations and government,” she says. “And the most effective partnerships are when residents are in the lead.”
In that sense, Gauthier sounds like a non-ideological, pro-growth, progressive populist—an enticing mix of descriptors. It’s what makes her a formidable foe for Blackwell, whose base resides in her District’s neighborhoods. Given her upbringing, Gauthier has credibility at the neighborhood level, while her pragmatism fits in well with the University City elite.
From her work at the Sustainable Business Network, for example, Gauthier learned that it makes more sense to encourage businesses to do good than to simply lambaste capitalism. She talks about a Business Owner’s Bill of Rights, making it easier for business owners to navigate City Hall and its myriad regulations. And—having helped to start the city’s first solar program while at SBN—she embraces the notion of a Green New Deal for Philadelphia not as an exercise in tree hugging but as a smart strategy for economic development. “When you think of Philadelphia committing to renewable energy by 2030, you’re really focusing on job creation,” she says. “There are job opportunities connected to solar and the retrofitting of buildings.”
Gauthier is nothing if not nuanced, at a time when such thoughtfulness has given way to bumper sticker sloganeering. Asked if we have a housing crisis, for example, she refuses to lose sight of the big picture—“I think we have a poverty crisis”—while simultaneously ticking off a list of interventions government could do now to give a hand-up to those struggling to stay in place: from laws to protect low-income renters to providing resources for home repair to property tax relief for low-income homeowners.
No matter the issue, Gauthier seems to seamlessly mix passion with practicality, no small feat in such rigid times. The practicality may have come from her time in the nonprofit sector, but the passion? There’s a reason, after all, Jamie Gauthier calls herself her “father’s daughter.”
You may remember lawyer Leon Williams; he twice ran Independent campaigns for District Attorney, during which he talked about the need for criminal justice reform long before it became trendy. Crime, he argued, wouldn’t need to be prosecuted if district attorneys worked on preventing it. In 2001, challenging then-widely popular incumbent Lynne Abraham, Williams sounded like he was Larry Krasner long before, uh, Larry Krasner. “When asked what’s the prime role of the district attorney, [Abraham] answers ‘to prosecute criminals,'” Williams told The Daily Pennsylvanian. “I think it’s to fight crime. You have to engage in prevention, be in the community, develop a crime fighting apparatus in the community, a rapport with young people and with community groups and residents.”
“My dad defended activists and advocated for quality public education for black people in the city,” Gauthier says. “He instilled in me this sense that life should be about more than just yourself.”
Williams was a firebrand, as this 2011 clip during his representation of MOVE in a civil suit against the city, makes clear. From him, Gauthier inherited progressive bona fides and a passion for social justice. But, as Jesse Jackson used to say, we need tree shakers and jelly makers. Gauthier, in her pragmatism, would seem to be the type of synthesis the times call for—a progressive, yes, but one who can get results. Blackwell will have her cadre of donors thanks to the dual powers of incumbency and Councilmanic Prerogative, but don’t count out Jaime Gauthier. She’s a practical, nuanced newcomer who, after all, is also her father’s daughter.