Rochelle Bilal ousts incumbent in sheriff’s race

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By John N. Mitchell

Many thought it was a mistake that Rochelle Bilal never brought up the sexual harassment cases that dogged Philadelphia Sheriff Jewel Williams in his bid to win a third term.


It turns out she didn’t have to.


In what was one of the biggest upsets Tuesday in the primary election, Bilal, a retired police officer who is the president of the Guardian Civic League and secretary of the Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, overtook Williams in the Democratic primary, clearing the way for her to become the first African-American woman to be elected to the office.


There was no Republican candidate, meaning that Bilal is almost certain to win in November, unless challenged by a third-party or independent candidate.


“It’s about time,” Bilal said Tuesday night, about the possibility of being the first Black woman to be sheriff.


“In 2019, we should not be having the first anything. But what it says now is that this glass ceiling is broken,” she continued. “When women want to step up and be the Sheriff, they can be the Sheriff. This means a lot. I’m just honored that the citizens of the city saw me as someone capable of doing the job. I appreciate that.”


Bilal got more than 41% of the vote with 96% of precincts reporting at 10:55 p.m. Tuesday, according to unofficial election results. Williams had garnered only 27% of the vote by that time.


Williams has been accused of sexual harassment by at least three women; one case was settled by the city for $127,000, another was settled by the city and the third is still pending.


Mayor Jim Kenney and members of City Council said he should resign his position.


This made Williams, 61, vulnerable in the eyes of some — so much so that he faced three challengers in the primary.


Former law enforcement officers Malika Rahman and Larry King also sought the Democratic vote.


The city Democratic Party initially endorsed Williams and then withdrew its endorsement. The party ultimately chose not to endorse any of the four candidates for sheriff.


Still, Williams went into Tuesday’s election with a healthy group of supporters, including the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, Laborers’ International Union of North America Local Union 332, the Philadelphia AFL-CIO and Christian Fellowship Ministers’ Conference of Philadelphia & Vicinity.


And party leadership denied Bilal access to Relish restaurant in West Oak Lane, which has become in recent years the unofficial gathering place for Democratic politicians on Election Day, around lunchtime Tuesday while Williams was being interviewed inside by a local radio station.


“I’ve come to this thing for five years and never had a problem getting in,” Bilal said Tuesday. “But that’s our Democratic Party in action. That’s what they do, they keep me out because I chose to run against that predator Jewell Williams.”


During her campaign, Bilal avoided the allegations that have dogged Williams.

“Everybody knew what the allegations were,” Bilal said. “We wanted people to know that the things in the past were not going to happen in the future. People wanted to know that the office would work with them and that it will educate people in danger of losing their homes on the process. We felt, ‘Let’s change it. Let’s move forward and make sure the office works for the people of the city and not the special interests.'”


Bilal campaigned as an advocate for those losing their homes to sheriff’s sales, saying that the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office needs to be more of a resource to assist financially troubled families to remain in their homes rather than evict them.


The Office of the Sheriff is the enforcement arm of the city’s court system responsible for, among other things, transporting prisoners, serving warrants and making arrests, collecting delinquent taxes and fees, and putting properties up for sheriff sales.


In fiscal year 2017, 19,919 properties went up for sheriff sales. Bilal said she wants to work to reduce that number rather than grow it.


“Our city has an extreme poverty problem that is well publicized,” Bilal said. “There needs to be a change in direction for the office.”


The Sheriff’s office has been in shambles for years, well in advance of Williams’ tenure.


In April, former Sheriff John Green pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy charges after presiding over years of mismanagement and poor financial oversight. While Williams looks to have made some corrections, the office’s budget has doubled in his tenure.

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