Tuesday proved to be a difficult night for LGBTQ candidates in Philadelphia’s primary election.
Tiffany Palmer, a lesbian who lives in Mount Airy, prevailed in the Court of Common Pleas judgeship race. Meanwhile, Republican candidate Daniel “Duke” Orsino proceeds with his unchallenged District 1 bid.
But all the Democratic City Council candidates — Deja Lynn Alvarez, at-large; Lauren Vidas, District 2; and Adrian Rivera-Reyes, at-large — lost. Sherrie Cohen, a gay LGBTQ activist, also dropped out of the City Council race in April.
No LGBTQ candidate has ever been elected to Philadelphia City Council. The large number of out candidates in the 2019 primary is a notable occurrence and has been nationally recognized as a historic “rainbow wave.”
Palmer will duke it out against the other left-leaning victors and Beth Grossman, the Republican winner, in the Nov. 5 general municipal election.
The Philadelphia Bar Association “highly recommended” Palmer earlier this month. Of the 25 candidates who ran for the Court of Common Pleas judgeship, only four received the organization’s highest endorsement, and Palmer was the only woman who did.
“I’m just really excited to be a part of progressive reform in our government systems,” Palmer said, adding she’d like to see future LGBTQ candidates collaborate with other communities in the city. “I have so many ideas to help improve our system of justice and I’m really excited to finally be in a position of power where I can implement some positive changes for the people of our city.”
If elected in fall, Palmer wants to ensure the institution recognizes the diversity of all types of families. This will begin with small administrative changes, Palmer said, like implementing court forms that change language like “mother,” “father,” “husband” or “wife” to gender-neutral choices of “parent” or “spouse.”
“If [a form] says ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and you’re in a two-mom household, you immediately feel like this is a system that doesn’t accept [your] family,” she added. “We need to make sure that every family feels accepted within our court system.”
Many celebrated Palmer’s victory with her Tuesday night.
“I’m not sure that there’s a more genuine or compassionate person that could have run,” said Heather Kemp, who worked on Palmer’s campaign. “It’s a long, hard road to win something like this, and she has done everything in an upstanding way, and I’m really proud of her for that.”
Palmer was touched by the amount of support she received from the LGBTQ community, particularly her "fellow lesbian moms" and others across the city, like South Philadelphia-based grassroots organizer and "friend for many years," Paul Fitzgerald and local activist Perry Monastero.
"Perry really helped me mobilize a truly grassroots fundraising effort," she said.
"There wasn’t one individual person who was helping fund my campaign. ...Twenty years worth of happy clients have just stepped up, they volunteered, they threw fundraisers, they were just amazing supporters," added Palmer, who became a lawyer in 1998.
The other out candidate in the Court of Common Pleas judgeship primary was Henry Sias, a transman and lawyer who lives in Passyunk. Sias could not be reached for comment.
In November, Orsino, who received 1,994 votes in the City Council District 1 primary, will go against incumbent Councilman Mark Squilla, a Democrat who earned 16,506 votes Tuesday. Unlike Palmer, Orsino has a difficult road ahead in a primarily Democratic city. He could not be reached for comment.
Despite losing the City Council at-large race Tuesday with his 34,897 votes, Rivera-Reyes, 26, said he wants to stay politically involved in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community and does “not discard” the possibility of running again.
“Since I got to the city, the community opened its arms and has been nothing but receptive and loving and kind toward me,” said Rivera-Reyes, who moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico. “I absolutely want to be involved in our community and making sure that our issues are at the table and that we are doing what’s necessary for our communities and elevating our voices together, especially as a man of color.”
Amber Hikes, executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, said the record number of out candidates in this year’s primary was “inspiring” in a statement to PGN.
“Representation of marginalized communities within government is vital, and the 2019 primary showed us that there are plenty of qualified LGBTQ individuals who are eager to take on that responsibility here in Philadelphia,” Hikes added. “I’m excited that at least one of those candidates will be moving on to the general election in November, and I hope that in the future even more members of the community will feel comfortable throwing their hat into the ring. We deserve to be in the rooms where decisions are made, and the more LGBTQ people we can have at the table the better.”
In District 2, Vidas won 40 percent of the vote Tuesday, losing to incumbent Councilman Johnson’s 60 percent. Johnson received 13,164 votes in the primary and will run against Republican Michael Bradley, who nabbed 1,429, in November.
If elected, Johnson said he wants to explore “the relationship with the Philadelphia Police Department and the transgender community, and making sure that community has a voice and as instances of hate take place, or violence, they’re addressed.”
He said he’d encourage communication between police and transpeople, ensure crimes against transpeople were thoroughly investigated and that police department personnel were appraised on how they interact with the trans community.
Johnson supported the historical markers recently resurrected to commemorate the residence of Barbara Gittings, an LGBTQ civil rights movement activist, and what is widely known as the nation’s first LGBTQ rights sit-in protest in 1965 at Dewey’s restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. He said he is committed to preserving LGBTQ history.
“I’m humbled I have the opportunity to serve and make sure the gay community knows that they have access to me and my office,” Johnson added, “and mostly they have a voice and I will fight on their behalf.”
Other surprising victories in the primary include Rochelle Bilal, who won the sheriff’s race against two-term incumbent Jewell Williams, and Jamie Gauthier, who prevailed in City Council’s third district.
Bilal won’t face a Republican challenger in November, positioning her to become the first woman elected as Philadelphia’s sheriff in the department’s 181-year history. Meanwhile, Gauthier beat out 27-year incumbent Jannie Blackwell, whose husband, Lucien Blackwell, held the seat before her beginning in 1974.
Gauthier said she is excited to work with LGBTQ residents in her West Philadelphia district and plans to engage with them by listening to their concerns and building a council office that is representative of her constituents and includes members of the gay community.
She plans to focus on stopping gentrification in her district, which has recently been dominated by major colleges like the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel, and the displacement of long-time residents.
“We have to work really hard to ensure the third district remains a place where everyone can afford to live,” Gauthier said. “The diversity here is one of the things that makes it so special and I think we really have to fight to keep it.”
For Rivera-Reyes, there are still “glass ceilings” that LGBTQ people must break in the political world. He hopes having several out candidates in this year’s primary pool will encourage members of the gay community to run for various government positions in the future.
“We really have the talent and the qualified people to do so, and I hope that, at the very least, children in the city, especially black and brown children from working-class communities and LGBTQ children, see that they can and they have the ability,” Rivera-Reyes said. “We are fighting for all of us and I hope they see that there’s a future where they can and they should.” n
All primary election vote counts are representative of the 98% of precincts accounted for at time of publication.