Eric Mayes, The Philadelphia Tribune
Four candidates — possibly five — are gearing up to replace former state representative, now city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in the 186th District.
Former candidate for City Council Damon Roberts, former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris, ward leader Edward Nesmith and businessman Fawwaz “Jazz” Beyha have all thrown their hats in the ring.
It’s also rumored that former Rep. Harold James is going to try to recapture the seat he held for years.
James could not be reached Thursday for comment.
The race is complicated by several factors: the date for the vote, a special election, has not been set, and the boundary lines of the district are shifting under the state’s redistricting plan, so voters may be uncertain if they are even eligible to participate. In addition, the redistricting plan is facing a likely court challenge, which could further complicate things.
The speaker of the Pennsylvania House will schedule the special election to fill the seat.
Additionally, without an incumbent bringing the considerable resources typically commanded by incumbents to the race, the field is wide open. Johnson held the seat until January, when he resigned to take his new position as Council representative for the Second District. He held office as state representative for less than two terms.
James held it before that.
It’s likely that all the names on a potential ballot are familiar to voters in the district, which encompasses Southwest and a portion of South Philadelphia.
Roberts, a real estate attorney, has campaigned twice in recent years for the Second District Council seat. In his last campaign, he jousted against Johnson before ultimately dropping out and endorsing Johnson.
At the time, talk of a deal — denied by both candidates — surrounded the news of Roberts’ withdrawal. So it was widely expected that should Roberts run for the House seat, Johnson would endorse him. Instead, it was Harris who captured Johnson’s endorsement — and that of his sponsor and mentor state Sen. Anthony H. Williams Jr.
Roberts, for his part, remained philosophical.
“At the end of the day, every candidate is going to have their supporters and their detractors,” he said.
Roberts prefers to look to the future.
“I don’t believe that there is anybody better prepared to make a difference,” he said. Noting the diversity of the district, he added: “I believe I’m best prepared to represent everyone in that district. We do have a lot of issues, and I’m passionate about the issues.”
His career as an attorney will serve constituents well, he said.
“When you have a legislature that is so overwhelmingly Republican it’s going to take a master negotiator like me to get the job done,” he said.
Harris has the blessing of Johnson and Williams. That backing could give him a leg up among voters.
It will also give him an advantage if he wins, he said.
“Because of the relationship we have, we’ll be able to get a lot of things done,” Harris said. “And, to continue the work I started with Senator Williams and Councilman Johnson.”
Before resigning to run for office, Harris led the city’s Youth Commission. He has a history of community and political involvement, having first met Williams when he was still in high school, he said, and working with both the state senator and Johnson for years on various issues, among them Johnson’s Peace Not Guns initiative.
Harris said he felt compelled to give back to the community he grew up in and where he has spent his life.
I call myself a son of South Philly,” he said. “It’s my duty to give back.”
Nesmith, Democratic leader in the 2nd Ward, is a long-time ward leader, committeeman and activist. He sums up his qualifications in one brief sentence, “Experience, knowledge, service, the ability to get things done.”
Though the bulk of his political experience comes from being a committeeman and ward leader, that is not his prime qualification for the job, he said.
“I’m running on my service record, helping people,” he said. “That’s what people need to focus on.”
It is his second attempt to capture the seat. Nesmith ran for state representative against Harold James in 1994.
Beyha, too, is well known throughout the district, where most people know him as “Jazz.”
“I’m a community developer and a community employer,” he said, noting that he has six businesses in the district, from barbershops to a hair salon and a real estate development company. “I’m the largest minority employer in South Philadelphia outside of Kenny Gamble and Universal Companies.”
Beyha has never held elected office, but saw Johnson’s resignation as a chance to run.
He said he would bring greater community involvement to the post.
“I’m tied in on a community level,” he said. “As far as community ties are concerned, I’m the most connected to the community.”
— as part of a special partnership with The Philadelphia Tribune