Updated: 4:11 p.m.

Convicted on bribery charges late last year, former state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown was forced to resign in early December, several weeks after voters in her West Philadelphia district reelected her for another term despite her pending trial.

The timing, ironically, means voters won’t have as much of a say in her replacement.

The vacancy triggered a special election, which don’t come with primaries. Instead of a face-off at the polls, party elders decide who their chosen candidate will be.

Over the weekend, the seven Democratic ward leaders that make up the 190th Pa. House District interviewed five prospectives seeking the nomination. There was a near-unanimous decision to nominate Darryl Thomas, a 45-year-old West Philly community leader and barbershop owner, ward leaders told Billy Penn.

On Tuesday, Thomas and three other candidates — the Republican nominee and two independents — submitted the required nomination papers with the Pa. Department of State.

As the unofficial ballot for the March 12 special election currently stands, Thomas will face off against Republican Michael Harvey, Amen Brown of the eponymous Amen Brown Party, and Pamela K. Williams for the Working Families Party.

But thanks to the formidable Democratic voter edge in the city — even more lopsided in this district than others — Thomas is the strong favorite to win the seat. A source said Thomas has already met with the city’s new House delegation to talk about getting their endorsement in the race.

But this is Philly. Special elections are hotbeds for all shades of political shenanigan, and there’s still time to challenge names on the ballot next month.

The Democrat’s choice

Attorney Sonte Reavis, a former staffer for ex-Congressman Chaka Fattah, was rumored to have been the front-runner for the seat.

But Reavis’ residency within the district — a requirement to run — came into question just a day before the endorsement meeting last weekend.

The Inquirer visited Reavis’ listed home address where a neighbor said no one lived. Water bills for the property showed “zero water usage at the Reavis household from December 2016 to December 2018,” the paper reported.

Residency challenges in special elections bring back humiliating recent memories for Philly Democrats. In 2017, ward leaders in North Philly’s 197th House District nominated a candidate who was promptly booted from the ballot after a Commonwealth Court judge found he did not reside in the district. Party leaders scrambled to put together a write-in campaign against the sole Republican on the ballot. The Democrat ultimately still won the race, only the be unseated last year by newly minted state Rep. Danilo Burgos.

Lesson learned, apparently. Ward leaders in the 190th said residency was thoroughly discussed during the nomination process on Saturday in West Philly.

“There was some talk about what’s best for the party at this time,” said Greg Spearman, leader of the city’s 60th Ward. “It was nearly unanimous [in favor of Thomas].”

The two independent candidates who also filed nomination papers, Amen Brown and Pamela Williams, were also interviewed for consideration by Democratic ward leaders. No relation to the previous incumbent, Amen Brown was nonetheless Lowery Brown’s endorsed successor in the final days of the lawmaker’s tenure. Neither independent candidate could reached for comment by press time. (We’ll update if we hear back.)

A barber in Harrisburg?

William Dunbar, Thomas’ campaign manager, affirmed that Thomas does indeed live in the district. The 45-year old Mill Creek native and Howard University graduate has owned Philly Cuts barbershop at 44th and Chestnut for the last 20 years. He previously worked for the Department of Justice.

Thomas isn’t a newcomer to politics. He ran for this same seat in 2016, finishing fourth behind incumbent Lowery Brown and others in a seven-way Democratic primary.

At the time, Thomas ran with an emphasis on combating poverty in his predominantly African American district. He described his community’s plight at the time using the analogy of “62,000 people living in a cage.”

“Bread is being rationed to them in the form of jobs, access to healthcare, and access to education,” Thomas told West Philly Local at the time. “Poverty depicts and predicts their behavior. So then all of a sudden, you get robberies. It’s not because the individual is genetically predisposed to be a robber or a thief. It’s primarily because of the conditions.”

Thomas declined to be interviewed for this article. Dunbar said he was waiting for the ballot to be finalized. Friday is the deadline to file objections to a candidate’s nominations with the Pa. Dept. of State.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...