Sheila Armstrong in her 'campaign office,' aka her apartment

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Cody Parkey’s missed field goal did more than advance the Eagles in the playoffs last month. It also convinced Sheila Armstrong to take on a 20-year City Council incumbent in the upcoming primary election.

It’s a move that Armstrong, a former legislative assistant and campaign volunteer who currently lives in PHA housing, had considered for months. When the Birds forced that double-doink, she took it as a sign.

“I started thinking to myself, ‘Oh yeah, you’re just like the Eagles. You’re the underdog,’” Armstrong told Billy Penn. “I knew that message was from God.”

On Jan. 4, she filed paperwork to run as a Democrat for the District 5 seat. It will require she face off against Darrell Clarke, who’s had the job for two decades and serves as City Council President.

Her candidacy is a long shot. With little campaign experience and close to zero dollars in funding, the North Philly resident faces an uphill battle. Political commentators suggest it’s close to impossible for her to win — and she knows it.

“I’m scared to go against this man,” Armstrong said. “But if you got a story to tell, you can’t be afraid of no man in that castle, that concrete castle.”

And if anyone has a story to tell, it’s Armstrong. She wants the job mostly because she’s got so much lived experienced with the systemic problems that disproportionately affect her neighbors.

‘An expert on being low-income’

Over the last 15 years, Armstrong has worked as legislative assistant for state Rep. Rosita Youngblood and as assistant to the field organizer for the now-retired state Rep. Curtis Thomas.

In 2015, she ran as an independent for an at-large seat on City Council — but she only managed 0.6 percent of the citywide vote. Since then, she’s been volunteering as a Democratic committeeperson in the 14th Ward she calls home.

Before she got into politics, Armstrong led a troubled life.

At 14 years old, after being sexually abused by her father for years, she dropped out of high school and ran away from home. She spent the next four years homeless, selling drugs for cash in West Philly. Around the same time Clarke was campaigning for his first term, Armstrong was fighting for her life — her partner at the time tried to kill her with a vacuum cleaner.

She was forced to move into a shelter run by Women Against Abuse, before she relocated to a public housing complex at 10th and Master streets. Now, Armstrong is unemployed. She’s on food stamps, and she receives cash assistance. She’s a single mother of two boys, one of whom has been diagnosed with autism. In 2015, her family lost their local elementary school to an intense round of budget cuts.

When it comes to the problems that low-income Philadelphians face, Armstrong has more firsthand experience than most elected officials. She thinks that’s got to get her somewhere.

“The government should be like me,” she said. “I am an expert on being low-income, and helping somebody who’s low-income.”

Better lighting, fewer roaches

If elected, Armstrong’s got a short-list of policy priorities — and a few ideas to shake up funding.

In her neighborhood, Armstrong wants better lighting and more crossing guards. She wants to get rid of the roaches in her PHA housing complex. She wants to create a program that identifies public school dropouts — a group in which she’s included — and offers them counseling services.

Most of all, Armstrong wants to assemble a mobile unit of her district staffers, who would travel District 5 on foot, speak to residents about their problems and direct them to the available city resources. This would combat her biggest problem with Councilman Clarke — she claims he doesn’t spend enough time in the neighborhood.

Clarke could not be reached for comment.

A few campaign strategies, outlined on Sheila Armstrong’s living room wall Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

How to fund all that new programming? By encouraging audits of Philadelphia’s social services and funded programs, she said, without getting into specifics. Armstrong also wants to legalize recreational marijuana and tax it, to bring in additional city revenue.

She also hopes she’ll be the first to sample it.

“I want to make sure it’s done right, and I want the best bud anyway,” she joked. “They always say the government gets the best, they get the cream of the crop.”

Chances of winning? ‘Zip’

How much money has Armstrong secured for her campaign? So far, a crisp $10 bill, donated from a neighbor who lives in the same PHA building.

So does she actually have a shot?

“Zip,” suggested Larry Ceisler, a veteran political observer. “This is not a This is Us episode,” he continued. “If you don’t have any money and you really have never been politically active and put on a campaign…I think she would find it very tough.”

Per Ceisler, the circumstances of this particular race are not great for Armstrong. It would be one thing if Clarke were retiring, or if he had recently been scandalized — but the councilman is likely in too good of a standing to wage war against him.

“It’s very difficult to get any traction in a political race to begin with, let alone one against an incumbent, let alone one against a well-entrenched, well-resourced, well-known City Council President.”

So far, Armstrong doesn’t seem to be sweating it. In fact, she suggested she might run a more successful campaign with fewer donations.

“I don’t want to take money from people because of the fact of, I’m going to owe that person,” she said. “The reason why a lot of our legislators and politicians are in the problems that they are in, is because they owed somebody a favor because they paid on their campaign.”

In preparation for her District 5 campaign, Sheila Armstrong asked her neighbors to write down the issues they think she should focus on Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Instead of spending money to get the word out, Armstrong plans instead to canvas in her building, around the neighborhood and especially on SEPTA. It’s an idealistic strategy for sure — funding has proven to be essential in winning American political elections.

But so far, she’s not giving up. With a couple dozen volunteers on her side, she’s pushing forward. Next month, she’ll need to round up 750 signatures to officially register for the election.

“I know the game,” Armstrong said. “This is Philly politics. I am not ignorant of this match I’m in.”

“But people forget,” she added, “you can get 500 signatures in this one housing site right here.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...