45 years in the same room: Jannie Blackwell bows out of City Hall

Alongside her husband and after his death, the seven-term West Philly councilwoman made history.

Outgoing Councilmember Jannie Blackwell in the City Hall office she's occupied for the better part of four decades

Outgoing Councilmember Jannie Blackwell in the City Hall office she's occupied for the better part of four decades

Max Marin / Billy Penn
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The walls of Councilmember Jannie Blackwell’s office once presented a museum of her life as a West Philadelphia lawmaker.

Now, all that remains are a few portraits of her and her husband, the late U.S. Rep. Lucien Blackwell, who presided over the same council district for nearly two decades. The dusty silhouettes of picture frames from the duo’s half-century-long political career hover over the room.

Blackwell sits surrounded by moving boxes and flower bouquets — farewell gifts from supporters — as an aide tends to the packing. The veteran Democratic lawmaker was unseated in a stunning primary loss last May. She’ll depart in January after nearly three decades in the 3rd District, and will be succeeded by Councilmember-elect Jamie Gauthier.

The shock has subsided now, and these last few weeks have been a long multi-generational trip down memory lane.

Blackwell was first elected in 1992, but her tenure in the space dates to 1975, when she began working as an aide to “Lu,” the boss who would become her husband. Few today can recall a time before the Blackwell dynasty’s reign, and the center of its power has long been Room 408.

“They threatened to take the office [when I got elected], but I didn’t move his stuff out,” Blackwell said. “The question never rose again.”

The office holds prime real estate in City Hall, prominently situated on the way to Council chambers. A usual Thursday session finds a mixed crowd of powerplayers and constituents lingering on the benches in the hallway.

This is where Jannie Blackwell dove into the guts of city politics and government. Her career has been marked by fierce loyalty to aides, political allies and her signature issue of homelessness. She once jumped on a city police officer trying to arrest one of her staffers as they did outreach in Center City. Her tenure was also pocked by a series of minor dramas, accusations of an erratic legislative record, and, in the sunset years, her ties to wealthy developers in her district.

But the Blackwell-dominated Room 408 has never been the subject of an FBI raid — a feat for a stretch of its length in Philly politics.

“I’ve loved every moment of it,” she told Billy Penn. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Blackwell during a March 2019 Council hearing

Blackwell during a March 2019 Council hearing

Emma Lee / WHYY

Abscam, Rizzo and Black political power

Prior to entering politics, Blackwell was a junior high English teacher in the Philadelphia School District. In the early 1970s, she was working at Henry C. Lea School on 47th and Locust, where one of her students was Lucian Blackwell’s child from an earlier marriage.

“That’s how I met him back then, as corny as it is,” she said. Her last name was Brooks at the time.

Lucien, a longshoreman union leader who went on to become a state representative, convinced Jannie to leave education behind for the big-picture impact of a government career. She went to work for his office in Harrisburg, and later relocated to City Hall after his election to Council in the mid-70s.

For Philadelphia’s notorious legacy of political corruption, the 70s were some of the brand-making years. Blackwell’s early days bore witness to one of the city’s most scandalous FBI probes of all time, in which a litany of local politicians — including three members of Philadelphia City Council — were indicted for taking bribes from undercover agents disguised as Arab sheiks.

“We were here during Abscam. George Schwartz was the [City Council] president and Frank Rizzo the mayor,” she said. “Those were interesting times.”

Blackwell in her activist years

Blackwell in her activist years

Courtesy Jannie Blackwell

Even then, the Blackwells were their own political mood. Lucien stood out as one of Council’s more pyrotechnic personalities. He focused the bully pulpit on homelessness, then one of the city’s more pressing issues. The press referred to him as a “fiery champion of the working class.”

The 70s and 80s were also marked by historic strides for civil rights. The city’s African American population began to filter into public positions of leadership, helped by the Blackwell family. They ushered in the first city law setting aside a percentage of city contracts for minority businesses.

“Blacks were starting to see real political power in Philadelphia politics for the first time, and [the Blackwells] absolutely played a part,” said Maurice Floyd, a longtime confidante and Lu’s former chief of staff.

In their early years, the couple weathered a state ethics probe over the legality of councilmembers hiring their relatives. At the time, Jannie Blackwell’s pay sat well below other Council aides, according to news reports. If the court forced her to resign, she said she would continue working out of the Blackwell office as a volunteer — because she loved the job.

Early on, the Blackwells were natural adversaries of bombastic police commissioner-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo, whom West Philly cops had once dubbed “The Cisco Kid.” Then-Councilman Blackwell helped keep the law-and-order strongman mayor from making a comeback in 1983, working to elect W. Wilson Goode as the city’s first Black mayor. Blackwell also once sued a political strategist for disseminating fake “Blackwell-Rizzo” ballots during his own re-election year.

Today, however, Jannie Blackwell recalls Rizzo as a “friendly guy.” One of his bodyguards recently passed away, she said. She attended the funeral.

“He sure took care of South Philly, but he never fought you fighting for the rights of your community,” she said.

By the late 80s, Jannie Blackwell had made a name in both West Philly and City Hall as “her husband’s effective and hard-working administrative assistant,” the Inquirer editorial board noted at the time.

She wouldn’t stay an apostrophe to her husband for long. As a Democratic powerbroker, Lucien Blackwell also made it clear he would use his influence to ensure the family crest carried on when he left Council. Or as he put it bluntly in 1989: “When I leave this job, Jannie will replace me.”

Congressman Lucien Blackwell carries a young girl on Jan. 13, 1994 at the former US naval base near Manila. Blackwell had sponsored a bill seeking an amendment to grant Filipinos American citizenship.

Congressman Lucien Blackwell carries a young girl on Jan. 13, 1994 at the former US naval base near Manila. Blackwell had sponsored a bill seeking an amendment to grant Filipinos American citizenship.

AP Photo / Pat Roque

Blackwell comes into her own

When Lucien Blackwell stepped down to campaign for Congress in the early ’90s, his wife did run, and she won the seat without much resistance.

The Blackwells were the first couple in the country ever elected on the same day, the councilwoman says – a claim she has repeated over the years, a kind of romantic milestone of the once-inseparable duo.

It was 1991. Jannie Blackwell was 45. Her low-key demeanor stood in stark relief against her often theatrical husband, who had made the jump to Capitol Hill. Blackwell would take some time to find her own footing. In her early years, she reportedly isolated herself from the Democratic allies on Council, siding with “outsider” legislators on some big votes.

She kept an eye on issues around homelessness, at one point exempting her district from an attempted ban against sitting or lying on the sidewalks. Later, after polling her constituents, she allowed University City to be included in the ban, but maintained it was “the most anti-American bill I have ever seen.” She began her ongoing tradition of using her summer birthday as an occasion to throw a big outdoor party for the homeless.

A year after taking office, Blackwell and aides were involved in a rumble with SEPTA Transit Police officers while doing outreach to the homeless people in the Center City concourse. The Daily News reported that Blackwell “jumped on an officer’s back” to prevent him from arresting one of her staffers. While handcuffed, the councilwoman insisted the officers refer to her as “Mrs. Blackwell.”

“We were arrested for feeding people on the subway,” she recalled last week. The police ultimately did not press charges.

That loyalty would prove a constant, if rocky, feature of Jannie Blackwell’s rise.

Up for re-election in 1999, she hit turbulence when then-driver Michael Youngblood was convicted on extortion charges. Youngblood had already been fired from City Council for lying about a drug conviction on his job application, but Blackwell kept him on her own private payroll. She defended the aide — who had also worked for her husband — both before and after his conviction. Today, you still see Youngblood at Blackwell’s side around the city — and he’s still an occasional source of controversy.

Blackwell survived her turn-of-the-millennium re-election. It was the last competitive race she would face until this year.

Lucien Blackwell died in 2003, but Jannie carried on. While many peers around faced career-ending blows, she would neither be dinged by a major scandal nor seek a higher office. She became a key Democratic party player and a valuable endorsement for those who wanted love at the polls in West Philly.

In recent years, the district began to change. Jannie Blackwell did not.

In early 2019, the 74-year-old found herself fighting for her eighth term — against a well-funded opponent. Critics levied criticism over her favoritism to her political backers, particularly developers and monied interests in her fast-gentrifying district. Her interference in city-owned land deals and big projects, like the botched Philadelphia police HQ in West Philly, came into the spotlight.

If Philadelphia’s political establishment is undergoing a minor revolution, the battle cry is “Death to the Machine,” and Blackwell was eyed as a major cog in the gears. Her campaign rested on the laurels of her incumbency and name recognition in West Philly. She lost the May primary with 44% of the vote.

The councilwoman initially blamed her ouster on outside political influences coming to “take control of my district” — a reference to the developers and political action groups that backed Gauthier. But now, packing the boxes three days before Christmas, any bitterness that might have lingered over her defeat seems to have softened in her memory.

“It’s been a journey of love,” she said of her career.

The walls of Blackwell's office were once a museum of her and her husband's time in office

The walls of Blackwell's office were once a museum of her and her husband's time in office

Max Marin / Billy Penn

End of an era in City Hall

Who will inherit the House of Blackwell on City Hall’s 4th floor? Blackwell insists it’s not going to any newcomers. Councilmember Cindy Bass will be in there, she asserts confidently: “I like her.”

She beckons an aide to bring various items from around the office. Packing up 45 years of her life wouldn’t be possible without help, she says.

There are traditional African masks and photographs of famous visitors, including Nelson Mandela. Then there are the time-worn photographs of her political allies — “[State Senator] Tony Williams looked like a child…[State Senator] Vincent Hughes had hair then.” There is a seemingly endless supply of awards. She knows them all by name.

The aide lugs over an anvil-sized trophy given to Blackwell by Laborers District Council Local 332, a predominantly Black local building trades union. Her husband had gotten the same award, she said.

“I think it weighs about 50 pounds,” Blackwell said. “It’s wonderful. If you get that, you’re really someone special.”

The 28-year lawmaker says she is proud of her efforts, especially her legacy as a champion for the homeless. She wishes she had time to get closure on a few extant projects, such as creating an all-black owned business strip in Southwest Philadelphia called “Africatown.” She worries about the promised renovations to parks and rec centers under Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative in her district. She says there are city-owned parcels sitting in the Philadelphia Land Bank that she wants to make sure get to the right people — community gardeners, the like.

Jan. 6 will mark the last day with a Blackwell in power in City Hall in nearly half a century.  Asked if she was worried any of her work would be undone by her successor, Blackwell predicted Gauthier would operate much the same way she did.

“I believe that public service is what elected officials are supposed to be about,” she said. I know that not everybody sees it that way, some people see it as power, but power is supposed to be about allowing you to share, allowing you to serve others.”

“That’s what it’s been for me all of these years,” she added. “I’ve loved every day of it.”

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