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The race for who will represent West Philly’s District 3 just got a lot less suspenseful.
Jabari Jones, one of two candidates who announced a challenge to Councilmember Jaime Gauthier, is off the ballot. He withdrew his nomination petition after it was challenged by Gauthier’s campaign.
The popular incumbent still has one more primary challenger still tentatively in the race, running under the name Mustafa Majeed. Gauthier’s campaign has challenged his petition, and the matter is due to be settled on Thursday.
If Majeed withdraws or Gauthier’s challenge is successful, the first term councilmember will run unopposed — instead having a competitive primary.
“I am thrilled today to be one step closer to a second term, and am proud to have the support of the Democrats in the 3rd District,” Gauthier said in a statement.
Jones, founder and president of small biz organization West Philly Corridor Collaborative, isn’t conceding entirely, per a Monday campaign statement that hinted he might seek to challenge Gauthier in the November general election.
“We are still considering next steps — which may include an appeal of our challenge in Commonwealth Court or continuing our campaign in another capacity,” Jones’s statement read.
Before he withdrew, Jones had attempted to boot Gauthier out of the race. His campaign filed a challenge on the grounds that she knowingly improperly filed her statement of financial interest (SOFI), a required ethics document disclosing income and earnings, and her affidavit, wherein candidates swear their financial and ethics forms are accurate.
The critical missing information, Jones alleged, was Gauthier’s role in Liberty Housing and Planning Corp, a company she founded with friends in 2004.
The company has never never entered into or executed any contract, Gauthier testified in the Court of Common Pleas last week. The judge found in her favor.
How do nomination petition challenges work?
There are a few ways to challenge a candidate’s nomination petition. The most well-known is to challenge the petition itself — getting on the ballot for each office requires a certain number of party-registered constituents to sign on, and competitors can question the validity of those listed names.
A line-by-line challenge argues that the candidate didn’t receive enough valid signatures to qualify for candidacy — in this case 750 signatures. Gauthier’s campaign challenged the validity of over 400 of the roughly 940 signatures he turned in.
In his Monday statement, Jones noted his campaign found “over 150 signature lines [challenged by Gauthier] were legitimate, Democrat-registered, 3rd District residents that had signed using an address other than where they were registered.” Whether these 150+ additions would’ve gotten Jones to the required number is unclear.
This kind of error has proven fatal to campaigns since election reform law Act 77 was implemented in 2019. Before that, these kinds of mixups used to be challengeable in court, and candidates were allowed to amend their petitions with updated address information and new matching signatures.
Another way to contest petitions is to do what the Jones campaign attempted: to challenge financial or ethics statements. There usually has to be a major transgression for a SOFI challenge to succeed, past case law shows.
Bob Brady, Philadelphia’s current Democratic party chair, found himself in a legal kerfuffle during his 2007 mayoral campaign, when he failed to disclose multiple sources of income. He was found to have made the errors in good faith, and since then, swiftly amending an incorrectly filed SOFI has been relatively common.
When a judge scolded Amen Brown in 2022 for “general irresponsibility and poor handling of his affairs,” the issue at hand was errors in his SOFI.
Brown’s financial interest statements required multiple amendments to fully correct, but he was still allowed on the ballot to represent the 10th Legislative District demonstrating the leeway candidates are often given.
Gauthier’s explanation for why Liberty Housing was left out
Jones challenged Gauthier’s petition because it left out Liberty Housing and Planning, a firm Gauthier cofounded in grad school.
The firm wasn’t noted on any previous financial statements the councilmember submitted in prior runs for office, which the Jones campaign attempted to argue demonstrates a pattern of intentional misdirection.
Liberty Housing and Planning never took on any projects, and hasn’t earned Gauthier any money in the near 20 years it’s been in existence, she testified last week, saying she had forgotten about it until Jones’s challenge. Gauthier’s team swiftly amended her SOFI to include the firm before Friday’s hearing.
Jones retained attorney and former Republican Council candidate Matthew Wolfe to argue on his behalf. It “would raise some eyebrows if you owned your own for-profit development company,” Jones told Billy Penn after the case was heard. Gauthier testified that Liberty was intended to be a planning firm, not a development firm.
Wolfe argued that Gauthier’s position as the Chair of the Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and the Homeless made the existence of the firm a conflict of interest.
He asked Gauthier if she was a “progressive,” seeking to show that her views on gentrification and development were a prime reason she didn’t disclose the firm. Judge Joshua Roberts sustained an objection from Gauthier’s attorney, Brianna Shaw, and the line of questioning was shut down.
Shaw closed by arguing that SOFI-based challenges like this have “resulted in a child’s game of ‘gotcha,’” quoting a similar 2008 case.
Shortly thereafter, Roberts dismissed Jones’s challenge entirely.
Updated to clarify that Liberty Housing and Planning Corp. was not formed as a development company, but as a planning firm, per Gauthier.