The race for the sheriff's office and why it matters
There’s an old sheriff in town
With a budget around $18 million, the sheriff’s office is a relatively small appendage of our $7.5 billion local government. In other counties the sheriff makes arrests and enforces the law, but due to the changes in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, incumbent Sheriff Jewell Williams’ job is to carry out court-ordered seizures of property and persons.
A major part of the sheriff’s job is run sheriff’s sales, public auctions for properties that have been foreclosed for either mortgage or tax delinquency. These sales are advertised in dead-tree newspapers and then in an online database. And from a financial perspective — in Philadelphia at least — the sheriff’s procedures have garnered a lot raised eyebrows.
The office has come under serious scrutiny in the last decade. Mayor Nutter has called to dismantle it at least once for its lack of transparency, cronyism, and mismanagement of funds. Former Sheriff John Green allegedly allowed an illegal third-party contractor to reap millions in profit on city real estate sales. And since former State Rep. Jewell Williams took over in 2011, the reports claim that nothing much has changed.
Two years into Williams’ term, in response to a question proposed by Councilwoman Quinones Sanchez at the 2013 City Council budget meeting, it came to light that the Sheriff’s office did not even have an accounting system. Only the surface has been scrubbed from the impenetrable grease coat over the office’s finances, but even those fogged results are damning. Questionable amounts of “professional fees” charged at a Northeast hoagie joint — that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The FBI eventually raided the office for a full-audit in 2013, and the ship has reportedly tightened a bit since then. But still, stories persist in bad light. Williams is set to go to trial over $700,000 owed to a Texas firm. It’s a lot to handle, especially in an election year.
Enter the anti-blight activist
Based on his appearance — high-and-tight Marine cut, Flyers hoodie, work boots, beard — you wouldn’t think Christopher Sawyer the type to run for public office.
Sawyer’s a computer guy, a southern Texas native, and committed Philadelphian since 2003. He works as an industrial systems engineer for a downtown firm that makes data recorders similar to black boxes on airplanes, except for chemical, power and manufacturing plants. None of that really qualifies him to seek the badge. It’s what he’s been doing in his free time for the last decade.
Sawyer, 37, self-describes as an anti-blight and property rights activist. He runs a blog called Philadelinquency, which contains some of the most in-depth reporting on property issues the city has to offer.
Emerald and Dauphin Streets, Kensington: We’re a block from where the El bends. Sawyer and I look on at the charcoaled remains of a building fire that happened last month, a story we had both reported on — he far more thoroughly than I. Within hours of the fire breaking out, Sawyer knew everything about this dumpy parcel. He was citing its L&I violations, the status of the deed, and leaving messages on its owner’s voicemail letting him know that his investment was on fire.
Sawyer is a homeowner in Kensington, but for him, the corner we stand on is close to home in a different way. The square block of vacant lots across the street is where the Bucks Hosiery building once stood. A monstrous five-alarm fire claimed the Buck in 2012, and along with it the lives of firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, whose faces are now memorialized on a mural a few blocks away.
Sawyer first noticed the 19th century building — and paying attention to Philly property and politics in general — while riding the El downtown. Buck Hosiery was one of the many neglected properties along the post-industrial corridor the River Wards. He researched slumlords and delinquent properties and posted his findings on Phillyblog, a now defunct internet community. Then he started poking at the system itself.
“There’s an economic profit to be made in dilapidated buildings,” Sawyer said. “You’re making it on the backs of the quality of lives of everybody around you. You’ve robbed the equity, making everyone else’s homes worthless.”
The average Philadelphian won’t push an abandoned or tax-delinquent property to sheriff’s sale unless its got some personal or economic benefit. It’s an arduous time-hog of a process with few glamorous outcomes. But Sawyer has pushed, directly and indirectly, about 17 delinquent properties to sheriff’s sale. One of them was Bucks Hosiery, about three years before it’s blaze would kill two Philadelphia firefighters. The sale went through, but in Sawyer’s words, the City Revenue Department settled for a fractional payment from the building’s blightlord and called off the sale. If they had just sold it, or enforced stronger policies for out-of-town landlords, the property might not have gone neglected for three years and claimed the lives of two public employees.
So what’s in the race for Sawyer — a transplant from across the country who already has a comfortable programming job? I don’t like to ask this question. It implies that apathy should go without inspection, and that activism is suspect to hidden motives. But at the same time, every civil servant has to answer something along these lines.
“I cannot continue pushing a button on a voting machine for people who are in it for the check and the glamour shots,” Sawyer wrote after filing his 1,312 petitions at City Hall on March 10, thus entering himself in the race. “I am running for Sheriff because the office has stolen millions in Philadelphians’ money — right at the time these people were hurting the most.”
For sure, Sawyer’s activism is born of some indignance. He’s out for the deadbeat slumlords as much as he is for the entrenched politicians. But he’s also concerned with how forfeiture policies are preying on the city’s most endangered homeowners. You can judge that for yourself. Here he wrote an exhaustive a four-part series about people that were stealing properties using something called “quit claim deeds” and a dead man’s name.
Laying out the cards
“The sheriff’s office is the last stop before you lose the keys to your home,” Sawyer says. That’s why, if elected, he says he would hire housing counsellors and try to help people stay in their homes as much as possible.
Making the department totally transparent from a financial perspective would be a feat enough. But Sawyer also also wants to move the sheriff’s office from its current location in the Land Title building on South Broad Street into a neighborhood where foreclosures actually happen. It’d be a more symbolic gesture of the office’s purpose, and it would save the city money to boot, he says.
He’s got a lot of good-on-paper ideas, but ideas aren’t going to be what keeps Sawyer from being a contender in this race. This will:
Sawyer is running as a Republican.
To whit, he describes himself as an ex-Democrat. But he knows as well as anyone that Philadelphia voters don’t vote outside the hard-drawn blue and red party lines. If it blinks red on election day, the overwhelming majority of locals won’t punch it. Most likely, people who haven’t heard of Williams or the Sheriff’s office will still vote for him over the Republican nobody.
Williams also has clout in both the city and Harrisburg. In the 2011 election, his Republican opponent pulled only 18.7 percent of the vote:
Sawyer, who’s openly gay, is far from a tea-party conservative. And it’s worth mentioning that he’s far from the first gay Republican candidate in the city. Malcolm Lazin, director of the Equality Forum, almost won a City Council seat in the last election.
“This is the reality: ex-Democrats are what Philadelphia’s Republicans are becoming,” he wrote on Philadilquency. “Are you non-white? Bilingual? LGBT? Far short of scorn like the stereotypes would program you to think, you will get praise and support from Philly Republicans instead.”
But that’s not to say Sawyer doesn’t have a lot of groundwork to do convincing people he’s legit.
He’s critical of the Democrat’s tax policies, which he sees failing under the law of diminishing returns. And from a campaign perspective, he believes running as a Republican will give him a better shot. Rather than having two months to beat Williams as a Democrat in the May primary — an unlikely feat — he’ll have all year to convince people to vote for red on this one issue.
Sawyer says developers use properties a lot like baseball cards. But in this analogy, if the properties are the cards and the developers the bubble gum-chewing kids who collect them, then that makes Philly politicians the team owners. Former Sheriff John Green sat in office for 22 years, and it seems unlikely Williams will go out without a fight.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether Sawyer’s platform as a radical reformer (and his devil-may-care appearance) will play out well with voters. He knows that he’s going to lose the city’s renting base, but he hopes that homeowners, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, will heed the call for change.
“If I become sheriff, I’ll become the sheriff who rides the bus,” he said. “I don’t have an ego about my appearance, and I don’t care about dry cleaning bills that much. I’m not doing this for prestige. I’m doing this because I want to fix the office, and I won’t have to rely on the mayor or City Council to do it.”