Jamie Gauthier: District 3’s first new face on City Council in almost 30 years
The former executive coordinator of the Fairmount Park Conservancy ended the Blackwell dynasty in West Philadelphia and runs unopposed in November.
Running against a dynasty is no small venture, and the one named Blackwell representing Philadelphia’s District 3 for almost 50 years at times looked unbeatable.
Before his wife, Jannie, sat on Philadelphia City Council for 27 years, Lucien Blackwell presided over District 3’s post for 17 years, beginning in 1974. He took his moniker of “Lucien the Solution” from City Hall to Harrisburg, and finally to Washington, D.C.
Blackwell’s rise in political stature meant the creation of a bastion in his home district, comprising most of West and Southwest Philadelphia, with Jannie taking over at the helm in 1992.
This past primary, that gridlock was finally broken by Jamie Gauthier. Despite the overwhelming odds against her, Gauthier always felt she had a chance to win.
Her source of hope? Over the past couple of years, Philadelphia has been the center of voting out the establishment in some of its highest offices. Gauthier cited the victories of District Attorney Larry Krasner and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart in 2017 as examples of the “wave of change” sweeping the city.
As a lifelong Philadelphia resident, the feeling on the ground was a new experience for her.
“For the first time, people in the city were really ready for change,” she said during a visit to AL DÍA on Sept. 18.
Now, Gauthier can add her name to the list of outsider candidates who have won a seat at the table.
On the night of the May 21 primary, she found herself not at a party, but at home alongside her two sons and best friend, “frantically refreshing” her computer to see returns from the polls.
Gauthier was ahead from the beginning, and she never looked back.
“I was scared to believe,” said Gauthier.
As the night dragged on, even with 70% of the vote counted, she still believed her larger-than-life opponent would catch up. Only when her sons intervened did Gauthier realize that she had pulled off one of the biggest election upsets in Philadelphia’s recent history.
“Mom, you got this. It’s done. It’s over,” she remembers them saying.
In that moment, Jamie Gauthier reached the pinnacle of her public service career. It was the culmination of a life’s work that took many twists and turns, but always led back to helping others, especially in the City of Brotherly Love.
Gauthier was born and raised in Southwest Philly’s Kingsessing neighborhood. Gauthier described her 1100 block of South Divinity Street as “one of those real, Philly blocks.”
Although her strict parents often kept her occupied with work outside of school, Gauthier also remembers playing outside or at the nearby Kingsessing Rec Center, and knowing all her neighbors.
The neighborhood was tight-knit, but also struggled with poverty and crime — experiences that would nudge a young Gauthier towards a career in public service.
“My time living there is what kind of instilled an early commitment in me of working for my community and working to make my city a better place,” she said.
Gauthier’s father, Leon Williams, an attorney, also sparked in her what she called a “questioning spirit,” necessary to confront power structures in society.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the establishment around issues that you believe in,” said Gauthier.
Williams ran twice as an independent for District Attorney against the fixed figure of Lynne Abraham in 1997 and 2001.
When his daughter ran against the Blackwell bastion, Williams’ advice also came back to the community.
“Go to the people,” Gauthier remembers him saying. “Knock the doors.”
After graduating from Central High School, she entered Temple University and got an accounting degree.
Gauthier’s first gig out of undergrad was as a member of a new wave of black accountants at DuPont. It paid well for her first job, but she quickly realized a career there wouldn’t satisfy many of her life goals.
“I’ve always wanted to do something that helped people, and I’ve always wanted to do something that helped Philadelphia in particular,” said Gauthier.
Two years in, she left DuPont and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania for urban planning — a subject she had researched online before applying.
“It intrigued me because it pulled together so many things that interested me,” said Gauthier.
At Penn, she not only found herself as one of the few black urban planning students, but during her first year, she also became one of the few parents when she had her first son.
Gauthier doesn’t look down on the experience, but says she felt a need to prove herself as both a black student and mother — something the white students didn’t have to do.
“In some ways, it was isolating,” she said.
Upon graduation, Gauthier founded Mommy Grads as a way to limit that feeling for other mothers enrolled in universities.
“I came away from that wanting to provide support for other moms who were pursuing their degrees too,” she said.
The organization offers support in the form of mentorships and stipends to mothers pursuing four-year degrees.
In the vein of community engagement and development, Gauthier also spoke to AL DÍA about her time at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), where she was a program officer in Philadelphia.
The role allowed her to expand her view of Philadelphia beyond the West Philly lens. All across the city, Gauthier helped community development organizations with projects ranging from affordable housing to revitalizing business districts.
“It was really gratifying work, and also work that...made a lot of impact,” she said.
Her final experience before running for City Council was as executive coordinator of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, which supports park revitalizations and programs in green spaces across Philadelphia.
In that position, Gauthier learned the importance of green spaces for all of Philly’s neighborhoods, and they became a talking point for her campaign.
“They’re places where people can come together and connect and recreate, and I learned about how much people love them,” said Gauthier.
Speaking of issues to confront once she’s in office, the biggest one for Gauthier is gentrification.
Her old block in Kingsessing is just one of the many in West Philly and across the city to confront the issue, in which concrete and equitable solutions are elusive.
Gauthier not only wants to prioritize affordable housing, something that the city is always in need of, but also put more thought into zoning, which determines where certain types of units are located.
She thinks it would benefit those living in affordable housing if they were located closer to transit centers.
“We should prioritize getting affordable housing around those hubs to make sure that folks that need it can get to and from work, can get to and from school,” said Gauthier.
Another way she hopes to aid longtime homeowners is to reevaluate how the city reassesses property values. The practice has resulted in property taxes spiking across the city.
“I don’t think it’s fair that folks should be seeing increases in their property taxes on an annual basis,” said Gauthier.
She commended the work of City Council to protect homeowners with programs such as the Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP), which limits the percent increase of one’s property taxes.
However, Gauthier said her district in particular still struggles to keep up with rapidly rising rents that result from the current reassessment process.
“Fifty percent of the people who rent in the district, pay 50% or more of their income on rent,” she said.
Gauthier is also in favor of reform of the much-contested tax abatement.
Through the abatement, she sees city government as being a major supporter of the high-cost development that displaces much of its residents, which in turn also drives revenues from its schools.
“At this point, you know, we’re sort of subsidizing the displacement of residents from the district,” said Gauthier.
The final issue Gauthier discussed with AL DÍA was gun violence, which took more than 300 lives in Philadelphia in the last two years. This year is on track to take even more.
Philly’s current uptick in gun violence reminded her of growing up during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
“That’s scary to me,” said Gauthier.
Her solution is tied to the city’s hopeful rise from poverty, which Gauthier sees as going hand-in-hand with its current gun violence epidemic.
“I believe this is about us being the poorest big city in the country, and so I don’t think that our issues around gun violence will wane until we figure that piece out — until we figure out how to connect more people to the prosperity that is happening in our city,” she said.
Gauthier runs unopposed in November and will be sworn in in January as the first new face from District 3 in 27 years.