Democratic party won’t endorse embattled sheriff, but your ward leader might

With no top-down message, the city’s 66 political divisions can decide to back Jewell Williams despite harassment allegations — or not.

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Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee may have voted to un-endorse embattled Sheriff Jewell Williams, but you still might see official party literature touting his name come Election Day.

How’s that? With no top-down endorsement from the party, the city’s 66 wards are now free to choose their own candidate in the four-way sheriff’s race.

Party chair and former Congressman Bob Brady said the city committee will print ballots for each ward depending on who they want to champion to voters on the May 21 primary. Ward leaders and their committee people may choose to back Williams, one of his three Democratic rivals, or simply leave that spot blank on sample ballots that will be handed out to voters outside the polling place.

Brady did said it was too early to tell if Williams, whose re-election bid has been dogged by accusations of sexual harassment, would enjoy widespread citywide support from his fellow Democratic leaders. Williams has denied all wrongdoing.

“We ask anybody who they wanna put on the ballot and we’ll put them on the ballot,” Brady said. “It’s up to ward leaders.”

A sample of ward leaders reached by Billy Penn show it’s still a divisive issue. Several ward leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, predicted most would either quietly endorse the controversial incumbent or leave a blank spot on the sample ballot, but others have already come out against the two-term sheriff.

State Rep. Angel Cruz, a ward leader who sits on the Democratic party’s  and is also running for City Council at the moment, said he thinks a “high percentage” of ward leaders will still back Williams. When asked if he himself would endorse Williams in the 7th ward, Cruz said no decision has been made yet.

Alan Butkovitz, the 54th ward leader who’s also running for mayor, said his ward had not yet made an endorsement. Ditto for Northwest Philly’s powerful 21st ward, according to ward leader Lou Agre.

While silence is the prevailing message right now, some wards have already made it clear they won’t back the incumbent.

South Philly’s 2nd Ward voted last month to endorse Rochelle Bilal, director of the Guardian Civic League, in her race against Williams. In voter-rich Northwest Philly, the 9th ward pushed back against the party’s initial nomination of Williams, and ward leader State Rep. Chris Rabb said it’s unlikely his committee people will vote to endorse the sheriff, though no endorsement has been made yet.

Williams himself is a ward leader in North Philly, and also moonlights as a political consultant for judicial candidates who need help courting support from Democratic party leaders. He did not return phone calls for comment.

Brady, the Democratic party chairman, says ward leaders have until about two weeks before the election to submit their own sheriff’s race endorsement.

Conventional wisdom holds that the party’s sample ballots can be highly influential on voters come Election Day, especially in low-information races where votes are secured by a friendly face “handing you a piece of paper.” (Analyses have shown that not all wards have the same influence on voter turnout.)

But no campaign denies the necessity of courting that individual ward support, especially with no endorsement from the party. Teresa Lundy, a spokesperson for Bilal, said her campaign is benefiting from the party withdrawing its nomination.

“We’ve been talking to those independent-thinking wards and they’re grateful for the party’s decision to let them do what they do best,” Lundy said. Wards ask candidates for varying sums of money to help get-out-the-vote efforts, and Lundy said some leaders were offering Bilal “discounted rates” for their support.

Lundy added that “a few other wards” had committed to endorsing Bilal in West and Northwest Philly, but declined to name names, alleging that Williams was already “making calls and cutting deals” to shift influence in his favor.

The incumbent faces two other challengers as well: former deputy sheriff Malika Rahman and another ex-sheriff deputy Larry King Sr.

No candidate has flashed a lot of money in the race so race, but Williams leads the pack in fundraising.