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May 21, 2019

Philly primary: There's a new sheriff in town

Rochelle Bilal, a 27-year police department vet, upsets incumbent and embattled Jewell Williams

Election 2019 Sheriff's Office
Rochelle Bilal Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Rochelle Bilal, a candidate trying to unseat incumbent Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams, said she was not permitted to enter the traditional Election Day gathering at Relish restaurant in West Oak Lane on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. She thinks it's because she dared to challenge the Democratic Party itself.

Around lunchtime on Election Day, Rochelle Bilal – one of three Democratic challengers seeking to unseat embattled Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams – held court outside a West Oak Lane restaurant.

Much of the political world missed it, though, since they were inside Relish restaurant. Bilal – a “distinguished 27-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, a caring mother, and a lifelong Philadelphian” – said she was turned away at the door.

“I’ve come to this thing for five years and never had a problem getting in, but that’s our Democratic Party in action. That’s what they do, they keep me out because I chose to run against that predator Jewell Williams,” she said.

Then, she confidently predicted a primary victory because of Williams’ history (including sexual harassment allegations and other alleged malfeasance) and her snubbing at the Ogontz Avenue eatery.

Well, she was right. By 10 p.m., Bilal had defeated the former state house member seeking a third term as sheriff.

According to unofficial vote tallies, Bilal had 40.6 percent of the vote, with Williams trailing at 27.2 percent – with 85 percent of the vote counted. Challengers Malika Rahman and Larry King Sr. stood at 26 percent and 6 percent of the vote, respectively. There were no Republicans on the ballot.

The results come about a month after the city’s Democratic Party rescinded its endorsement of Williams in light of three sexual harassment complaints. In 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney said Williams should resign the post, but those words went unheeded.

In her time at the police department, Bilal worked in patrol, the special victims unit and on a high-intensity drug traffic area task force.

She is president of the Guardian Civic League, a law enforcement community oversight organization comprising 2,500 active and retired Philadelphia police officers.

Bilal couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday night, but earlier in the day, she explained why she was running for office.

Her stance involved helping families stay in their homes instead of putting properties up for sheriff’s sales and protecting the courthouses better so as to avoid mysteries like the one surrounding who left a racist, misogynistic note in Municipal Court Judge Karen Yvette Simmons’ “private judicial area” in December.

“There has to be change. You can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” said Bilal, who becomes Philadelphia’s first-ever elected female sheriff. “Pay-to-play is there, and we need to get rid of it.”

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