Mt. Airy resident and City Commissioner candidate Carla Cain at a recent petition drive. (Photo courtesy of the Cain campaign)

by Elizabeth Coady

When she was a little girl, Carla Cain remembers her father telling stories about Octavius Catto, a black intellectual and equal rights activist who immigrated to Philadelphia from South Carolina and who was killed on his way to cast a vote in a city election on Oct. 10, 1871. Tensions were high between black citizens and white Irishmen who had begun arriving from Europe and were competing for jobs and housing, and the election followed the state ratifying the 15th Amendment guaranteeing blacks the right to vote one year earlier.

Born free to one of Charleston’s “most distinguished mulatto families,” the college-educated Catto was an activist and huge proponent of blacks’ voting rights.

“He would go to churches, he would go into schools, and get people registered to vote,” said Cain, 51, of Mount Airy, who is running for a position on the three-member Philadelphia City Commission, and who later learned more about Catto in college. “When I read that story I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the man I was looking for all my life!’”

Catto was “an African American leader who struggled against segregation and discrimination in transportation, sports, politics and society,” according to the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to stop until it’s finished,’ and that’s the way I am,” Cain said. “ I’m not going to stop until it’s done.”

Now Cain wants to follow in Catto’s footsteps: She seeks to win a seat on the commission in charge of managing the city’s elections and voter registration. Married with two grown children, she filed nearly 4,100 petition signatures to win a spot on the May 21 election primary ballot.

“Every vote counts,” she said in a brief telephone interview. “That may sound so trivial to some people, but every vote counts. Just like every human has value, every vote should be valued.”

She lamented that “younger people are not voting. So … I want to be a candidate, or a person, that loves humanity, that goes to the people. If they’re at the barbershop, I want to be at the barbershop. If they’re at the synagogue, I want to go to the synagogue. I want to meet people where they’re at.”

Currently, Cain serves as a Committeeperson in the 25th Division of the 22nd Ward representing parts of East and West Mt. Airy, and as first vice-chair of the State Democratic Committee for the 22nd Ward. She says she works hard to connect to residents and proudly tells the story of how a resident in a neighboring division contacted her for help.

“I’m really truly grassroots,” said the self-described “fixer” with 1,275 names in her phone contacts. “I tell everybody, ‘I can’t promise you the output that you want. But what I can promise you is that I will not ignore anyone. I will always return phone calls.’”

The youngest of 11 children, Cain graduated from Northeast High School before getting her bachelor’s degree in political science at Cheyney University – previously known as the Institute for Colored Youth, from which Catto graduated valedictorian in 1858. She subsequently earned a master’s degree in public administration from Strayer University, and is working on her Ph.D. in government policy at Capella University.

This is not Cain’s first run for a citywide office. In 2015, she was one of 16 candidates to vie for five Democratic at-large positions on City Council. She won 17,115 votes or 2.7 percent of the total votes cast for the post.

Cain’s husband is Malcolm Cain, who works for the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The couple has been married for 28 years and shares a home with Carla’s mom and dad, who are 85 and 94, respectively.

“I tell everybody this story on Christmas of 1991 how they came over and they never left,” she said. “It just happened.”

Cain grew grassroots by her father’s example.

“My dad was always a go-to person,” she said.

After graduating from Central High School at 16, Charles Smith worked as an engineer for the City of Philadelphia and later was a block captain and committeeperson in the neighborhood of Logan.

She has spent decades working for and around city campaigns.

In 2012, she managed the campaign for the late James H. Foster, publisher of the Mt. Airy Independent newspaper and a one-time Chestnut Hill Community Association board member who ran for the state’s 2nd Congressional District as an independent.

Prior to that, she worked as an associate field manager for Cindy Bass’ campaign for the 8th District City Council seat, helping to organize signature drives, neighborhood canvassing and social media interactions. She also worked on the campaign of Gregory Coleman, who ran for a Court of Common Pleas judgeship in 2009. Coleman’s father was Joseph E. Coleman, who served on City Council from 1972 to 1992, and was Council president from 1980 to 1992.

“His father was the former councilman,” Cain said. “And when Gregory came and asked me for service, I was honored because his father did so much for Philadelphia. That was a wonderful experience.”

Cain is also founder and owner of Harambee Christian Outreach Mission, where she implemented programs to help community members. In that role, she helped students fill out financial aid applications, register to vote and lobbied for neighborhood speed bumps.

She says her experience in politics has taught her the good, the bad and ugly of the business. And she admits she recently encountered ugly in her ward where she says a slander campaign left its mark on her spirits. She didn’t go into details, but she did say that there are limits to what she’ll do to win an election.

“It’s really painful to even speak on it now,” she said of the whisper campaign.

To “go out and slander another individual? – that’s not good,” she said. “I want to be a city commissioner, but if it’s at the price of harming my fellow people … I don’t want to be the city commissioner, they can have it. I don’t believe this is a job at any price by any means possible.’