Charles Gibbs was involved in politics at an early age; now it’s a niche practice
Published in 2019 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 16, 2019
Updated on July 22, 2019
In the late ’90s, at 16, Charles Gibbs became the youngest block captain in the history of Philadelphia.
“Twenty years removed, I recognize [my neighbors] took a big chance on a young kid, and gave me the opportunity that has propelled me to be a lawyer,” Gibbs says.
Gibbs notes that block captain isn’t a “huge” position, but it’s important: You’re the voice for your block. A young kid with a bent for advocating, block captain felt like a natural fit.
“I got to branch into meeting decision-makers, and being an advocate for folks who needed [one],” he says. “A person comes home, wants to help kids with homework, make dinner—they don’t have time to dedicate to making sure a pothole gets fixed.”
In 1998, Gibbs worked on a campaign for a state representative—his first. “I learned the basics: how to stuff envelopes and knock on doors and have conversations,” he says. Gibbs worked his way up to managing a judicial campaign, and, in 1999 and 2003, the campaigns for Mayor John Street, a figure who would prove critical. After Gibbs graduated from Temple, he was contemplating running for office. “Then John Street took an interest in my career, and encouraged me to go to law school.”
Armed with a J.D., he stopped managing campaigns, but didn’t shake off politics. He used the firsthand knowledge he gained while working on campaigns—the lawful way to get on a ballot, for example—to inform an election law niche.
“There are myriad requirements a person has to fulfill before they can get on a ballot,” he says. “There’s a very detailed way to make sure that someone has done everything right.”
Then there’s voter protection. “That happens on the days leading up to Election Day: making sure the people who can’t [get to the polls] have the ability to vote,” he says.
Sometimes Gibbs defends potential candidates who are being challenged on the ballot, and other times he’s trying to knock someone off one. Recently, he successfully represented a congressional candidate whose notary forgot to sign the petition, which is required.
“It was my burden to prove that there was no fraud, just a technical error,” he says. “That error should not preclude the thousands of people who had signed the petition to vote for a candidate.”
He sees his job not just as advocate, but as educator, too.
“The overarching principle is that people have a right to run for office, and people can vote for who they want,” he says. “The courts have, in the last five years, lightened some of the rigorous standards that have precluded, in the past, people from running for office.”
Gibbs’ election work ebbs and flows.
“Especially in a city that has a majority party like Philadelphia,” he says, “the primary is very important. From February to May, I’m paying a lot of attention to it. There’s three weeks of petitions, and there’s about a week of petition challenges, and then Election Day.” The bulk of his work at McMonagle, which he joined in March 2018, is criminal defense and family law.
He laughs off managing another campaign, but appreciates what that work did for his world view.
“We have a perception that people are jaded and disinterested in what’s happening around them,” he says. “I found that, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, people wanted someone who was going to fight for them. I enjoyed the chance to listen to people and find that there is more that binds us than divides us.”
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Percentage of Congress members that were lawyers