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Progressives seek to expand political footprint in Philly through Pa. House and Senate races

Some of the potential challengers are waiting to see which districts they will end up in after the state approves new legislative redistricting maps.

A growing number of progressive candidates hoping to defeat Philadelphia Democratic incumbents are emerging in next year's races for the state General Assembly.
A growing number of progressive candidates hoping to defeat Philadelphia Democratic incumbents are emerging in next year's races for the state General Assembly.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO

Local progressives are hoping to make major inroads into the city’s delegation to Harrisburg by challenging Democratic incumbents in the May primary election.

Many of the activists-turned-candidates have worked with groups like the Working Families Party, Reclaim Philly, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Their targets are at least five Democrats in the state House, as well as Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democrat who represents West Philadelphia.

That sets the stage for 2022 as another cycle of Philadelphia progressives tussling with the Democratic establishment for power in races that once drew little interest or competition.

“There’s a half-dozen people that are running. I’m really excited that there’s going to be a major effort,” said Aileen Callaghan, a founding member of Reclaim running against his former boss, Rep. Joe Hohenstein. “We’re going to build power.”

Some of the potential challengers are waiting to see which districts they end up in after redistricting by the state leads to new legislative district boundaries.

“Lots of people have ideas about running until they see a map,” said Rep. Joanna McClinton, the House Democratic leader, whose district includes West Philadelphia and parts of Delaware County. “Things change.”

The upstarts will try to follow in the steps of State Sen. Nikil Saval and State Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler, Rick Krajewski, and Chris Rabb — all progressive Philly Democrats who beat more moderate incumbents or establishment-backed candidates.

Still, while the progressive trend appears to be growing in the city, what is looming for the 2022 cycle does not appear to be a cohesive action organized across the left but rather individuals seeking to build from past successes.

And victory is far from guaranteed. Redistricting tends to benefit incumbents, who can influence the map-drawing to exclude potential opponents. Additionally, the groups involved have to also devote attention and resources on higher-profile races for governor and the U.S. House and Senate.

Here is a look at some primary races to watch for Pennsylvania’s General Assembly:

8th Senate District: South, West, and Southwest Philadelphia and parts of Delaware County

The incumbent, Williams, was born into a family that built a political power structure outside of the old established order in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He took his father’s seat first in the House and then the Senate. That path has meant he has never faced a competitive primary.

Paul Prescod, a Democratic Socialists of America organizer and public schoolteacher active in union issues, is looking to change that.

Williams, who has a cadre of younger politicians who came up under his tutelage, dismisses the rising progressives as outsiders.

“Many of them don’t come from the communities where they’re running,” he said. “And they’re not engaged in the grassroots that created our political structure.”

Prescod, like others interviewed for this story, said he is seeking broad support for his campaign, from progressive groups and also ward leaders and Democratic committee members. He cites early labor endorsements as evidence that he had been engaged in the community before seeking office.

175th House District: Center City, Lower Northeast Philadelphia

Rep. Mary Isaacson has been in office since 2019 but worked for 12 years as chief of staff to her predecessor, the late Rep. Mike O’Brien. She knows her district, which includes plenty of activists, will always produce primary challengers but said her record shows a progressive point of view.

“I was voted the least conservative voter in the Pennsylvania state House, so I really don’t know how much further left anyone could want,” she said.

Samantha Pheiffer, a former Planned Parenthood staffer who took Reclaim Philly’s candidate training class, filed paperwork to establish a political action committee last month and plans to announce her candidacy later this month.

177th House District: Lower Northeast Philadelphia

Hohenstein, the incumbent, was elected in 2018 with the help of progressive groups that may be hoping to knock him off this cycle.

Callaghan was a founding member of Reclaim and worked for Hohenstein’s previous campaigns. But the incumbent hasn’t lived up to his promises, Callaghan said.

“The consistent theme is a reluctance to actually take a position on any social issue. That is not leadership. Leadership is taking a stand, saying what needs to happen,” Callaghan said. “It will be a really important message: You commit to what you say you’re going to do, or you’ll be replaced.”

Hohenstein’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

182nd House District: Center City

Rep. Brian Sims, the first legislator in state history to win office as an openly gay candidate, is leaving his Center City district to run for lieutenant governor, and at least four Democrats are already vying to replace him.

Tyrell Brown, a preschool teacher and Reclaim organizer running for the seat, said that interest in next year’s races is being driven by the pandemic and national politics, not by a recruiting drive by any one group.

”It’s a wave, but it’s not necessarily coming from Reclaim or from any necessarily progressive organization,” Brown said.

The other candidates are Deja Lynn Alvarez, director of community engagement at World Health Care Infrastructures; Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce; and Ben Waxman, who runs a communications consultant firm.

190th House District: West Philadelphia

Rep. Amen Brown, a freshman House member, drew the ire of Philly’s progressive movement this year when he introduced a bill that would set new mandatory minimum sentences for gun-related crimes, a policy that would be anathema to criminal justice reform advocates.

G. Roni Green, who held the seat before Brown and lost to him in 2020, said she’s undecided about whether she will seek to reclaim the seat. Green said that even if she doesn’t, she hopes someone more progressive than Brown will.

“I know the need is there,” said Green, a business manager with the Service Employees International Union, a major funder of many left-wing groups.

Brown said he is focused on serving his constituents.

”Someone will ALWAYS have something to say, many never having a real conversation with me,” Brown said in a statement. “Whether it’s making sure communities have food on their table, working to get people that look like me jobs so they don’t have to be on the streets, advocating for the investment in gun violence prevention programs, and more, I’m working.”

194th House District: Northwest Philadelphia, parts of Montgomery County

Rep. Pamela DeLissio, first elected in 2010, said an emphasis on political labels does little to accomplish legislative goals.

“I would think on any given day I am as progressive as many of these folks,” said DeLissio, who touts her frequent town-hall meetings and willingness to work across the aisle and attract support from Republican voters. “I think I represent the district appropriately.”

She is being challenged by Tarik Khan, a nurse and Reclaim member who is seeking support from the Working Families Party. Khan, who has been making house calls to deliver COVID-19 vaccine shots to people with mobility issues, is staffing up with people who worked on past campaigns for Saval and Krajewski.

198th House District: North Philadelphia

Rep. Darisha Parker is a freshman target, having won a narrow victory last year in a four-candidate primary. Parker, who declined to comment, did not face a general election challenger last year.

Bernard Williams, who runs a human resources payroll service for small businesses, finished second to Parker by a 273-vote margin in last year’s primary. Williams said he is running for the seat again and, while he did not have support from progressive groups last year, he is seeking it for the next race.

201st House District: North and Northwest Philadelphia

Rep. Stephen Kinsey, first elected in 2012, said he has heard about a challenge from Andre Carroll, a staffer in Williams’ Senate office who was campaign manager for Working Families Party candidate Nicolas O’Rourke’s 2019 bid for City Council.

Carroll declined to comment.

Kinsey said he won support from progressives in previous campaigns and expects his district to judge all candidates by their past performances.

“They don’t look for a Johnny-come-lately,” Kinsey said. “The folks in my district are very smart. They look to see what you have done.”