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The newest state rep: 'a breath of fresh air.'

It was near midnight Tuesday, the election results clear and surprising, when her former college professor sent her a text message: Congratulations Representative White.

Republican Martina White, 26, won a surprising victory in a March 24 special election to fill the 170th District seat vacated by Brendan Boyle. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Republican Martina White, 26, won a surprising victory in a March 24 special election to fill the 170th District seat vacated by Brendan Boyle. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)Read more

It was near midnight Tuesday, the election results clear and surprising, when her former college professor sent her a text message: Congratulations Representative White.

At 26, an age when many are still living at home with their parents, trying to sort out jobs and careers, Martina White knows exactly where she's headed - to Harrisburg, and a seat in the state House of Representatives.

White won a commanding victory in a special election in Northeast Philadelphia's 170th District, becoming the second GOP House member from Philadelphia and the first Republican candidate to win an open seat in 25 years.

"Martina will be a breath of fresh air in the Capitol," said Sanjay Paul, an associate economics professor who taught White at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County. "She will bring a certain sensibility that's needed in politics, a willingness to listen, a willingness to learn."

On Wednesday, White met with supporters, held a succession of meetings, talked to reporters, and processed a 13 percentage-point victory that prompted Republican celebrations and Democratic recriminations.

White defeated Democrat Sarah Del Ricci, handpicked for the special election by Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III, in a district where the GOP is outnumbered, 2-1, among 36,185 registered voters.

"It's a privilege and an honor to be able to represent the Northeast," White said in an interview Wednesday, crediting the hard work of campaign volunteers, who included several unions. "I definitely believed all along that we could win."

In interviews, people who know White say she is hardworking, reliable, curious, and has excellent people skills and a rigorous intellect. She grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, the first member of her immediate family to graduate from college.

As a financial adviser at Independence Wealth Strategies in Marlton, Burlington County - White told her boss Wednesday that she would be leaving - she helped families and small-business owners try to meet their financial goals.

White said she was moved to run after seeing, up close, the difficulties faced by companies struggling to stay profitable and by workers seeking to build better lives for their children.

White, who lives in Parkwood, centered her campaign on three issues: more jobs and higher pay, fair taxes, and better schools.

The seat in the 170th District, which covers Bustleton, Somerton, and Parkwood, was expected to stay Democratic. But a split within organized labor divided union support among both candidates.

Rep. Brendan Boyle, who left the 170th District seat in January after being elected to the U.S. House, issued a statement congratulating White and saying she "clearly was the harder-working candidate."

Boyle and his brother, State Rep. Kevin Boyle, had wanted an aide, Seth Kaplan, to be chosen as the Democratic candidate. Stack pushed for Del Ricci.

"This could have remained a Democratic seat," Boyle said.

Boyle won his seat in Congress with strong support from unions involved in construction, some of which supported White Tuesday.

Del Ricci, 34, lives in Parkwood and founded the Parkwood Therapeutic Riding Center. Her husband, John, is a longtime friend and political ally of Stack's.

White's victory can be traced to Republican unity, Democratic dissension, and strong labor support. She gained endorsements from unions representing city police officers, firefighters, blue-collar workers, gas workers, SEPTA employees, and construction workers.

John McNesby, president of Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, said having former Gov. Ed Rendell campaign for Del Ricci was "a Christmas present" for White. The former governor and mayor remains unpopular with many municipal union members who live there, he said.

McNesby had his union run a phone bank to call voters and seek support for White.

She won nearly 57 percent of the vote, joining State Rep. John Taylor as Philadelphia's GOP members in the Republican-controlled state House.

Taylor, the city's Republican Party chairman, said White called labor unions personally and might be the first of a new wave of Republicans winning their support.

"I think you're going to see more of a solid relationship with what labor wants and what we're doing at the state level," he said.

White described the day after the election as "surreal - something I never would have imagined was in my future.

"This isn't ever where I thought I would be," she said, but "I think it's important that good people step up to the plate to be an option for voters. When that happens it doesn't go unrecognized."

White graduated from Villa Joseph Marie High School in Holland, Pa., and in 2010 from Elizabethtown College, a private 1,900-student university known to supporters as E-town. She earned a degree in business administration and marketing.

On campus, White stood out as a scholar and athlete, competing in debate competitions on subjects such as monetary policy, and as captain of the Bluejays' field hockey team.

"It doesn't surprise me that she's trying to make a difference - that was always her aspiration," said head coach Brandy Michael. "She wanted to make a difference and make a change."

Michael described her former player as a good athlete and hard worker, a great teammate who did not always get to play as much as she would have liked. As a senior, playing forward, White scored two goals and three assists in 17 games.

"She was one of my favorites," the coach said. "She would do anything for anyone."

Her grades were outstanding.

"I'm delighted to see she's coming to Harrisburg," said Paul, the economics teacher. "She will do her homework. She will fight on behalf of her constituents."

Paul said White consistently sought out intellectual challenges, never settling for what could be done simply or easily. That set her apart.

During and after college she joined study tours to the United Nations in New York and in Geneva and to the European Union in Brussels. Those journeys fed her interest in global affairs, international relations, and diverse cultures, Paul said.

He was surprised when she phoned to say she was running for public office.

"After the initial shock wore off," he said, "I could quickly see how she would be a formidable candidate."