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Erstwhile allies square off in Delco House race

When State Rep. Margo Davidson - the first Democrat, first woman, and first African American to represent her Delaware County district - was fiercely challenged by two members of her own party in 2014, she had an ally in Upper Darby Councilwoman Sekela Coles.

Sekela Coles, left, Margo Davidson, right.
Sekela Coles, left, Margo Davidson, right.Read more

When State Rep. Margo Davidson - the first Democrat, first woman, and first African American to represent her Delaware County district - was fiercely challenged by two members of her own party in 2014, she had an ally in Upper Darby Councilwoman Sekela Coles.

Two years later, the Delaware County legislator is confronting the same situation again: challenged from within her own party. But this time, Coles isn't in Davidson's corner - she's leading the charge against the Democratic incumbent, who has drawn attention for her unconventional stance on backing abortion regulations.

After decades of GOP domination, Democrats hold a countywide registration advantage. Still, they have struggled to win elections.

So as an intramural spat bubbles in a district Democrats only took for the first time in 2010, party chairman David Landau says that infighting is the last thing the party needs.

"We already have our hands full fighting Republicans," Landau said. "It doesn't feel good to fight among ourselves."

Davidson and Coles, once considered amiable colleagues who loudly supported each other's campaigns for public office, are vying to represent the ethnically diverse 164th District, which includes Lansdowne and portions of Yeadon, Upper Darby Township, East Lansdowne, and Millbourne.

For Coles, a first-term Upper Darby councilwoman who also is African American, the race marks a first foray into state politics.

For Davidson, the April 26 primary is all too familiar: Coles' campaign comes as the second challenge to her seat in two years.

Since Davidson arrived in Harrisburg in 2011, her tenure has been defined by periods of sharp criticism for her maverick voting record - while also garnering applause for her independence.

Outspoken and opinionated, the 52-year-old is known for her renegade votes with Republicans on school vouchers and abortion restrictions. She has been known for her sometimes confrontational approach.

Yet, she twice has been reelected - including by a 4-1 ratio in the 2014 general election. Davidson says it's an indicator that the district isn't ready for her to leave.

Coles says this year is different.

"There is a need for stronger representation in Harrisburg," she said.

The winner will oppose Republican Inderjit Bains, a compliance consultant from Upper Darby and an Upper Darby Libraries board member.

Some party leaders who once backed Davidson - including members of the Upper Darby Democratic Committee - are backing Coles. The Delaware County Democratic Committee, which supported Davidson in 2014, is remaining neutral.

Coles, 38, said she's running to put a legislator who "consistently votes with the Democratic caucus" back in office. A supporter of abortion rights and a fierce advocate for the public school system, Coles said she plans to advocate for issues that she said Davidson has abandoned.

"I think it's key to our Democratic values that we are for public education and not for accepting interest or finances from entities that want to privatize our schools," Coles said.

In 2011, Davidson faced blowback when she sided against Democrats on abortion restrictions and school vouchers - government-funded grants used to pay for part of a student's private K-12 tuition. She was one of only four House Democrats to support vouchers.

Davidson's campaign has received financial support from Students First Pa., a pro-voucher and pro-charter school PAC, receiving $70,500 from the organization between 2010 and 2014.

"She supports the public school system," said Michael Lavanga, Davidson's campaign manager. "But there is a need in this district for options. She recognizes that."

That isn't the only thing on which Davidson stands resolute.

Five years ago, she gained national attention when she stood on the floor of the state House and explained why she had voted for a bill tightening abortion-clinic regulations. Years earlier, her 22-year-old cousin had died after an abortion at Kermit Gosnell's notorious and now-shuttered West Philadelphia clinic.

"I don't think women should be collateral damage in our path toward reproductive freedom," Davidson said last week.

Her atypical votes have drawn criticism from party members and left-leaning organizations. This election, Planned Parenthood - among others, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association - endorsed Coles. Still, House Democratic caucus spokesman Bill Patton said Davidson remained a respected and reliable party member.

Two years after campaigning for Davidson, Coles said the legislator had "overstated" the relationship they once had.

"This is just another bad attempt by Rep. Davidson to personalize politics and distract from her record," Coles said.

Coles said she was confident her experience on Upper Darby Council - hosting domestic-violence workshops, holding town halls - had given her an understanding of what the district lacked.

"Our community needs a strong and consistent advocate in Harrisburg," she said. "I want to bring that back to the 164th District."