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The unlikely rise of State Rep. Martina White

A millennial from Northeast Philly with scant political experience now sits at the forefront of two of the most heated issues of our time: Immigration and police transparency.

State Rep. Martina White, 28, at her Northeast Philadelphia office. Since winning her seat in 2015 as the first Republican to win an open House seat in the city in 25 years, despite having no political experience, she has made a name for herself on two contentious issues, immigration and police transparency.
State Rep. Martina White, 28, at her Northeast Philadelphia office. Since winning her seat in 2015 as the first Republican to win an open House seat in the city in 25 years, despite having no political experience, she has made a name for herself on two contentious issues, immigration and police transparency.Read moreANTHONY BELTRAN / Staff Photographer.

HARRISBURG -- Martina White laughs when someone points at the stopped clock that hangs on one of the pale walls in her mostly bare office in the state Capitol's sprawling basement.

"We'll have to get that fixed soon," she says, before turning out the lights after a long afternoon of listening to her colleagues bicker on the floor of the opulent state House chambers. The clock is just a cheap office decoration, really, but it works as an apt symbol for a state government that is often viewed as being incapable of moving forward on the most urgent issues of the day.

White is supposed to be something different, something new: a no-nonsense millennial from Northeast Philadelphia who, in 2015, became the first Republican to win an open House seat in the city in 25 years, despite the fact that she had no political experience.

While most young lawmakers learn to make names for themselves slowly, White immediately planted herself at the forefront of two of the most contentious, hotly-debated issues of our time — immigration and police transparency.

She's trying to turn up the heat on Mayor Kenney by pushing, for a second time, a bill she authored to strip state funding from Philadelphia unless he surrenders its sanctuary city designation. White also created legislation to delay the release of names of officers who are involved in shootings, over the objections of activists and even Police Commissioner Richard Ross.

Some of her peers gush that White is a breath of fresh air, a novice who nonetheless excels at old-fashioned, retail politics and winning over labor unions, such as electricians Local 98, that have typically backed Democratic candidates. Others peg her as an empty pol who is just following the Us vs. Them playbook that helped propel President Trump to the White House — and divide the country along the way.

White appears to relish being a state representative in the middle of political tug-of-wars. But she also seems a little unsure of the attention that position attracts, knowing that people will look at her and question her motives, and speculate about her future.

It's been a lot for her to digest in a short amount of time. And it all started with some small talk at a clambake.

An unlikely offer

Some politicians weave together intricate, inspiring backstories about how they ended up in elected office — think heavy doses of obstacles overcome, mixed with heeding a patriotic call to serve the public.

The "About Martina" page on White's website doesn't seem to have patience for such blather; it offers the basics in  six short paragraphs, from the committees she serves on (Urban Affairs, Health, Judiciary, and Consumer Affairs) to a few personal tidbits (Parkwood resident, with a bachelor's degree in business administration from Elizabethtown College).

Besides, at 28, it doesn't take White long to tell her life story. She grew up in the Northeast — first in Chalfont, then Somerton — and her grandfather once owned a large trucking company called Marty's Express. (Joe DeFelice, the chairman of the Philadelphia Republican Party, says his father once drove a truck for White's grandfather.)

The oldest of John and Lisa White's three children, she dreamed of working in finance, not politics. "I always thought I'd go into business," she says one afternoon in late March.

She studied abroad while in college, at the University of Gloucestershire in England, and expanded her worldview beyond the boundaries of County Line Road and Roosevelt Boulevard.

After graduating from Elizabethtown, White landed a job at Metlife's Independence Wealth Strategies. "My experience there was really just working with local families and small businesses," she says. "It gave me a perspective on the real issues people are facing: 'Can I save enough money to pay for my retirement? Am I even going to be able to retire?' "

The people skills White developed while working in finance would serve her well when a series of political dominoes fell and presented her with an unlikely opportunity.

Then-state Rep. Brendan Boyle vacated his seat in the Northeast's 170th District in January 2015 to go to Congress, and a special election was called to find his replacement.

Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in the 170th, which includes the 58th and 66th Wards, and keeping that seat blue should have been easy. But the party was tripped up by infighting over potential candidates.

Lt. Gov. Mike Stack selected Sarah Del Ricci, the wife of a longtime friend and political ally, over the objections of Boyle, who backed an aide named Seth Kaplan.

Republicans thought outside the box. Months before Boyle left his seat, Alice Udovich, a committeewoman in the 58th Ward, invited White to a summer clambake the Republican Party hosts at Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein in the Northeast.

Udovich had watched White grow up alongside her own children; she knew her to be a civic-minded young woman. So Udovich posed an unexpected question to White: Are you interested in running for office?

"We often say that we'd like to get young people involved in politics, that we need some fresh minds," says Udovich, an administrative assistant for Republican City Councilman Brian O'Neill. "But when I first brought up Martina's name, [the party] didn't take it so seriously."

White wasn't sure how to respond. But she agreed to meet with local Republican officials, who peppered her with mostly softball questions. "They asked me, 'What ward and division are you in?'" White says, laughing, "and I was like, 'Naaaah, I don't know what a ward and division are. I guess this isn't going to work out.'"

DeFelice says the party had a handful of older candidates with deeper civic ties to choose from, but still felt drawn to White. "When we sat down with all of them, she just shined above the rest," he says. "She said, 'Look, I'll quit my job tomorrow and start knocking on doors.' It was different for us."

"How old are you?"

White dove headfirst into a political world she barely knew. She took a leave from Independence Wealth Strategies and started canvassing the 170th during a winter that was memorable for its plunging temperatures.

"There were some folks who were like, 'How old are you?' because I look like I'm 12," White says with a wry grin.

But she won the crucial backing of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, many of whose members live in the Northeast. "It was a combination of things," explains FOP president John McNesby. "The Democratic Party couldn't get its act together, and Martina emerged as a person who had passion for law enforcement."

When the special election was held in March 2015, White cruised to an eye-popping 11-point victory over Del Ricci. DeFelice and local Republicans finally had something to celebrate.

Her first order of business in Harrisburg was to introduce a resolution naming 2015 the year of the law enforcement officer. A few months later, she showed up at the FOP's headquarters on Caroline Road to announce she was introducing a House bill to prohibit anyone other than a district attorney or state attorney general from releasing the names of officers involved in shootings until 30 days after the incident, or after an investigation is finished. The bill was a clear rebuke of a policy instituted by then-Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey to identify cops within 72 hours of a shooting.

Ramsey's policy mirrored other police departments across the country that were trying to become more transparent and regain trust in minority communities.

"Nobody wants to see their name out there and have it be a target of negativity and this stuff that a lot of times isn't necessarily even true," White says. "And they have to go back out into the community to protect us from the bad guys, even though their names are going to be thrown out to the wolves."

White says the 72-hour policy jeopardizes the safety of cops and their families. "Why would somebody need the person's name so quick," she asks, "unless they were going to be trying to do something potentially to their family, or to the officer themselves?"

Ramsey and reform-minded supporters countered that there hadn't been evidence of the policy leading to retaliatory attacks.

But White's bill passed through the House last October with bipartisan support, attracting votes from five members of Philadelphia's delegation. Gov. Wolf vetoed it. Ross, Ramsey's successor, has said its backers "may be missing the bigger picture."

Freshman Democratic state Rep. Chris Rabb, who represents Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and part of West Oak Lane, is skeptical of his colleague. "I think she has an evidence-free piece of legislation that serves the goals of the FOP, but not the police," he says.

Clashing narratives

"She's already a star," crows state Rep. John Taylor, who has represented the River Wards in the city's 177th District since 1984.

Taylor says he's been impressed with his fellow Republican's willingness to tackle controversial issues that other young pols might avoid. "She's no pushover."

But there's a flip side to that coin.  A group of immigration activists last April recorded an impromptu discussion in White's small, Harrisburg office about her sanctuary cities bill that quickly turned heated. The confrontation ended with White yelling for them to leave her office.

Erika Almiron, the executive director of a South Philadelphia-based advocacy organization called Juntos, was among the group of 25 or so visitors who were in White's office that day.

They had walked in unannounced after visiting other legislators, and found White alone behind her desk. "Her bills are meant to incite fear and criminalize Latino immigrants," Almiron says. "She couldn't articulate her position, and she started saying she felt threatened."

White says she she tried to be cordial, even though she had to be on the House floor to present a bill. The narrow room filled quickly, and one Juntos member can be heard asking White if she wanted to be "Trump in Pennsylvania."

"It was overwhelming, and there was no one else who knew that I was actually in my office," White says. "It was certainly the first encounter I had with a large group like that as an elected official."

Trump, of course, looms over any discussion about immigration policies. White won't say if she voted for the president — she fared better than he did in the 170th when she beat Democratic challenger Matt Darragh in November — but she remains steadfast in their shared criticism of sanctuary cities.

Her legislation, House Bill 28, promises to hold sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia liable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, and withhold state funds that are not "constitutionally mandated" from cities that are not cooperating with federal immigration officials. (The state Senate is also considering a separate sanctuary cities bill.)

"I want to make sure that if there is someone here illegally and they are committing crimes in our community, that something's being done about it," White says, adding that she believes Kenney has "overstepped his bounds."

Kenney says he recently met with White in City Hall. "The dialogue was that she was not going to pursue [the bill]. That was in my office, and that's what she said," he said, sighing. "There was staff there. And she's introduced it again."

White falls silent for a moment when told about Kenney's comments, then insists that the opposite is true, that she made clear she planned on reintroducing her bill.

"Look, she's a very nice person," Kenney says. "I like her personally. But why you would ever put in any legislation to defund your own city makes absolutely no sense to me, especially since the most likely area of defunding is going to be the police, who probably made up the largest amount of her district as far as residents are concerned."

His comments were echoed to a degree by national FOP leaders who expressed concern during a recent White House visit that proposed federal funding cuts to sanctuary cities might inadvertently hurt law enforcement.

White argues the onus is on Kenney. "Zero dollars will be withheld as long as you're doing what's right," she says. But there's a chance the bill could backfire on them both if it's successfully adopted, a possibility she dismisses.

White has made her presence known as one of the record-high 40 women in the traditionally old, male-dominated House. Maybe she'll dig in for a 33-year run like John Taylor, or listen to supporters who are already telling her to consider  a bid for Congress. Either way, it would probably be unwise to underestimate her.

"Sometimes you hear people say, 'Oh, it's not that person's time yet, it's just not in the cards for them,' " she says. "I think you kind of make what's in the cards for you."