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Daylin Leach loses to Amanda Cappelletti in high-profile Democratic primary after #MeToo allegations

The high-profile Pennsylvania progressive lost the support of key party leaders after allegations that he inappropriately touched female former staffers, in one of the first #MeToo moments in state politics.

Amanda Cappelletti
Amanda CappellettiRead moreCourtesy

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a high-profile Pennsylvania progressive who lost the support of key Democratic leaders after allegations that he inappropriately touched female former staffers mushroomed into one of the first #MeToo moments in state politics, has been defeated by primary challenger Amanda Cappelletti.

The Associated Press projected Saturday that Cappelletti, vice chair of the East Norriton Board of Supervisors and a former head of public policy for Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania, had prevailed in the suburban Philadelphia district. It was unclear how many mail ballots remained to be counted. A surge in voting by mail for Tuesday’s primary has left numerous races without a winner declared as counties tally all the votes. Returns from precincts that had reported suggested Cappelletti won by a wide margin.

“We worked really hard to get here,” Cappelletti said in an interview. “I have a great team supporting me.”

She said that talking health-care and environmental issues resonated the most with voters, but that many also liked the idea that she would bring a fresh perspective to Harrisburg. And Cappelletti said she’s proud to be joining a recent wave of women who have been elected to office from the Philadelphia suburbs in recent years, including members of Congress and the state legislature.

“It’s incredibly important that we talk about the need to see yourself reflected on TV and elsewhere in leadership roles,” she said. “And it’s incredibly important that we continue to move that needle forward.”

Leach didn’t immediately comment Saturday.

» READ MORE: Candidates across Pa. have no idea if they won or lost their primary elections

Cappelletti was endorsed by party officials including Gov. Tom Wolf, Lt. Gov John Fetterman, a dozen state lawmakers and members of Congress, and even U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. She will face Republican Ellen Fisher in the general election for the 17th District, which spans parts of Montgomery and Delaware Counties and is considered a safe Democratic seat.

Leach, who has held the office since 2009 and was previously a state representative, began to lose support among some Democrats in 2017, after female ex-staffers accused him of inappropriate touching and making highly sexualized jokes.

The backlash intensified after he lashed out at a woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her almost three decades ago when she was 17.

Leach has denied the claims, and filed a defamation lawsuit against the woman and two activists. He also sued The Inquirer and one of its reporters over coverage of the allegations. The newspaper has stood by its reporting.

» READ MORE: Our 2017 story: Ex-staffers say Leach crossed line with sex talk, inappropriate touching

An outside investigation commissioned by Senate Democrats last year found that Leach had engaged in joking that was at times “unquestionably sexual in nature.” It also determined his conduct fell short of violating federal discrimination law. It said none of the witnesses the lawyers interviewed “offered any specific instances of any particular woman who claimed that Sen. Leach touched them in a sexually inappropriate way.”

“Rather, the allegations were all of a more general nature, without specifics, that the senator had a way about him that could be viewed as sexually suggestive only if that person did not know Sen. Leach,” said the report by the law firm Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC.

The investigators wrote they could not form a conclusion about the sexual-assault allegation.

Cappelletti made Leach’s behavior central to her campaign, highlighting the allegations and calls for his resignation in advertising. “We deserve better," read one Cappelletti campaign ad. “It’s time for Daylin Leach to go.”

Through it all, Leach retained the support of some influential Democrats, and at the outset of the campaign his detractors acknowledged he’d be tough to beat — especially as more than a half-dozen people lined up to challenge him for the nomination.

Some Democrats worried the crowded field would split the anti-Leach vote and set him on a path to reelection. Eventually, though, every challenger but Cappelletti dropped out of the race.

» READ MORE: From January: Leach was a #MeToo moment for Pa. Democrats. But beating him won’t be easy.

The primary came as county officials faced an unprecedented task of holding an election during the coronavirus pandemic and amid sweeping protests and looting over the death of George Floyd, who died when Minneapolis police knelt on his neck. It was also the first election in Pennsylvania in which any voter could request a mail ballot. Facing a crush of requests, counties struggled to deliver mail ballots to all the voters who requested them — and in some cases sent the wrong ones.

Wolf allayed some local officials’ concerns by extending the deadline for mail ballots to be returned in some counties.

Leach ran as a “proven progressive,” promoting his work to legalize medical marijuana and other causes.

He bemoaned the tone of the campaign, saying in a Facebook video that while he had pitched voters on his record and goals as a lawmaker, “unfortunately my opposition has taken a completely different tact. They don’t talk about issues at all.”

“All she does," he said, “and you’ve seen it, is send really horrible, ugly, mean, negative attacks — which are completely false, or fabricated out of whole cloth, or spun in a way that’s completely inaccurate.”