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Daylin Leach was a #MeToo moment for Pennsylvania Democrats. But beating him won’t be easy.

The state senator is facing voters for the first time since allegations against him roiled progressives who had long seen Leach as a champion for women. But his detractors are still having trouble getting rid of him.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Daylin Leach.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Daylin Leach.Read moreCharles Fox / File Photograph

For two years, Pennsylvania Democratic leaders have tried to get rid of Daylin Leach.

Officials as prominent as the governor and as obscure as local party committee members have called on the state senator to resign. Those calls, which started amid allegations that he inappropriately touched female former staffers and made highly sexualized jokes, snowballed after a more serious allegation and his combative response. In Harrisburg, Senate Democrats haven’t let him participate in their caucus meetings. At home, he’s been shunned from some party events.

This year, Leach is facing voters for the first time since the allegations roiled progressives who had long seen Leach as a champion for women — and gave Pennsylvania politics one of its first #MeToo moments.

But his detractors are still having trouble getting rid of him.

At least seven Democrats are running against Leach in the 17th District, which encompasses parts of Montgomery and Delaware Counties. Some who oppose him are growing anxious that the challengers will end up splitting the anti-Leach vote and enable him to win reelection, according to interviews with about a dozen party officials, operatives, and activists.

These Democrats say that with such a big field, no candidate will be able to win important endorsements at county party conventions. Efforts have failed to recruit a blue-chip candidate who could clear the field for a head-to-head primary against Leach, such as State Rep. Mary Jo Daley of Narberth.

And they question whether any candidate can raise enough money to convince voters that Leach should get the boot, especially because he still has the support of influential Democratic donors such as Connie Williams, his predecessor in the Senate and an heir to the Hess oil fortune.

“There are a lot of people that respect Daylin and appreciate the work he’s done,” Williams said.

One Democratic consultant who has no client in the race but opposes Leach said, “There’s only one way to take this guy down.”

“It’s head to head against a woman with significant money and an army of volunteers,” said the consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect business relationships. "Nobody has that.”

Joe Foster, chairman of the Montgomery County Democrats, said the April 28 primary could show whether the party is serious about supporting women and the #MeToo movement even when it ensnares one of its own.

“I don’t believe this movement is looking for martyrs,” said Foster, who opposes Leach. “It’s not looking for scapegoats. It’s looking for change.”

To Leach, who has long denied wrongdoing, the episode shows the perils of jumping too quickly to conclusions about a person’s conduct without all the facts. An investigation commissioned by Senate Democrats last year found that Leach at times engaged in humor that was sexual in nature. Investigators also said his conduct fell short of violating federal workplace discrimination law.

“I don’t understand the logic of saying you should defeat one of the best advocates for women in order to validate women,” said Leach, 58, of Wayne, a state legislator since 2003 and a longtime leader for liberal causes. “I think I have a pretty compelling record of accomplishment.”

The intraparty fight comes as Pennsylvania Democrats are trying to unite against President Donald Trump, who narrowly carried the state in 2016, and to win control of the GOP-led legislature. The nominee is likely to win the general election in the mostly Democratic district. And if Leach prevails while memories of the allegations are fresh, it will only be harder for his foes to beat him next time.

But to beat Trump, Leach added in an interview, “it seems like it should be all hands on deck at the party level to make sure” the president doesn’t win Pennsylvania again. "Going after incumbent Democrats seems counterproductive to me.”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Democrats don’t just want to beat Trump in 2020: They want the state House back

His challengers include Amanda Cappelletti, vice chair of the East Norriton Board of Supervisors and a former Planned Parenthood official; Linda Fields, a longtime labor organizer; Shea Ashe, president of the Norristown Area school board; lawyers Elvira Berry and Jamie Mogil; and Sara Atkins, a Lower Merion Democratic committee member.

Jan. 30 is when the Montgomery County Democratic Committee is set to hold its convention. To win the party’s endorsement, a candidate must get 60% of committee votes. Delaware County follows with a similarly high bar on Feb. 2. If neither county party makes an endorsement, the anti-Leach forces may be unable to consolidate support.

Cappelletti, 33, seen as one of the stronger contenders, pointed to Leach’s exclusion from Senate Democratic Caucus meetings. The district "doesn’t have any real representation in the Senate at the moment,” she said.

She said she hopes to get the endorsements but would drop out if the county parties backed another candidate.

Fields, 65, of King of Prussia, vowed she would “do the right thing for the party.”

“We can’t be splintered,” she said.

Leach said he would soon be returning to caucus meetings. “I’m entitled to be there, and so I’m going to go back,” he said.

Two Democratic senators — Katie Muth and Maria Collett, both survivors of sexual assault who represent part of Montgomery County — have described Leach as a bully and said his presence in the Capitol is draining. Defeating Leach, Muth said, “should be a huge priority for the Democratic Party.”

“We really need blunt, bold courage here," Muth, who has called for Leach’s expulsion from the Senate, said of party leaders. "There’s no tiptoeing around because you don’t want to offend people.”

Leach has described Muth as “a dreadful person” and “a toxic hand grenade.”

Opposition to Leach has grown since The Inquirer reported in late 2017 that former campaign and legislative staffers said he had for years inappropriately touched young female staffers and made sexualized jokes. Leach denied wrongdoing.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, quickly called for Leach’s resignation. Last year, Senate Democrats hired the law firm Eckert Seamans to investigate separate allegations by an Allentown-area woman, Cara Taylor, who said Leach had sexually assaulted her in 1991, when she was 17.

Leach denied the accusation and sued Taylor and two Philadelphia-area activists, alleging they had defamed him. On social media, Leach has described one of the activists he is suing as a “truly horrific monster” and “a human wrecking ball of hate."

Leach is also suing The Inquirer and one of its reporters, alleging defamation. The newspaper has stood by its reporting.

In September, Senate Democrats released the Eckert Seamans report, which found that Leach had engaged in joking that was at times “unquestionably sexual in nature.” It also 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,” the report added.

The lawyers wrote that “based on the facts at hand,” they could not form any conclusion about Taylor’s allegation that Leach had sexually assaulted her.

By late last year, as Leach claimed exoneration by the report, those calling for his resignation included Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa, state party chair Nancy Patton Mills, two dozen state lawmakers, and party officials in Delaware and Montgomery Counties.

» READ MORE: Pa. Dems renew call for Sen. Daylin Leach to resign after inquiry cites sex jokes but clears him of workplace discrimination

Still, Leach has maintained loyal supporters. Last month, Williams hosted a fund-raiser for his campaign whose attendees included former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Williams described Leach as “a very good legislator” and said he had “discharged his responsibilities in a committed and inclusive way.”

Rendell said he didn’t think the Eckert report findings warranted calls for Leach’s resignation, though he thought the Senate should have censured him.

Marsha Perelman, a civic leader and longtime energy executive who served on the host committee of the fund-raiser, said Leach has "owned the pain that his behavior has caused, and he has changed that behavior.”

“He’s spoken at length, and very compellingly, about why he will be a more effective legislator … than his competitors because of his experience and deep knowledge about the issues facing his constituents," Perelman said in an email. "He has been a strong voice for progressive change in Pennsylvania, and I want to give him the chance to continue to be that voice.”