While the country braces itself for a potential Republican onslaught in Congress, Philadelphia’s Democratic state representatives can breathe easy knowing that their stranglehold on the city will likely remain. The word “race” in these elections is a misnomer, as history dictates that the Democrats have already crossed the finish line in many of the districts.
The reason for this leftward slant is thanks to gerrymandering, where districts are modified for electoral purposes, designed to keep Democrats in power.
“A lot of these districts are among the most gerrymandered in the country,” says Sean Scully, the deputy policy director at the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan political watchdog group in Philadelphia. “The districts are drawn very carefully to protect whoever’s in control at the time of the re-districting.” He adds: “Plus, Philadelphia is a heavily Democratic city and so most of these districts are going to be held by Democrats.”
Despite the token opposition, state representatives races are probably the most important of all the elections taking place next Tuesday. You want lower property taxes? Job creation? School choice for your children? Look no further than your local House member. The candidates running this year in Philly’s districts range from run-of-the-mill party-liners to embattled incumbents, to eccentric outsiders. Here is a rundown of some of the more intriguing races in the city.
170th District: On paper this race, where incumbent Democrat State Rep. Brendan Boyle is defending his seat against Republican attorney Marc Collazzo, could be one of the most competitive in the city, thanks to a district that has swung both Republican and Democrat over the last few elections. Boyle lost in this district, which covers sections of Northeast Philadelphia as well as part of Montgomery County, twice before in 2004 and 2006 before finally winning by a healthy 20 percent margin in 2008. Boyle picked up a key endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, and is highlighting his accomplishments over the last two years, including increased aid for education and a popular tax rebate program for seniors. But given the district’s swing tendencies, and the fact that Boyle has flip-flopped on legislation such as the sales tax increase (he initially said he was going to vote against it, but later buckled and voted in favor), which offended a constituency filled with small businesses, it’s hard not to pay attention to Collazzo. He is balancing his campaign by highlighting typically conservative issues like reducing government spending, as well as populist issues like restoring the cuts made to the Education Improvement Tax Credit, which allows parents a choice in selecting schools for their children and was cut by $15 million for the current fiscal year. And with the city suffering from a high unemployment rate, Collazzo is making job creation a central focus as he goes door to door in the district. “With the $5 billion budget deficit in Harrisburg and the rising taxes, people feel stretched beyond belief,” he said. “They’re looking for some tax relief and some job growth.” He said he likes his chances against Boyle because of his ability to play both sides of the fence. “I feel like people have really taken the message and are looking for someone who is not tied in one way or the other.”
172nd District: This battle is easily the most closely watched in the city because of corruption allegations swirling around the incumbent. State Rep. John Perzel, the Republican former Speaker of the House who has led this Northeast Philadelphia district for over 30 years, is currently under indictment for 82 counts of theft, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, among other crimes, for his involvement in “Bonusgate,” where he allegedly used $11 million of taxpayer dollars on database technology to help give Republicans an edge in the elections. His opponent is none other than Democrat Kevin Boyle, brother of neighboring State Rep. Brendan, and formerly Councilman Bill Greenlee’s legislative director. Boyle, who helped construct legislation such as banning cell phone use while driving and providing paid leave for domestic abuse victims, is reiterating to voters that Perzel’s legal troubles, which will have him on trial for much of the next year, will keep him from properly serving his district. Yet Perzel has stayed active, recently proposing a bill that would use slot machine revenue to cover shortfalls in the police and fire budget. Boyle is also focusing on issues close to his constituency, such as absentee landlords, in order to win over voters. “We have a lot of rental properties in Northeast Philadelphia, and many of them are owned by someone who lives out of the city or state. Many of them are not properly maintained, and we need to be more vigilant in enforcing legislation that’s on the books,” he said.
175th District: Government spending dominates the discussion in this district where Rep. Michael O’Brien, the Democratic incumbent, which counts Fishtown and Northern Liberties among its constituents, is hoping to stave off a challenge from Republican personal injury lawyer Louis Schwartz. Schwartz is trying to tie O’Brien to a grand jury report released in the spring that showed widespread corruption and misallocation of resources within the state government. He wants the “per diem” that state representatives receive to be eliminated, claiming that O’Brien took home $50,000 in spending money above his $78,000 salary between 2006 and 2009. While O’Brien has miffed some of his constituents for being anti-SugarHouse and voting against the table games legislation that passed in February, he wants property and tax rebates for senior citizens as well as an additional $300 million in education funding. Yet Schwartz still faces an uphill climb in a district that hasn’t gone Republican in over 30 years.
179th District: Most notable in this race is the lack of lofty campaign rhetoric, with both candidates focusing on issues close to their constituency. Two-term State Rep. Tony Payton, a Democrat, faces off against political newcomer, Frankford resident Matthew Franchetti in this district that covers Frankford and sections of North Philadelphia, including Olney and Hunting Park. Payton has been focusing on quality of life issues for his impoverished and crime-riddled district. He has been instrumental in the revitalization of Hunting Park, a project that will include playgrounds and baseball fields. He is also focusing on education, having helped set up several charter schools in the district and has sponsored a bill that would create a scholarship program called Reliable Education Assistance for College Hopefuls (REACH), which would provide students with a 3.0 GPA and 90 percent attendance with a scholarship covering tuition to a state university. Franchetti is running on an anti-crime platform, expressing a desire to get tough on straw purchasers of guns and proposing splitting the 15th police district to improve police response in this crime-infested section of the city, an idea that Payton supports as well. “I think the proposal has merit,” he said. “One of the things that we hear frequently from people is that ‘the police don’t respond when we call them’. That would improve response time.”
194th District: In this district, three’s a welcome crowd, as Green Party candidate Hugh Giordano provides an interesting alternative to the usual Democratic and Republican slugfest. Giordano is hoping to grab a victory in a district that, in theory, is wide open since former longtime incumbent State Rep. Kathy Manderino, a Democrat, announced her retirement. Giordano is running against Pam DeLissio, a Democrat and Timothy Downey, a Republican. DeLissio is the establishment candidate, endorsed by Mayor Nutter, the AFL-CIO and Manderino herself. She is running a campaign based around education, job creation, and government transparency, specifically campaign finance reform and term limits. With so much muscle behind her candidacy, it would be quite an upset for Giordano or Downey, who doesn’t even have a campaign website, to win this seat although Giordano has picked up some notable endorsements himself, including from one of the city’s teacher’s unions, AFT Local 2026, and former US senator and presidential candidate Mike Gravel. Giordano is a fierce public education advocate, speaking out against bussing and charter schools, but also in favor of more after school programs to keep kids occupied and out of trouble. “It’s not fair to spend thousands of dollars on private schools when you have schools right there in front of you,” he said. “I want to make sure we get funding for after school programs... so that parents can go to work and know that their kids are safe.” Giordano, not lacking confidence, believes he’s got a “great shot to win it”, but he’ll have to seriously pound the pavement to overcome the Democratic machine.
203rd District: This North Philly district pits a Philadelphia political titan against an outspoken citizen with a bone to pick. In what might be the least competitive race in the entire city, State Rep. Dwight Evans, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is running against Libertarian candidate Michael Muhammad. Evans is expected to cruise to a victory, but not if Muhammad has anything to say about it. Muhammad, a community activist, is making a concerted attempt to expose what he believes to be rampant corruption involving Evans and his non-profit organization, Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation. Muhammad is accusing Evans of helping Relish, a soul food restaurant that shares a building with the non-profit, acquire a liquor license illegally. Calls placed to Evans’ office were not returned. Muhammad’s platform is based around important social issues such as stopping the “war on drugs” and focusing on treatment for addicts, as well as ending welfare programs. But make no mistake, he is focusing most of his energy on disparaging Evans, including handing out flyers and campaign literature, as well as writing letters to the FBI, Muhammad is expected to lose by a wide margin. Not that it will keep him from talking. “As long as people are doing the wrong stuff and getting away with it outside the laws, what chance do we have?” asks Muhammad.
If you want interesting candidates who can speak to issues that affect the individual instead of the larger city, county or state, then do your research, because one of these characters could be the voice of your neighborhood come Tuesday.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom