POLS ON THE STREET: State Rep Race of the Century? Could Be

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REBECCA RHYNHART was sworn in as Philadelphia’s first woman city controller on Tuesday. She was accompanied by her daughter Julia Bright, whom Rhynhart said she hoped would grow up to think it normal that women be leaders. Photo by Wendell Douglas

More people are eyeing the 177th Legislative District race than were watching in the stands by the fourth quarter of the last Eagles game.

It is unprecedented for a state rep race to draw so much attention so far in advance of the May 15 primary. But this is no ordinary seat. It’s the one currently held by State Rep. John Taylor (R-Northeast) in the neighborhoods of Port Richmond, Bridesburg and Mayfair. Taylor will retire at the end of this year and many are wondering what will become of it.

Taylor is the last inner-city Republican in the Pennsylvania legislature and one of only two Republicans in the Philadelphia caucus on Capitol Hill. A 34-year veteran, Taylor has held numerous leadership roles, currently chairing the Transportation Committee. Diligent, thoughtful and unassuming, he speaks softly but carries a big stick.

His district is solidly Democratic in registration now. But he has shrugged off Democratic challengers for decades because of his stellar reputation for constituent service. In blue-collar communities, service is a legislator’s first mission. People with slim resources and weighty problems need help with their affairs. And no appeal to Taylor goes unaddressed. His offices on Thompson Street and Richmond Street are as essential as Wawas to 63,000 Philadelphians.

Who will fill his shoes?

Both parties have a big stake in this game. Democrats, at a longterm low in the State House, cannot pass up an opportunity to take a seat on what should be their turf. Philadelphia Republicans are likewise at a longterm low in competitive offices and badly want to hang onto it.

By general consent, the backup go-to for constituent service in that area is Patty-Pat Kozlowski. Once an aide to Democratic Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, Kozlowski also worked for the Port Richmond Star. But she has served for years in the Parks & Recreation Department, where she is now its stewardship coordinator. She is well known and universally respected on home ground.

LARRY KRASNER was sworn in by his wife, CommonPlease Court Judge Lisa Rau, with his son, NathanKrasner, holding the Bible as Church of the Advocate’s Rev. Rev. Isaac Miller witnessed.

Kozlowski also meets another useful political test: ethnicity. Port Richmond is a center of the city’s Polish American community. But hers is one of two Polish surnames being bruited about. Meanwhile, there are three possible competitors on the Democratic side alone named Sean … more on them later.

Both parties have reached out to her. But no person from a blue-collar background walks away from a good City job for an uncertain future as a politician. So Kozlowski is weighing her options.

If Kozlowski doesn’t run, that’ll be fine with, at last count, 13 other people who are studying this race. Three have already declared, at least three others have teams in place and the remainder are sniffing. Because of the unique importance of this seat, outside power brokers are probing its possibilities.

Let’s start with the formally announced. All are young, as Philly pols go.

Joe Hohenstein, an immigration lawyer, challenged Taylor on the Democratic ballot in 2016. Taylor beat him 55-45%. Starting with ballot name recognition, Hohenstein should have some advantage. But his platform has always been issue-based, not service- based.

Sean Patrick Wayland has been campaigning for a year. An Iraq War veteran from a union family, he joined Ironworkers Local 502 when he got back. He used his GI benefits to get a degree and now is an engineering tech for a commercial-lighting company.

Iraq got him started. “For the first time, I realized that political decisions affected my life,” Wayland said. He went on the Women’s March in Washington last year and resolved afterwards to seek political office.

Working from home, Wayland has an edge in a kind of politics where shoes still matter. He has hit about 1,000 doorsteps so far, he estimated.

Justin Salmasi early announced a campaign but has since dropped out. He is a copier-repair sales agent. Keep an eye on him for the future.

Known to be gunning for this seat are three other ambitious up-and-comers.

Fresh out of law school, Maggie Borski will be barely old enough to occupy this seat. But she is the daughter of former Congressman Bob Borski, who, even many years later, has name recognition in the River Wards. Did we mention “Borski” is a Polish name? Also, if Kozlowski is out, Borski would be the only female on the ballot in the year of #metoo.

Democratic 23rd Ward Leader Dan Savage is an obvious candidate. He served as Philadelphia district councilman and has the background to carry out a state rep’s duties.

Sean Kilkenny is a union Plasterer with Local 592. He comes with a deep base in the building trades, which matters in the 177th.

Other players are Dan Martino, secretary of the Olde Richmond Civic Association who has been active in town watch; Tom Forkin, 55th Ward Democratic Chair, now allied with State Rep. Mike Driscoll (D-Northeast) but who earlier worked for Republican House Speaker Denny O’Brien; and 45th Ward Leader Harry Enggasser, who has also challenged Taylor before and enjoys name recognition as well as contacts. Democratic City Committee Chairman Congressman Bob Brady will back Enggasser if asked.

And that’s just the Democrats. Other GOP hopefuls are also scanning the gameboard.

Republican 55th Ward Leader Chris Vogler must be mentioned, his father, 21st Ward Leader Walt Vogler, is a heavyweight on the Republican City Committee. Brian Caputo is a former staffer of Councilman Brian O’Neill (10th Dist.). Tim O’Brien is a former bail commissioner who now works with Councilman David Oh (at Large). All three have names that matter in this district.

There is an odd tension in this race, in that it’s not clear it’s in the Democratic Party’s best interest to win.

Regardless of how big a wave Keystone State Democrats ride in November, there is no chance they will take back either chamber of the General Assembly. Therefore, all State legislation that affects Philadelphia must be blessed by Republicans. There is no way this can be reversed before 2022 at least.

Many city Democrats have, for this reason, long looked to Taylor as the unofficial head of the Philadelphia caucus in Harrisburg. Through Taylor, the city may wheedle some of what it needs from the upstaters; without him – no way. Dems are used to turning to Taylor to make practical asks of the State. Without him, as one highly placed Democratic official said, “Whom do I go to?”

The answer, at this time, is nobody.

More State Rep Races Light up

Plenty of attention has already been focused on the 184th Legislative race, where State Rep. Bill Keller (D-S. Phila.) is as well ensconced as Taylor. Both have served working-class neighborhoods throughout their careers.

STATE REP. Jim Roebuck, C, drew a large crowd to his holiday skating party at the Laura Sims Skate House in Cobbs Creek.

But Keller’s district is under considerably more pressure from demographic change. His district, which encompasses Pennsport, Whitman and E. Passyunk, has seen serious immigration from upscale yuppies as well as poor Asian immigrants. It’s no longer clear who has the pulse on this neighborhood.

Working such a community calls for shoeleather. At 67, Keller has reached retirement age. So, although he’s still vigorous, it’s normal that younger politicos are circling around his office.

Already in the Democratic primary are Nick DiDonato, a former police detective, Elizabeth Fiedler, a former WHYY reporter; Billy Ciancaglini, a criminal-defense attorney; and Tom Wyatt, who is affiliated with Columbus Square and the Andrew Jackson School. Wyatt ran for City Council at Large in 2015, raising $200,000 in the process.

In Lower North Philadelphia. Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce political expert Malcolm Kenyatta is going after the seat now held by State Rep. Curtis Thomas (N. Phila.). A state rep since 1988, Thomas has reached an honorable retirement age. Kenyatta is young.

That doesn’t mean Thomas aims to retire. But Kenyatta, a millennial, would have been ill advised formally to launch his campaign this week if he thought it would be offensive to Thomas and his staff.

ATTORNEY Jeff Camp drew 150 supporters to his kickoff rally at the University City Arts League. He is challenging State Rep. Jim Roebuck.

In West Philly, State Rep. Jim Roebuck will be challenged by attorney Jeff Curry in the 188th District. It’s a University City area 72-year-old Roebuck has served faithfully for dog’s years. But Curry springs from the community of educated young parents who cluster around the Parent Infant Center and the Penn Alexander School. It’s a natural network that fits the size of a state rep race.

Roebuck has faced challenges before. In 2012, he survived a charge by Fatimah Muhammad, a self-professed bisexual Muslim. Muhammad garnered 44% of the vote – a close call for a Philadelphia state rep. Muhammad was backed by State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-W. Phjla.), with whom Roebuck was on the outs at that time. They have since repaired their relationship.

In 2014, Roebuck was opposed in the Democratic primary by real-estate pro Algernong Allen. A darling of the Cedar Park progressive community, Allen got 31% of the vote.

But the fact remains that Roebuck – the Democratic chair of the Education Committee, with deep experience in fighting for public education in Philadelphia – is under siege again in his own educated neighborhood. Life isn’t fair, and politics is even less fair.

DC 33 National Leader to Be Honored

On Jan. 15, the Philadelphia Martin Luther King, Jr. Association for Nonviolence, Inc., will honor the National President of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, Lee Saunders, at the 36th annual Awards & Benefit Luncheon and 50th year Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s anniversary of his assassination.

AFSCME District Council 33 is extremely proud and honored to have its highest leader receive the association’s “Drum Major” award.

This award allows AFSCME District Council 33 and its many friends an opportunity to recognize Saunders for his many outstanding contributions and accomplishments that are exemplary of those fostered by Dr. King.

Expect a strong turnout for this illustrious event, which is the capstone of the Martin Luther King Day of Service’s many activities.

Wagner’s on the Ball in the ’Burg, He Says

State Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York) has riposted to his opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Pittsburgh health-care businessman Paul Mango, who called Wagner out for missing votes in the Senate.

“Part of what makes Scott an effective leader is his willingness to step outside the Harrisburg bubble to gain insight into how to grow Pennsylvania’s economy and reduce unemployment,” his campaign manager Jason High said.

“Of the 99 votes Scott has missed in his time in the Senate, 83 took place during a three-day period when he was attending an international business conference doing just that. During his time as a lawmaker, Scott has never backed away from a tough fight, and not once has missed a chance to cast the deciding vote. In fact, only five of the votes he has missed were on bills that did not pass the Senate with the support of at least a super-majority.

“Scott has done everything in his power to stop Gov. Wolf’s excessive taxes and wasteful spending and to suggest otherwise is a dishonest attack by a candidate struggling for traction.”

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