POLS ON THE STREET: 3 State Reps Fall in Fierce Philadelphia Primaries

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Six turbulent Democratic primaries amid the turbulence of the COVID lockdown rocked Philadelphia’s political spring. The result of the June 2 election, not known until June 12 owing to the delay in counting a flood of mail-in ballots, saw three incumbents unseated.

State Rep. Maria Donatucci (D-S. Phila.) lost her 185th Legislative District seat to Regina Young, a newcomer to politics who had been working as a community-schools coordinator. On a budget of just $10,000, Young pulled off her 56%-44% upset with dogged shoeleather – a strategy that can work in Pennsylvania’s pocket-sized legislative districts. Young estimates she knocked on 20,000 doors and placed 5,000 phone calls since the first of the year.

RICK KRAJEWSKI unseated a 35-year incumbent in a state legislative race that drew national attention.

Donatucci’s loss represents the end of a 42-year South Philadelphia political dynasty. She became a state rep in 2011 more by inheritance than by campaigning, filling the seat of her husband State Rep. Robert Donatucci after his sudden death. Donatucci had held that seat since 1978. With the defeat of her brother-in-law, another longterm incumbent, Register of Wills Ron Donatucci, in the 2019 primary, an era draws to a close.

The 185th spans South and Southwest Philadelphia, reaching into Darby and Sharon Hill in Delaware County. Donatucci’s strength always lay in the upscale communities of Girard Estate and Packer Park. But early returns suggest Young pumped turnout in Southwest Philadelphia, which has long felt neglected by the city’s power centers.

Another veteran went down in West Philadelphia’s 188th District, which runs from University City into the Cobbs Creek and Kingsessing neighborhoods. State Rep. Jim Roebuck, who has held that seat since 1985, lost in a ferocious, nationally watched (and funded) four-way contest to Rick Krajewski, a young activist with Reclaim Philadelphia, thereby showing the muscle of the young progressives of that area. Krajewski took 46% of the vote to Roebuck’s 27%. 51st Ward Leader Greg Benjamin won 14% of the vote while former legislative aide Karen Dunn got 13%.

THE SECOND time around, Overbrook activist Amen Brown captured the 190th Legislative District seat he has long been eyeing.

No one questions Roebuck’s conscientiousness or his effectiveness (he is an education expert who has long chaired the House Education Committee, fighting the good fight for Democrats). But a strong generational surge buoyed Krajewski, 28, over Roebuck, 74.

In West Philadelphia’s 190th District, which takes in Wynnefield, Overbrook, Mill Creek and Haddonfield, no dynasty has ever been able to take root. Its neighborhoods, although almost all Black, are intensely parochial in their loyalties.

The party-endorsed incumbent, State Rep. Roni Green (D-W. Phila.), won her office only in February in a special election to replace State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who resigned. Green did not get a chance to build a base of support as three rivals challenged her in June. Community organizer Amen Brown, who had run for the seat before, had name recognition and is well known in his Overbrook base. Brown took 43% of the vote to Green’s 39%. Attorney Danyl Patterson came in with 13% and freelance media host Van Stone took 5%.

There were two other four-way races in the city. All of them demonstrated to perfection that you don’t need a majority to win a race like these; theoretically, all you need is 26%.

DARISHA PARKER won the right to take her boss’s chair – by a hair.

Or, in the case of the 188th District, 28%. The district takes in Germantown and Nicetown-Tioga. For a seat left vacant by retiring State Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D-Northwest), the party endorsed her aide, Darisha Parker, well known in the publicity field. Parker was beset by three opponents: Reclaim activist Bernard Williams; Fareed Abdullah, a teacher connected to Kenny Gamble’s Universal Enterprises; and Supreme Dow, founder of the Black Writers Museum in Nicetown.

It was a photo finish. Parker squeaked by with 28%. Williams got 26%, Abdullah 25% and Dow 22%.

In the 175th District, which ranges from Kensington and the River Wards in the north through eastern Center City to Queen Village in South Philadelphia, a first-term incumbent, State Rep. Mary Isaacson (D-Kensington), fended off three challengers, winning with 38% of the vote. Isaacson had been the chief of staff for her predecessor State Rep. Mike O’Brien, so she is well known across the district. But its communities are diverse and distinct from each other; they are also hotbeds of woke young progressives inclined to buck the establishment.

Attorney Vanessa McGrath ran a well-planned campaign to win 30% of the vote. Observers speculate they haven’t seen the last of her in politics. Jeff Dempsey, a gun-violence activist, stressed his Fishtown roots, which may have earned him his 21%. Andre Del Valle, a former aide to Councilperson Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, collected 12% of the vote.

STATE REP. Mary Isaacson survived athe anti-incumbent wave in her district that runs through some of the most “woke” neighborhoods in Philly.

In the 182nd District, which takes in most of Center City plus the Bella Vista area in South Philly, State Rep. Brian Sims (D-S. Phila.) fended off a strong challenge by Marisa Shaaban, 58%-42%. Sims typically has to work to hang onto his seat, which he won in 2012 – a little surprising, because he is the first openly gay State legislator in Pennsylvania and represents a district that encompasses the Gayborhood.

Shaaban ran an aggressive campaign stressing education and women’s rights. She showed plenty of energy and may be heard from again.

Voter turnout was impressive. Despite the absence of a big-name contest at the top of the Democratic ticket, coupled with the chaos strewn by the coronavirus, 32% of registered voters cast votes. Two factors likely account for this. One was the energy of the progressive movement. The other, surely, was the right to universal mail-in voting – a move that has now been vindicated, despite the massive processing difficulties and reporting delays it engendered. It will never go away now.

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