Who’s in Whose Corner in Philly Primary Races

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Tomorrow’s primary features several contested races for the General Assembly among Philadelphia Democrats. Some of them hold strong interest for political fortune-tellers because they may shed light on big trends in city politics. A couple have even drawn nationwide attention.

Let us look at the base of support of all candidates in these races.

Begin by noting that all incumbents are endorsed by Democratic City Committee. Also understand that incumbents usually command an advantage in garnering endorsements because they have had time and power to do good for endorsing bodies; so it is always impressive when a challenger can produce an independent base of support.

Star of the lot is the fight in the 1st Senatorial District, which runs from South Philadelphia east of Broad Street up through Center City into the River Wards. There, incumbent State Sen. Larry Farnese (D-S. Phila.) is facing a fierce, well-organized challenge from former 1st Ward Leader Nikil Saval,

The traditional political spectrum does not help us understand this struggle. Both are impeccable liberals. The differences are generational and geographical. Farnese, age 52, is the heir of an old South Philadelphia political family. Saval, 37, is part of the hip younger generation that has moved from elsewhere to parts of newly fashionable Philly in the past two decades. Their supporters tell these stories.

Farnese is backed by a rack of unions: AFSCME Council 13, Firefighters IAFF Local 22, International Longshoremen’s Union 1291 Keystone Mountain Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters, PASNAP (the nurses’ union), Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Plumbers Local 690, SEIU Pennsylvania, Transportation Workers Union Local 234 and UFCW 1776.

He also has the support of many good-government causes with kisses from the League of Conservation Voters, Americans for Democratic Action Southeastern PA, Free the Ballot, Human Rights Campaign, Liberty City Democratic Club, NOW Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Association of Realtors PAC and Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania PAC.

Farnese also got the nod from all the Philadelphia delegation in the State Senate; from Gov. Tom Wolf and Congressman Dwight Evans (D-Phila.); from State Reps. Donna Bullock (D-N. Phila.), Maria Donatucci (D-S-Phila.), Joe Hohenstein (D-Kensington), Mary Isaacson (D-Kensington) and Brian Sims (D-S. Phila.); Council Members Darrell Clarke (D-N. Phila.), Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District), Mark Squilla (1st District), Allan Domb, Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Derek Green (all at Large).


But Saval has troops as well. His campaign has been covered nationwide. Most famous of his supporters is former presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). So Saval is a proxy for the power of the Sanders movement in local politics.

Leading off Saval’s troops is an honor list of the new progressive movement: Philly Democratic Socialist Alliance, Sunrise Movement, Reclaim Philadelphia, One PA, Pennsylvania Stands Up, Progressive Pennsylvania Project, Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, 350 Philadelphia, Philly SocFem, Food & Water Action, Local Initiative Local Action and People’s Action.

Saval has experience as a union organizer, so he has been able to muster a number of labor allies: Teamsters Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division IBT; Philly UniteHere Locals 54, 274 & 634; Laborers’ District Council; Faculty & Staff Federation of Community College of Philadelphia; NUHHCE Local 1199C; IBEW Local 98; the Guardian Civic League; and the Temple Association of University Professionals.

On board with him at State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-S. Phila.), Councilmembers Kendra Brooks and Isaiah Thomas (both at Large), fellow progressive candidate Rick Krajewski (of whom more later), Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, and the 1st Ward and 2nd Ward Democratic Committees.

It’s a titanic tussle between two adversaries well-heeled enough to buy TV ads.

Turning to State House races – in the 182nd Legislative District, which runs from the Italian Market into most of Center City, State Rep. Brian Sims (D-S. Phila.) is being challenged by Marisa Shaaban. There are curious social dynamics at work here that lead many endorsing bodies to stay out of it. Sims won the nod of Liberty City. Shaaban picked up the 5th and 8th Wards along with the Faculty & Staff Federation of PCP.

Asleep in South Philly is the contest between 185th Legislative District incumbent Maria Donatucci (D-S. Phila.) and Regina Young. Donatucci, who, like Farnese, is heir to a political aristocracy, doesn’t bother to run a website or list endorsements; they are taken for granted. Her opponent, Regina Young, is in the same boat. Donatucci’s power base is in Girard Estate, the neighborhood that harbors South Philly’s ruling class. Young is trying to hack in at the other end, in poor, largely minority Southwest Philadelphia and the Delaware County communities of Darby and Sharon Hill. Observers will watch how many votes Young gets but this race is already over.


In the 175th Legislative District, State Rep. Mary Isaacson (D-Kensington) serves communities from Queen Village in South Philadelphia through eastern Center City up into the River Wards. She has corralled Conservation Voters of PA, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Planned Parenthood PAC, PA NOW, Emily’s List, PFT, Humane PA, the18th Ward and 5th Ward, AFSCME, Transportation Workers Union 234, Firefighters Local 22, UFCW Local 1776, Sheet Metal Workers 19, Philadelphia AFL-CIO, Leap Forward and Liberty City.

But she is up against three contenders. Vanessa McGrath, an attorney, has scored one impressive endorsement: from former Mayor and Gov. Ed Rendell. Many are called but few are chosen for this honor, which resonates in Philadelphia.

Andre Del Valle is set to tackle another wing of this intricately diverse district. As a Latino, he has a leg up in the barrio part. He is a former aide to Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and has been endorsed by the Pennsylvania Democratic Latino caucus. But his professional side weighs in too. He is a former leader of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Young Democrats. The Penn College Democrats have blessed him, as has the Working Families Party.

Jeff Dempsey is a Fishtowner. In a four-way race, staking out a claim to one neighborhood’s loyalty is not a stupid strategy. But he too has credentials that reach beyond Fishtown. A longtime activist in CeaseFire PA, he can deliver on a liberal issue that is on every Philadelphian’s mind after last weekend’s sorry events. As a former aide to State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-Northeast), he has access to political muscle as well.

In the 198th District, which takes in Tioga and Germantown, there is a vacancy. City Committee has endorsed Darisha Parker, an aide to retiring State Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D-Northwest). Parker’s experience in constituent services should play to her advantage. But she is not dependent on party connections. A longtime public-relations pro, she is hooked into the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and Philadelphia NOW. And she has Salem Baptist Church at her back, which matters in Philly grassroots elections.

But three other people also want that seat. Fareed Abdullah has one impressive backer: State Sen. Sharif Street (D-N. Phila.). No one ignores Street’s reach.

Supreme Dow has Neighborhood Networks and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania in his pocket.


Bernard Williams has won the Guardian Civic League, Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, the American Federation of Teachers, former DA candidate Beth Grossman, former legislative candidate Charlotte Greer-Brown and Councilmember Kendra Brooks (bringing with her the Working Families Party brand).

In West Philadelphia’s 190th District, incumbent State Rep. Roni Green was seated after a special election on Feb. 25, so she barely counts as an incumbent in a four-way race. But she has beaucoup labor firepower behind her.

Green is a veteran of SEIU, a union on the rise in Philadelphia politics these days. She is endorsed by SEIU Locals 32BJ & 668; by AFSCME DC 8, DC 33& DC 47; by NUHHCE 1199C; by PASNAP; by Communication Workers of America Local 13000; by Carpenters Local 168; by Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; by Pennsylvania State Education Association; and by UFCW 1776. Working Families party is also on board with her

Of other contenders, Overbrook activist Amen Brown ran well in previous primaries and gets along with former State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown.

Danyl Patterson, an attorney, is deeply embedded in her Haddington neighborhood’s Block Captains Association.

Van Stone, a freelance radio host, is not a major contender. But his presence on the ballot will still complicate the outcome in a Wild West Philly four-way race.

The most-exciting race in West Philly is the 188th. There, longstanding State Rep. Jim Roebuck has often faced challenges from a variety of political rivals. But his prëeminence in education policy (he chairs the Democrats in the Education Committee) makes him a formidable asset on Capitol Hill.


Thus Roebuck has drawn the endorsements of Gov. Tom Wolf; Congressman Dwight Evans; UFCW Local 1776; State Sen. Sharif Street; Jannie Blackwell (Chair of the United Ward Leaders of Color and 1st Vice Chair of DCC); Councilmembers Curtis Jones (3rd District), Derek Green and Cherelle Parker (9th District): the redoubtable Rendell; Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; Pennsylvania State Education Association; Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculty; Planned Parenthood; AFSCME Councils 13 and 85; Pennsylvania Ophthalmology PAC; the Pennsylvania House Delegation; Clean Water Action; 32 BJ; SEIU; and Dr. Robin Cooper, president of CASA.

Roebuck claims the endorsement of the 46th & 60th Wards. However, an opponent disputes that the 46th Ward endorsed him.

Barreling against Roebuck is Rick Krajewski, a well-heeled young progressive with all the credentials of that movement – and a considerable amount of money for a challenger.

Backing him is superstar Bernie Sanders, who said of Krajewski, “If elected, he will put people before profits while fighting to uphold workers’ rights, end the war on drugs, and win a Green New Deal for Pennsylvania. He grew up in a working-class family and knows that our government must be held accountable to truly represent the people, not just the wealthy and well-connected” – music to young progressive ears.


Krajewski has also lined up Kendra Brooks, Democratic Socialists of America, Penn College Democrats, Jamie Gauthier, ADA, Kehinde Whetstone (a former challenger), AFT Local 2026, Philly Democratic Socialist Alliance, People’s Action, Liberty City, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, Pennsylvania NOW, Center for Popular Democracy Action, Local Initiative Local Action, Progressive Pennsylvania Project, Neighborhood Networks, Conservation Voters, Food & Water Action, TWU Local 234, Fossil Free Penn, Nikil Saval, Sunrise Movement and Our Revolution.

Like Saval, Krajewski has mustered significant financial resources. He claims to be ready to offer free masks and sanitizer for every voter in the 188th.

Karen Dunn doesn’t bring endorsement clout to this race. But she was Roebuck’s aide for many years and acquired numerous community contacts in the process. And she is the only woman in this race.

51st Ward Leader Greg Benjamin is a fourth serious contender. He is well known as one who gets out and meets the folks. Perhaps, in a two-person race, the leader of a single ward would not have enough firepower to win a State-rep race. But in a four-person shootout, all you need theoretically is 26% of the vote; so the Fighting 51st may come through for Benjamin.

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