In state legislative races across the Philadelphia area last week, progressive challengers attempted to unseat moderate Democrats, with varying levels of success. No two races are exactly alike, but each challenge here fell into a general pattern of newcomers seeking to turn out established politicians, often with the support of a changing population within the district.
The most successful progressive upstart was Tarik Khan in the 194 house district. Khan, 43, in his first run for public office, unseated six-term incumbent Pam DeLissio by a 59 percent to 40 percent margin, a strong showing against an incumbent who was not tainted by scandal or other unusual circumstances. As NBC10 reported, Khan succeeded with a combination of outside money and, more unusually, the endorsement of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee and local ward leaders.
Khan’s support was widespread, as he carried every precinct in the district from 9th and 38th wards, plus a majority of those in the 21st ward. DeLissio, perhaps missing the part of the district that used to be in Lower Merion, won only a handful of divisions in Upper Roxborough and Andorra, the more conservative parts of the district.
A nurse and the former president of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, Khan emphasized a broadly progressive agenda, in contrast to DeLissio, who campaigned as someone who could work with the Republican majority in Harrisburg to get results for her district. In the interview with NBC10, Khan claimed to have knocked on 10,000 doors while campaigning, evidence perhaps that Pennsylvania’s small house districts enable a motivated challenger to make personal connections with his would-be constituents. This may not have been possible in a larger district.
In the nearby 201st district, incumbent Democrat Stephen Kinsey survived a surprisingly tough challenge from another progressive newcomer, Andre Carroll. Kinsey has represented the district since 2012 and has served as the chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.
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Carroll, 31, took 42 percent of the vote against the incumbent. A veteran of several left-wing causes including work with the Working Families Party, Carroll came up short as a Democrat. Kinsey was strongest in the 59th ward, where he took all but one division. Carroll was strongest in the 17th, but the distinctions between the two candidates were less geographic than in many other races.
Next door in the 200th district, two incumbents battled for the primary vote when they found themselves mapped into the same district. Rep. Chris Rabb, a professor from Temple’s Fox Business School and generally seen as a progressive and outsider, found himself in the same district as Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald, formerly of the 203rd district, who worked more amicably with the city’s Democratic machine.
Most of the new district had been previously represented by Rabb, and it showed in the results. The red line on the map below represents the former district boundary, with Rabb’s old district to the left and Fitzgerald’s to the right. Both incumbents did well in their old home turf, but most of the district was Rabb’s more gentrified and racially mixed former constituency, and the results reflected that. Rabb took 63 percent of the vote for the win.
Moving to the state senate, incumbent Anthony Hardy Williams defeated another strong challenge from union organizer Paul Prescod in the 8th district. Williams has been the senate’s Democratic whip since 2011 and has held the 8th district seat since 1999. Before that, the seat was held by Williams’s father since 1983. He has incurred progressive ire for voting for charter school funding.
Prescod, 31, is newer to the district, a point Williams raised frequently in the press. Originally from the suburbs, Prescod worked as a Philadelphia public school teacher and moved to the district after starting his job. He, like several other progressive insurgents, had the backing of the far-left Working Families Party, though he chose to run as a Democrat. He was also, as WHYY’s Katie Meyer reported, endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.
Prescod’s background as a teacher’s union official likely contributed to his decision to challenge Williams, who is one of the rare Democratic officeholders to publicly support school choice. That puts him at odds with party hierarchy, but has not proven a hindrance to his support from voters before now.
READ MORE — How this Democrat drew the teachers’ unions’ wrath with one vote
Ultimately, it did not hurt Williams this time, either, as he defeated the newcomer by a 56–44 percent margin.
A map of the district, which sprawls unevenly from South Philadelphia to West Philly and parts of Delaware County, shows the old-new divide in voting. Prescod’s support was strongest in the gentrifying areas of the district, especially in the University City area. Williams maintained his support in farther west areas of West Philadelphia and in the Delaware County boroughs that border it.
There was also a considerable racial divide in the voting, with Williams taking the majority-black neighborhoods, and Prescod doing well in whiter areas. (Williams is black, Prescod is mixed-race, a fact Williams accused Prescod of hiding from black voters.)
In the nearby 10th state house district, support for the public school monopoly also played a significant role.
Democratic incumbent Amen Brown drew the unions’ ire this year by supporting a bill in Harrisburg that would establish scholarships to help students trapped in the worst-performing public schools. That drove a lot of union money into the campaign, all of it on the side of Brown’s opponent, community organizer Cass Green. Sadja Blackwell, a radio personality and member of the Blackwell political family long involved in West Philly politics, also ran against Brown.
The result was a tight three-way race that saw Brown emerge victorious, albeit with a plurality of 39.7 percent of the vote.
With more extreme ideologues representing the city in the state legislature, the prospects of bipartisan cooperation continue to wane.
As in the 8th district race, the progressive challenger received most of her support from the gentrified parts of the neighborhood, as well as the segment of Center City that is included in the district. But Brown maintained the support of the working-class regions of West Philadelphia. Blackwell’s support was more widely scattered.
The victories won by Williams and Brown show, perhaps, that breaking with the teachers’ union might result in well-funded opposition, but it need not be fatal to a candidate. Support for the school choice candidates remained strongest in the poorer areas of their districts — populated by the precise families school choice is intended to help.
Overall, these primary fights showed a consistent pattern. Fitzgerald, Delisso, Williams, and Brown carried more traditional Democratic neighborhoods while Rabb, Khan, Prescod, and Green took the more gentrified areas. The changes reflect the changing politics of the city, but as far-left progressives gather strength there, where does this leave the Democratic Party and Philadelphia’s representation in Harrisburg? With more extreme ideologues representing the city in the state legislature, the prospects of bipartisan cooperation continue to wane.
Kyle Sammin is Broad + Liberty’s editor-at-large.