Nina Ahmad, a Bangladeshi immigrant running for lieutenant governor against the grandson of a congressman, says Pennsylvania needs “new voices.” Elizabeth Fiedler, a 37-year-old journalist vying for the state House, promises to “fight for us — not political interests.” State Rep. Chris Rabb, an insurgent facing a rematch from one of the most powerful electoral coalitions in the city, decries “machine politics.”
In Democratic primaries across the city, millennials, women, and new Philadelphians are taking on incumbents and what at least one called the “old boys’ club.”
Their opponents are highlighting their government experience and playing up their Philly roots.
“I’m a lifelong Philadelphian,” said Jonathan “J.R.” Rowan, a ward leader running in Tuesday’s primary against Fiedler and two other Democrats in South Philly. “I’ve worked and served my neighbors for over 20 years for two different senators.”
Soon after millennials and immigrants began pouring into Philadelphia more than 10 years ago in numbers so large that the city’s population rose for the first time in decades, observers began asking whether they would change the local political system. With the election of President Trump inspiring Democrats across the country to run for office, and District Attorney Larry Krasner’s 2017 victory energizing progressives locally, many young people are taking a leap into the city’s rough-and-tumble electoral politics.
At the same time, a handful of longtime Philly lawmakers in the state House are retiring. All are men.
“You’re seeing a bit of the changing of the guard,” said Larry Ceisler, a longtime political observer working in public relations. “You’re seeing people who are more engaged. Philadelphia is a Democratic city, a liberal city, and I think that Trump is a motivator.”
One of the most closely watched primaries between newcomers and longtime residents is the contest to replace State Rep. Bill Keller, who is retiring after more than 25 years in the House. Keller’s preferred successor is Rowan, a 45-year-old aide to State Sen. Larry Farnese, who previously worked for Vincent J. Fumo, the former state senator found guilty of corruption.
In the Rowan campaign’s TV ad, a narrator says he is “building on Bill Keller’s work to expand the port.” Rowan has received more than $112,000 from the powerful Electricians union, led by John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.
Fiedler, who is originally from Bloomsburg, Pa., has lived in the city for 15 years. She said she supports Medicare for all and a moratorium on new charter schools, and has won the support of groups such as the teachers’ union; Our Revolution, a liberal advocacy group spun off Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign; and the Democratic Socialists of America’s local chapter.
Also running are attorney Tom Wyatt, a 17-year city resident who vows “to fight for fair funding for our schools; and former police Detective Nicholas DiDonato, who rails against “politics as usual” and was born in South Philly.
In that primary, most candidates are either downplaying the divide between old and new residents or referencing them subtly. Rowan said “new residents working alongside old residents has been good for our community.” Fiedler said her campaign “is very much not about old vs. new” and such differences “have been used to divide us for a really long time but are not useful for us in demanding a better health-care system.”
Only DiDonato went negative in a recent interview, saying that the city’s political system is “bought and sold by Johnny Doc” and that Fiedler “doesn’t have enough tenure to represent the district.”
‘The city is vastly different — more diverse, younger and independent than ever’
In the lieutenant governor’s race, Ahmad and incumbent Mike Stack III are tossing much bigger bombs at each other.
“Stack’s world view is stuck in a time when his ancestors dominated Northeast Philly’s political machine, but the city is vastly different — more diverse, younger, and independent than ever before in history,” said Ken Snyder, a political strategist for Ahmad.
Stack is a former state senator and Democratic ward leader; his father was a ward leader; and his grandfather was a U.S. House member. Ahmad previously worked as the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women and was a deputy mayor under Mayor Kenney.
Marty Marks, a spokesman for Stack, called Ahmad a “fraud” who “sells herself as a progressive while in reality she is a big-city millionaire real estate developer like Donald Trump.” Ahmad resigned as an officer of her husband’s real estate development company in 2016, her team said.
To win the statewide race, political consultants believe both Stack and Ahmad need significant support from city voters. The other Democratic candidates are Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, Chester County accountant Kathi Cozzone, and Montgomery County banker Ray Sosa.
Meantime, two candidates challenging the city’s incumbent congressmen, Kevin Johnson and Michele Lawrence, also originally hail from outside Philadelphia.
Other primaries for the state House feature a mix of old and new.
In Northwest Philly, Rabb is defending his state House seat after pulling off a surprising victory in 2016. The former adjunct professor defeated a candidate supported by members of the Northwest Coalition, a powerful alliance of politicians who helped elect Kenney. He also won control of the progressive Ninth Ward. Former Councilwoman Marian Tasco, a leading figure in the alliance, is supporting Rabb’s primary opponent, IT professional Melissa Scott.
“He wasn’t supposed to win,” said Ceisler, adding that the Northwest Coalition “thought they had ownership of that seat.”
In the 175th District, located in Fishtown and Old City, Debby Derricks is trying to unseat 11-year State Rep. Mike O’Brien. She is a 33-year-old veterans’ advocate raised in Kensington.
In the nearby race to replace retiring State Rep. John Taylor, one of few elected Republicans in the city, four Democrats are facing off for the right to face the uncontested GOP nominee, Patty-Pat Kozlowski.
Among the Democrats, Sean Kilkenny, a 36-year-old construction worker, has received financial support from the Electricians union. His opponent Maggie Borski, the 25-year-old daughter of a former congressman, recently began airing a TV ad.
“The old boys’ club have made things a mess,” she says, looking sternly into the camera. “From Harrisburg to Washington, I can’t stand by and watch them bicker as special interests run the show. … It’s time for a new generation to get to work.”