The Pennsylvania Democratic Primary elections are nearing. On April 28, along with participating in the presidential primary, residents will vote for new and existing candidates running for the state House of Representatives and Senate. This year, four races are particularly relevant to LGBTQ voters. Out Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of the 181st District faces Democratic challenger Charlotte Greer-Brown; Out Rep. Brian Sims, who represents the 182nd District, is running against Marisa Shaaban; Rep. Mary Isaacson of District 175 faces three challengers — Andre Del Valle, Vanessa McGrath and Jeff Dempsey; Sen. Larry Farnese of the first Senatorial District faces a challenger in Nikil Saval.
Successful campaigns often — not always — rely on successful financing efforts. According to the Pennsylvania State Department Campaign Finance Online Reporting records for the year 2019, Kenyatta has an ending cash balance of $27,574.53, with no unpaid debts and obligations; Sims has $6,660.74 in funds, with $50,000 in unpaid debts and obligations; Isaacson has $86,784.02 in available funding, with no unpaid debts; McGrath has a balance of $24,186.40 and no unpaid debts; Dempsey has an ending cash balance of $851.00, with no unpaid debts; Farnese has $296,334.70 in available funds, with $48,321.73 in unpaid debts and obligations; Nikil Saval has $103,689.10 at his disposal, with no unpaid debts. Del Valle and Shaaban have not disclosed their financial reports at this time.
Malcolm Kenyatta, the first openly LGBTQ person of color elected to the General Assembly, has served as a Pennsylvania State Rep. since November of 2018. When speaking to PGN, he cited several issues as being important for Pennsylvanians — namely the need to pass The Fairness Act, a nondiscrimination law that would add sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to Pennsylvania’s existing nondiscrimination law. He co-sponsored the bill that Rep. Dan Frankel, Rep. Brian Sims and others have been pushing. Sen. Farnese co-sponsored the bill in Pennsylvania’s senate.
Kenyatta said, “It’s just on its face absurd — depending on the county you’re in, your right to housing and to be free from discrimination in employment can be infringed on.”
Kenyatta also emphasized the importance of his forthcoming bill requiring state forms that collect demographic data to include an optional LGBTQ identifier, and a resolution calling for implicit bias training for all government employees and contractors.
He considers deep poverty to be one of the most pressing issues for Pennsylvania as a whole and co-sponsored a resolution recognizing poverty as a public health crisis. He also pointed out the extent to which the poverty crisis affects LGBTQ communities, largely due to lack of culturally-competent employers who are willing to hire queer workers, especially trans individuals, he said.
Kenyatta, who secured a 2020 Working Families endorsement for his work fighting to help improve working conditions and pay for Pennsylvania families, said Republicans targeting Black voters as a method of hindering African American voter turnout has been a challenge to his campaign.
“One of the things that I think has been interesting to watch is the way that the Republican party has targeted North Philly,” Kenyatta said. “They had this Black People for Trump event in my district. They’re opening 15 offices across the country, trying to, in my opinion, decrease turnout among African Americans. I have a Democratic opponent who has been endorsed and supported by multiple Republican Ward leaders. That’s something I’ve been keeping an eye on, that Republicans want to try to move the needle or at least create confusion in terms of my race.”
Kenyatta’s challenger is Charlotte Greer-Brown. Her Facebook campaign page says she has worked to create jobs, improve education, provide resources for displaced youth and assist those experiencing mental health disorders through the National Council for Behavioral health. She currently serves as the CEO and founder of the Elite 30 Association and Coalition, a nonprofit that provides resources for Black/African-North American and underserved communities experiencing poverty, psychological warfare and lack of education. She also worked as a legislative assistant and community outreach specialist for former State Representative Curtis Thomas.
She deems gun violence as related to youth populations as one of the most pressing issues in Philadelphia, according to her campaign page.
Greer-Brown did not respond to PGN’s request for comment.
Rep. Brian Sims was elected to the State House of Representatives in 2012, as the first openly gay state legislator in Pennsylvania. During his time in office, his priorities have been strengthening public education, protecting resources and services for seniors, bolstering civil rights for all Pennsylvanians and creating jobs, according to his biography on pahouse.com. As a legislator, Sims has introduced bills and resolutions in support of the Fairness Act, protecting minors from conversion therapy, implementing comprehensive sex education programs, updating Pennsylvania’s equal pay law and instituting insurance coverage of HIV medications including Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), to name just a few.
A roughly three-year-long state ethics probe investigating Sims’ travel fees and speaking gigs recently revealed that the representative technically violated the Pennsylvania Ethics Act, according to Billy Penn.
Although Sims declined to disclose all of his outside earnings, a necessity for government officials, the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission relieved him of two major violations of the total five with which he was charged, resulting in a $750 fine. Ultimately, he was not found guilty of using resources from his legislative office to coordinate external speaking engagements promoting LGBTQ issues, nor of soliciting or accepting honoraria as payment for outside speaking appearances. Sims said in a statement that he considers this leaked, confidential complaint to be “an attack on [his] identity as an LGBTQ person in this work.”
Sims did not respond to PGN’s multiple efforts to reach him.
Sims faces Marisa Shaaban as a challenger, a committee person and secretary for Ward 5 and public education advocate. After spending time working on education and healthcare issues in Pennsylvania, New York and Washington on the state, local and federal levels, she worked as associate director of government and community relations at Syracuse University, where she collaborated with other administrators in creating a residence for the LGBT Resource Center.
As a candidate for the Pennsylvania legislature, Shaaban said she prioritizes education funding, accessible healthcare for uninsured and underinsured communities and legislation protecting LGBTQ Pennsylvanians from discrimination. Shaaban said she plans to fight for substantial increases in educational funding, and will strive to take measures above and beyond the Fair Funding Formula to get the job done. Shaaban said she believes that this particular state funding formula fails to properly allocate resources to all students, especially those facing poverty, non-native English speakers and students with special needs.
Like many of her fellow candidates and current legislators, she has plans to fight for the passage of the Fairness Act in Pennsylvania.
“I think it’s absolutely outrageous that Pennsylvania does not have a law based on sexual orientation or gender identity because all people deserve to be treated equally,” she said. “I will work really hard to put an end to discrimination, especially when it comes to housing, employment and public accomodations based on sexual orientation based on sexual identity.” She also plans to address healthcare for transgender people, specifically reproductive rights for trans folks, which she believes is continously left out of legislative conversations. In reaching out to community members, Shaaban said she noticed that many Philadelphia residents place particular importance on environmental issues, which she plans to address if elected.
Rep. Mary Isaacson told PGN she plans to focus on education funding and ensuring safe schools, working to counter the climate change crisis, and remedying lead and asbestos in Pennsylvania’s schools. On March 2, it was announced she secured $3.1 million in safety grants for schools and behavioral health programs in her district. Economic development, creating “family-sustaining” jobs via raising the minimum wage and working toward sexual harassment-free work environments are other of her priorities. She also strives to make sure women have a strong voice in Harrisburg.
Isaacson says she has been a champion of LGBTQ rights, having worked for over 15 years advocating and enacting positive change in queer communities. She has co-sponsored the Fairness Act, and proposed legislation to enact an Economic Bill of Rights, in which “every Pennsylvanian would be provided access and coverage to comprehensive healthcare without discrimination from providers, ensuring that gender affirming surgeries and mental health care are provided for,” according to a press release. She places importance on fighting against violence toward transgender people, especially trans women of color. She was also instrumental in securing funding to open the John C. Anderson Apartments, an affordable housing community for LGBTQ seniors.
“The Anderson House holds a very special place in my heart because it was a project that I worked on for years with the DMHfund and the community as a staffer [for late Rep. Michael O’Brian],” Isaacson said. “It was upon me to make sure that the nuts and bolts got done and coordination was done properly so we could get the funding. Not just the funding from the state House but also to help navigate the federal tax credits that were required and everything else that goes into coordination between city, state and federal to make an affordable housing project like that to be able to come to [life].”
Additionally, Isaacson has promised to make STD testing more accessible and even free, and allocate funding to combat LGBTQ youth homeless and provide for LGBTQ senior housing. She has also collaborated with the William Way LGBT Community Center and Philadelphia FIGHT to achieve state funding, and teamed up with organizations to reach out to her constituents, including Philadelphia FIGHT, Institute for Community Justice, ACLU-PA Trans Justice Program, Women in Transition, the Mazzoni Center, the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, GALAEI and Valley Youth House, Pride Program, according to a press release.
For Isaacson, reestablishing fair districts in Pennsylvania is the key to gaining a Democratic majority in the state legislature and passing laws on her most important issues.
“Once we can get fair districts that are more reflective of Pennsylvania, then I think that we can take those majorities and start advancing legislation.”
Issacson faces three challengers — Vanessa McGrath, Andre Del Valle and Jeff Dempsey.
Mcgrath previously worked as an attorney and businessperson, and played leading roles in several Philadelphia-based nonprofits, including PhilaSoup — an organization that gives microgrants to Philly school teachers. She considers education to be among her most pressing concerns. She said her previous work on Fair Funding Formula cases in the Commonwealth Court means that she is aware of the legislation needed to properly fund Pennsylvania schools.
“In terms of the Funding Formula, only 6 percent of how we allocate funds considers things like areas that are more impoverished, areas where there’s a greater population of students who are English as a second language, children who have special needs,” she said.
On LGBTQ issues, the Fairness Act is her priority, as well as raising awareness of LGBTQ rights in general. “It’s something both professionally and personally important to me,” she said. “I’m very lucky that I have a family that has been very accepting of my sister and her wife. It’s something very personal to me but it shouldn’t take a personal connection to this community to care about their rights.”
Healthcare, specifically HIV care, clean needle exchanges, more reproductive healthcare for women and trans people are also on Mcgrath’s radar. “I am truly running against the political machine and the establishment, and that’s a difficult thing to do, particularly as a young progressive woman,” she said. “It’s these folks who come from political families or from a political dynasty or hand-picked from a political patron are the ones who get ahead. To me, the system benefits the few truly at the expense of the many.”
Andre Del Valle has been very active in local Democratic politics. In 2019, he became the first Latinx person to be unanimously elected as president of the Pennsylvania Young Democrats. He previously worked as a Legislative Aide for Council member Maria Quinones Sanchez, where he helped to establish a Municipal ID program – a helping hand for many Philadelphia populations, including returning citizens struggling with opioid addiction.
As a candidate for State House of Representatives, his priorities include tackling the opioid epidemic, gun violence and the student loan crisis. He is also very passionate about taking measures to expand the definition of discrimination in Pennsylvania, including fighting for legal protections for LGBTQ communities and Latinx people.
“We need to expand those definitions of harassment, racial discriminiation, gender discrimination,” Del Valle said. He cited attacks on transgender people as a cause for concern. “When we’re talking about how we hold people accountable, we need to expand those definitions to give law enforcement and our judicial system to be able to come down on those who are harassing or violently attacking members of our LGBTQ community. Discrimination in any form, whether you’re Black, white, Latino, gay, straight — it’s discrimination.”
Del Valle nabbed a 2020 Working Families endorsement for his efforts to raise the minimum wage in Pennsylvania, working to expand the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act and fighting to expand workplace protections.
Issacson’s third opponent is Jeff Dempsey, who previously worked for Rep. Kevin Boyle as deputy chief of staff, where he took measures to protect LGBTQ residents from discrimination and provide undocumented children with educational resources, among other progressive efforts. In 2015, he became the program director for CeaseFire PA, the largest gun violence prevention organization in Pennsylvania.
As a candidate for the state legislature, Dempsey’s campaign site states he plans to help enact education reform, anti-gun legislation, uniform antidiscrimination legislation protecting LGBTQ communities and fighting for equal pay for women. Dempsey did not respond to a request for an interview.
Sen. Larry Farnese has been a strong advocate for LGBTQ legislation throughout his career as a senator, which he began in 2009. Not only is he a member of the Pennsylvania LGBT Equality Caucus, Farnese has been very vocal about fighting for pro-LGBTQ bills, including the Fairness Act. He has been active in fighting for economic development, public safety, reducing gun violence and ban assault weapons in the state of Pennsylvania.
“It is despicable that members of the General Assembly are actively discriminating against citizens of this commonwealth,” Sen. Farnese said in a 2019 press release. “Members of the LGBTQ community must be treated with dignity and the way that they express themselves should be fully respected.”
Sen. Farnese could not be reached for comment as of presstime.
Farnese faces Nikil Saval as a senatorial contestant. A journalist and community organizer, Saval was the first Asian American to be elected ward leader in Philadelphia. As a big player in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, he co-founded Reclaim Philadelphia, where he continued to foster a progressive majority in the city. The team played an integral role in getting Larry Krasner to run for district attorney. As a journalist who wrote about urbanism and housing planning, Saval’s main priorities in Pennsylvania is addressing the housing crisis.
“It affects the poorest among us — working class youth, Black and Brown people; 40 percent of homeless youth identify as queer,” Saval said. “This is a crisis that is really [affected] by who you are. We need a really strong solution to it.” As such, Saval is calling for a Homes Guarantee, “which would focus on building new affordable units, preserving the units that we have and also converting a lot of existing stock to affordable units,” Saval said.
He feels strongly about bills like the Fairness Act to protect LGBTQ folks and also hopes to perpetuate antidiscrimination in public accommodations to education, foster care and adoption. “There’s so many areas in which this is a pervasive problem,” he said.