Candidates for PA legislature spoke to local Democratic org. in hopes of endorsement

Liberty City Democratic Club, an affiliate of the National Stonewall Democrats, hosted two “Candidate Nights” at the John C. Anderson Apartments ahead of the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary. On Thursday, March 5 and Tuesday, March 10, Liberty City invited new and returning candidates running for legislative seats in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to speak to members about their values and priorities, in hopes of gaining an endorsement from the political action committee. 

“One of our goals is we want to make sure that when we’re endorsing someone, that they’re somebody who supports number one, the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, and number two, the progressive values that the members of this organization believe in,” said Wade Albert, chair of this year’s Liberty City endorsement committee.

Candidates seeking endorsement are required to fill out a questionnaire, which will be reviewed by members of the endorsement committee, in addition to notes from the meetings, to vet each candidate and determine who is eligible for an endorsement.

Candidates who spoke at the March 5 meeting included State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (Dist. 184); Nonprofit Leader and Global Advocate Christina Hartman; PA political vet Karen Dunn; AFL-CIO employee Michael Cogbill; Sen. Larry Farnese (Dist. 1); Rep. Mary Isaacson (Dist. 175); Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (Dist. 182); Sen. Sharif Street (Dist. 3); and Community Organizer Nikil Saval’s finance director, Sam Terry. Jamal Brown, national press secretary for Joe Biden, spoke briefly about Biden’s plan for LGBTQ equality in the U.S. and internationally, which prioritized his commitment of passing and signing into law the Equality Act.

Candidates who presented at the March 10 meeting included Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, Certified Public Accountant Rose Davis, CPA and PA Auditor General vet Tracie Fountain and Nina Ahmad, former scientist and deputy mayor for public engagement under Mayor Kenney, who are all running for Pennsylvania Auditor General.

Candidates running for state legislature who spoke on March 10 included Rep. Jim Roebuck (Dist. 188); Criminal Justice Organizer and Educator Rick Krajewski; Rep. Brian Sims (Dist. 182); Attorney Danyl Pattersont; Jeff Dempsey, former program director of Ceasefire PA; Andre Del Valle, former legislative aide to councilmember Maria Quinones Sanchez; Vanessa McGrath, who has a background in immigration law; Darisha K. Parker, who has a background in political communications and coalition-building; Former Mayor of Hatboro Nancy Guenst, who is running to represent the 152nd District against Republican Tom Murt; and Marisa Shaaban, former Associate Director of Government and Community Relations at Syracuse University. Councilmember Helen Gym spoke on behalf of Bernie Sanders, along with one of Sanders’ senior advisors.

Each candidate was allotted two minutes to speak, followed by three questions from members.

Across the board, all candidates briefly discussed their goals for enacting progressive change for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania communities.

Some embedded LGBTQ rights in their overall priorities to fight for equality, while others singled out the legislation they have helped to pass and plan to pass to protect LGBTQ communities. Other candidates did not mention LGBTQ issues at all in their two-minute speeches.

Representatives Farnese, Isaacson and Street, as well as Cogbill, all underscored what they have done and plan to do for LGBTQ communities.

Farnese has advocated for LGBTQ rights over the course of his tenure in the State Senate; he was the prime sponsor of the LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill known as the Fairness Act, and has sponsored legislation on hate crimes.

Like Farnese, Isaacson co-sponsored the Fairness Act, proposed an Economic Bill of Rights, which would provide access to comprehensive healthcare for all Pennsvanians, and played an integral part in opening the John C. Anderson Apartments, the location of both Liberty City candidate meetings. Education reform and women’s rights are also among her top priorities.

Kenyatta who has authored and co-sponsored legislation to protect LGBTQ communities, such as the LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill, spent some of his time discussing his bill Phillip’s Law. The proposed legislation calls for more mental healthcare professionals in public schools in the wake of a young boy who died by suicide due to bullying he received for standing up for his brother, who is said to be gay.

Cogbill addressed a question about decriminalizing sex work brought up by multiple audience members. “Being a person of color, it’s hard to get jobs,” he said. “People don’t hire Black people. Imagine somebody who’s trans and Black trying to walk in and get a job. That’s a serious issue.”

Other candidates, including Isaacson and Fiedler, also said they would be open to discussing and supporting the decriminalization of sex work.

“The criminalization of sex work is the reason why a lot of trans women are overincarcerated, even compared to cisgender men of the same race and socioeconomic class,” said Cora Linehan, member of Reclaim Philadelphia and the Upper Darby Democratic Committee.

“It is one of the big drivers behind the epidemic of violence that we have against trans women of color.”

Audience members also raised the issue of rent control and affordable housing.

“We can do it first by getting a Democratic majority,” said Roebuck in response to a question about rent control. “I don’t think many of my Republican colleagues are going to necessarily buy into that. I think that’s a key for many of the things we want to get done. We need to get a progressive Democratic [majority].”

“Housing is a major crisis; it’s a crisis all over this country in many cities, but in our city it’s really getting bad,” Paul Fitzgerald, a life-long Philadelphian who has experienced housing insecurity, told PGN.

“We need protections for homeowners and renters. Housing, like a lot of political issues, disproportionately affects LGBT people, especially LGBT youth, but also the many LGBT people that are working class and working poor, and lot of them are people of color. A lot of these people are being displaced from their communities,” he said.

Sims, the first openly gay person to serve in the Pennsylvania Legislature, spoke openly about his background fighting for LGBTQ rights, which includes his prime sponsorship of the Pennsylvania Marriage Equality Act calling for updated laws surrounding same-sex marriage and divorce, the Protection of Minors from Conversion Therapy Act, as well as legislation demanding coverage of the HIV/AIDS medications PrEP and PEP.

Education advocate Shaaban, who is Sims’ challenger, emphasized her career in government and community relations in higher education and healthcare, and promised to fight for Pennsylvania schools in Harrisburg.

When asked about the fact that she has less experience than Sims, Shabaan said, “I would fight just as hard. I would bring people in all areas of the community into the room to be part of the conversation, not just particular members. I have been talking to residents of the community about these issues and have been getting feedback about how they feel about certain issues.”

“Gun violence affects all of Pennsylvania, and disproportionately when I look at the statistics, I see it affecting the LGBTQ community time and time again,” said Dempsey, one of Isaacson’s challengers. He plans to prioritize anti-gun legislation if elected.

Guenst and Patterson talked about their plans to tackle LGBTQ issues in relation to their personal experiences with members of the queer community. As former mayor of Hatboro, New Jersey, Guenst signed the Human Relations Ordinance into law, which protects LGBTQ people from discrimination. When asked about driving up LGBTQ outreach in her district, Parker discussed forging relationships with Representatives Sims and Kenyatta, as well as potentially organizing a Pride event in Germantown.

Another pressing issue that audience members brought up in both meetings is politicians’ stance on supervised injection sites.

“I’m the only candidate who’s gone to Canada and visited safe consumption sites, the only candidate who has walked through the encampments on Lehigh Avenue and I’m the only candidate since day one who has been supportive of them in a medical facility,” Del Valle, another of Isaacson’s challengers, said. “This is personal to me, I’ve lost friends to this epidemic. I’m supportive of them in a medical setting.”

Liberty City will reconvene on March 25, at which those on the endorsement committee will make recommendations to the organization’s full membership.