State Rep. John Myers’ decision to retire from his post in the 201st Legislative District has cleared the way for a competitive three-man race.
All three candidates — Stephen Kinsey, Karl Gamble and Michael Ellis — seeking to replace the 17-year Democratic lawmaker hail from Germantown, but the similarities largely stop there.
With less than a week to go before the Pennsylvania primaries, NewsWorks caught up with each hopeful to talk about their campaign and goals for the diverse district.
Kinsey, the chief of staff
For Stephen Kinsey, becoming a state representative is a natural progression of the work he’s already done in the community. “And that is simply helping people,” he said.
Kinsey, 50, has served as both a block captain and a committeeperson and works closely with students at Germantown High School, his alma mater.
For the past four years, he’s acted as Myers’ chief of staff. It’s a post he thinks gives him a big advantage in his first bid for public office.
Kinsey said managing the incumbent’s Harrisburg and Philadelphia offices has provided him with political acumen and community credibility, essential tools for being an effective state legislator.
He said the former will be especially important given the General Assembly’s Republican majority and Gov. Tom Corbett’s Republican administration.
“It’s tough for folks to just come out of nowhere and say they want to be a legislator and not really have a full understanding of the process in and of itself,” he said. “I already have relationships with some of the leaders in Harrisburg. Now, it’s a matter of solidifying it, bringing awareness of the community to the leadership and to my colleagues in Harrisburg.”
As a result of spending so much time in the community, Kinsey said he’s truly in touch with the changes constituents want to see no matter where they live in the district, which covers parts of Mt. Airy, Germantown, West Oak Lane and Ogontz.
“There are some similarities, but you have to respect the uniqueness of every single community,” he said.
So what are the ties that bind? Kinsey said calls for more employment and a better public-school system are a constant. He said residents are also ready for a change in leadership.
Asked if he thought his time with Rep. Myers would hurt his chances of being the one to bring it, Kinsey said he didn’t think so.
He and Myers are like “night and day,” with him representing the “new school” and Myers representing the “old school.”
Kinsey added that working for Myers was never about Myers, but about the people of the 201st district.
“For folks that really understand and have a sense of how things work, they will look at it and say, ‘Hey, this guy learned something. Let’s give him a chance,'” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but we have to start somewhere.”
Gamble, the block captain and first-time candidate
Fellow first-time candidate Karl Gamble, 40, said he is making honesty the bedrock of his campaign.
The part-time barber has worked on a number of political campaigns over the years and said he’s tired of watching candidates make promises during election season that they don’t keep once they’re in office.
He said it’s time for residents in the 201st to have a representative who is realistic about what can and can’t be accomplished.
“There’s no need to bamboozle people,” said Gamble, a lifelong Germantown resident.
The block captain and committeeperson also wants to bring accountability back to the post by keeping residents informed about what’s going on in Harrisburg, particularly when it comes to voting on legislation.
“When you become a state representative, you are elected by the people, so you serve the people. You don’t keep the information to yourself. You bring it back to the people,” said Gamble. “We need to find out what did you do this year? Where did you go? Where did you spend that money at or what happened at that convention?”
He stressed, though, that he plans on spending the vast majority of his time in the community if he’s elected. The district, he said, has fallen on particularly hard times over the past six years as a result of poor leadership.
“These people turn their backs on the community,” said Gamble.
He pointed to the area’s relative lack of youth programming and support for seniors as examples. Redevelopment projects, he added, have also been nearly nonexistent.
Gamble said he can’t help the district rebound by himself, that he’ll need the will of the people behind him to make the progress everyone involved would like to see.
“No one man wins a war. And this is a war out here,” he said. “This is a fight. And the fighting has stopped.”
Ellis, the “independent Democrat”
Michael Ellis, 29, said he thinks standing firmly outside of Northwest Philadelphia’s inner circle of elected officials will help lead him to victory in his second bid for the legislative post.
Ellis, who describes himself as an independent Democrat, said that “clique” of representatives has had a stronghold on the community for too long. A fresh face is needed if the district is ever going to improve, he maintained.
“Let’s move away from that and really start doing more things for the community and caring about the community,” said Ellis.
Ellis, who has been involved in politics since 2006, said he knows what it takes to be both a responsive and effective lawmaker.
He said his time as president of the Philadelphia Young Democrats, a committeeperson in the 59th Ward and with the state’s Fourth Senatorial District have helped him greatly in that regard.
“It’s really given me a better idea on how politics works and how to get things done in a leadership position,” said Ellis. “It takes time. It’s takes energy. It takes dedication. It takes working in the community and I’ve been for that.”
Quality-of-life issues top Ellis’ list of priorities, with jobs being the most important item on the agenda. In particular, Ellis said he thinks capitalizing on Germantown’s historical value is the key to increasing employment in the district, calling it the most “realistic” and “feasible” jobs plan being offered.
“A lot of people don’t know that this is a stopping point for the Underground Railroad and that the Johnson House [is here],” he said. “Some people don’t know that George Washington, our nation’s first president, stayed in Germantown multiple times to escape the yellow fever epidemic that was going on in Philadelphia back in his time.”
Ellis also cited blight in the district — specifically vacant buildings — and crime among the district’s most pressing issues.
The Germantown resident garnered a shade more than 40 percent of the vote during a head-to-head primary matchup with Myers in 2010. The numbers, he said, were encouraging enough to warrant another stab at the seat.
“I think that if we might have had two more weeks, we would have won that election,” he said.