Candidates vying for Fattah’s seat in Congress tackle corruption, race and poverty in debate

Most of the questions during Thursday night’s debate inside the Academy of Vocal Arts were thrown to each of the five candidates running to lead the Second Congressional District.

Are you in favor of raising the minimum wage?

Is gun control too elusive to make any progress?

Where do you stand on the issue of personal privacy, national security and cellphones?

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

But former mayoral candidate Sam Katz, who moderated the event, also crafted some individual, somewhat pointed questions for the four Democrats and one Republican sitting on stage.

Katz asked indicted U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah to explain why voters should cast their ballot for him even as he fights federal corruption charges.

Fattah started with a short history lesson on Pennsylvania politics.

In 1992, U.S. Rep. Joe McDade was indicted after allegedly exchanging gifts and trips for government contracts. He was re-elected and acquitted.

In 2006, about a month before the general election, the FBI raided U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon’s home in connection to a corruption probe. He lost that election, but was never charged.

“The voters have to make their own choice about this. I have said that I am completely innocent and that these allegations have no merits,” said Fattah, who also emphasized that his trial was postponed until after the April 26 Democratic primary.

State Rep. Dwight Evans, considered Fattah’s stiffest competition, has worked in Harrisburg for 36 years. If elected, however, he’d be a freshman lawmaker in a system that favors seniority.

Evans said that wouldn’t be a problem. He’s no “newbie.”

“It’s not a question of how long you’ve been there, it’s a question of how effective you are and how you use the skill set that you have available to you,” said Evans. “There’s a lot of people who have sat there an awful long time.”

Philadelphia ward leader Dan Muroff and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon, who are white, were questioned by Katz as to why someone who is not African-American should lead the state’s only African-American congressional district.

“My values reflect the values of this district — broadly — and I think I’m a reflection of this district,” said Muroff. “I very proudly support minorities, women, underserved communities and I want to represent this entire district — everybody, not just a select group.”

Gordon said the cornerstones of his campaign speak for themselves.

“Poverty, violence and public schools that do not prepare students for life,” said Gordon. “Anyone has the right to run and I don’t think race should control.”

The Second Congressional District includes parts of North, Northwest and West Philadelphia, as well as Lower Merion Township.

Roughly 80 percent of registered voters are registered Democrats.

Katz asked James Jones, the lone Republican running in a very blue district, a very simple question: why run?

“We’ve seen the same old song and dance for last 20 to 25 years and nothing has really changed,” said Jones. “We’ve got poverty at its deepest level in America, we have intergenerational poverty and I’ve seen and heard it spoken for so long that people are going to create economic development opportunities, that their going to create jobs, it’s not happening folks.”

For most of the debate, Fattah and Evans worked to set themselves apart by highlighting their experience and records.

Fattah talked about his work around brain diseases and disorders, as well as education, from Gear Up — a longstanding college readiness program he launched — to a measure tucked into the Affordable Care Act aimed at making it easier for students to pay off their loans.

“I know it’s strange that we would put that in the Affordable Care Act, but as a lawmaker, when trains are leaving the station, you find whatever vehicle you can find,” said Fattah.

Evans focused on his time on the state’s House Appropriations Committee and made sure to mention his endorsements from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Gov. Tom Wolf, and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

All four Democratic candidates support raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to somewhere near $15 an hour.

“This has been a real struggle for working people and if you don’t have a reasonable wage to live off of, to buy things, we can’t grow our economy, but more importantly, what does it say about our values as Americans?” said Muroff.

Jones argued that raising the minimum wage would hurt small business owners.

When it comes to gun violence, Gordon said it would be difficult to attack it through legislation while districts across the country remain so gerrymandered. The redrawing district lines, he said, has made it harder for progressive ideas to gain traction.

Each Democrat said it should be pursued nonetheless.

“This is not a Republican, Democrat issue. It’s not a liberal, conservative issue, or what I call tea party or hot chocolate party, whatever you want to call it,” said Evans. “I do believe leadership makes a difference.”

Jones said the country already has “major” gun controls in place.

“It’s called the Second Amendment,” he said.

The one thing Democratic candidates and Jones agreed on: Apple had every right to refuse the government’s request for the company to help them hack into the cell phones of the San Bernadino shooters. 

The Pennsylvania primary is April 26.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal