Former Philly deputy mayor enters race for Pa.’s newly redrawn 5th Congressional District

Former Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer (second from right) launches his congressional race at a South Philadelphia playground.

Former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer (second from right) launches his congressional race at a South Philadelphia playground. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A Philadelphia challenger has emerged in the predominantly suburban and recently redrawn 5th Congressional District of Pennsylvania.

Richard Lazer, a former deputy mayor for labor under longtime mentor Jim Kenney, substantiated weeks of rumors when he officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination Monday evening.

Lazer’s speech focused on what he called “working-class values and working families,” and took place at his childhood playground in South Philadelphia amid a back-slapping chorus of neighborhood acquaintances.

“I’m here tonight to announce my candidacy for Congress for the 5th District for the working families of all the neighborhoods in this district,” Lazer said.

He vowed to support Medicare for all, free college, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Though perhaps the biggest cheer went up when he said he’d fight “right-to-work” laws he said were intended to “decimate unions in our country.”

Lazer’s candidacy could be setting up a Philadelphia vs. Delaware County Democratic primary on May 15.

He’s running for the new 5th Congressional District, created by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after it found the state’s previous congressional district map to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

The new 5th District consists mostly of Delaware County along with smaller parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties. No incumbent is running for the seat, since Delaware County U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, a Republican, decided not to seek re-election after it was revealed he’s settled a sexual harassment allegation.

Lazer could face an uphill battle running as a Philadelphian in a largely suburban district. Delaware County Democratic chairman David Landau has said the district should be represented by someone from the county.

But so far 15 Democrats have announced their candidacy or formed committees to launch to campaign for the seat, most of them from Delaware County. If Lazer manages to get the lion’s share of the Philadelphia vote and a pack of suburban candidates split the Delaware County vote, he has a chance of capturing the nomination.

I think you look around here it’s a row house neighborhood. You go to Upper Darby and Darby and different parts of Delaware County it’s working class folks,” said Lazer. “I think that’s the message.”

The son of a sheet metal worker, Lazer has deep ties to organized labor and and is expected have strong support from building trades unions. Though Lazer’s speech took place one block east of an apprentice training facility operated by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, the union’s politically powerful leader, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, did not appear at the announcement.

The building trades have invested heavily in independent advertising efforts to support their favored Philadelphia candidates for Congress, mayor, and district attorney over the past four years.

In 2014, they contributed more than $300,000 to a Super PAC that supported then-congressional candidate Brendan Boyle. Boyle won a four-way Democratic primary and is now serving in Congress.

Candidates are currently circulating nominating petitions. They must be filed by March 20, and it’s expected that not all of the 15 who’ve announced their interest in the seat will be on the ballot.

It’s also possible that the district lines could shift again, if either of two lawsuits by Republican legislative leaders succeeds in reversing the state Supreme Court’s order drawing new boundaries.

Seven Republicans have expressed interest in their party’s nomination for the seat, which analysts say is much friendlier to Democrats than the earlier boundaries.

Lazer did receive on-stage endorsements from Ryan Boyer, head of the Laborers’ District Council in Philadelphia, and City Councilman Mark Squilla.

Lazer’s first job out of La Salle University was working for then-City Councilman Jim Kenney. He later moved into the Kenney administration, helping broker labor deals with the city’s blue collar workers and teachers. His campaign materials included a picture and quote from Kenney.

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