Across Pa., progressive incumbent Dems aren’t getting party endorsements

Rep. Elizabeth Fielder stands outside

Progressive Rep. Elizabeth Fielder is running for her third two-year term. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Many of the small businesses that line Philadelphia’s East Passyunk Avenue recently picked sides in an unexpected battle.

In dozens of shop windows, campaign signs are prominently displayed for a contested Democratic primary election for the Pa. House. Lots of them bear the name of the incumbent, progressive Elizabeth Fiedler. But many others advertise her opponent, Michael Giangiordano, a new-to-politics real estate agent.

Those store windows are a visual representation of the larger division underlying this race, and similar ones across the state. Philadelphia’s Democratic committee, which typically backs incumbents or stays out of contested primaries, last week officially endorsed Giangiordano over Fiedler — a snub that came with little explanation from the party insiders who made the call.

“It feels really frustrating,” Fiedler said. “I have heard from a lot of people in this district who reached out to me after the party vote who are also really frustrated. It feels like many of us are being told that we are not welcome, that the door is being closed on us.”

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Fiedler, who used to be a journalist at WHYY, ran for the 184th State House district as a political outsider. She was elected in 2018 as part of a Democratic wave, one of several victorious candidates with ties to the Democratic Socialists of America.

She’s running for a third two-year term, she said, on her record “as a champion for our children and families, for every child having a high-quality public school in their neighborhood, [making] sure that those schools do not have lead, asbestos, rodents, and working very hard with unions to make sure that that work is done safely and done by trained professionals.”

She also noted that she has worked to secure funding for local resources, like libraries.

The Philly Democratic Committee makes its endorsements based on a vote from the ward leaders in a given district — though committee higher-ups can still wield considerable influence.

There are three leaders in Fiedler’s district. One is her husband, Adams Rackes. His ward supported her. The two others went for Giangiordano.

One of the ward leaders who was instrumental in backing Giangiordano is former traffic court judge Michael Sullivan. He has his own colorful political history — he got caught up in a federal investigation for fixing traffic tickets, and was also nabbed on federal tax fraud counts for paying employees of his South Philly family bar under the table.

He says there’s not “anything in particular” that Fiedler has or hasn’t done that makes him unhappy with her work in Harrisburg. But he said he doesn’t know her well, and though she actively sought his endorsement and met with him several times, he decided that “she’s not engaged enough.”

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“I think she doesn’t like building bridges,” he added. “She’s not very good at that.”

Giangiordano, a 28-year-old who works alongside his father in his real estate business, is “engaged, and we’ve had good conversations,” Sullivan said, adding that he seems focused on “public safety, petty crime.”

Asked what inspired him to run against Fiedler, Giangiordano repeatedly said he thinks Fiedler cares too much about what he called “Twitter issues.”

“She cares more about performative criminal justice activism matters, more than supporting returning citizens or keeping our neighborhood safe,” he said. “She cares more about national issues than rising heating bills that are going to hurt the poorest residents in this district.”

He didn’t give many specifics about his own policy priorities and how they differ from Fiedler’s, but said he values crime reduction and supporting small businesses. At the heart of his campaign, he noted, is the fact that he’s a fourth-generation Philadelphian with deep roots in the district.

His dad, who is also named Michael Giangiordano and who owns an array of buildings on Passyunk along with his real estate business, was also instrumental in the run.

“He was a long-term [Democratic] committee person,” the younger Giangiordano said. “We would always go to events and be active and involved in our community, because we care so much about our community. [Politics] is just something that I always wanted to do.”

Fiedler’s primary isn’t the only one in which an incumbent progressive — often, a woman — has been passed over for an endorsement in favor of a person with closer ties to the political establishment.

In Allegheny County, local Democrats passed over three progressives who already serve in the state House: Rep. Jessica Benham, Rep. Emily Kinkead, and Rep. Summer Lee, who is running for Congress. And in West Philly’s 188th district, ward leaders endorsed incumbent Rep. Rick Krajewski’s challenger, James Wright.

Kinkead noted that there are similarities between her own non-endorsement and Fiedler’s.

The messaging in favor of her opponent, Nick Mastros, is that “I haven’t been present, that I haven’t been available,” she said, adding that in both cases, she thinks that line “is really bad-faith. I have talked to basically every committee that I’ve had the opportunity to talk to.”

While the party-backed candidates are all generally more conservative than the incumbents, the reasoning for all these endorsements of challengers doesn’t seem to be solely policy-based. Mastros said himself that he hadn’t yet prepared policy positions when he got the endorsement.

Instead, Kinkead said, she thinks this is mostly about “growing pains.” In her county, and in many parts of Pennsylvania, seats and political party positions are often passed down generation to generation, and there’s “an expectation that, well, this is the way that it has always been.”

“There’s pushback when the people who have had access to power are not given the same kind of access to power,” she added. “We’re not trying to say the old voices are no longer allowed at the table. It’s that there’s also new voices that get to come to the table, and we have to listen to those as well.”

Kinkead, Fiedler, and several of the other incumbents facing more conservative primary challengers say they remain confident that voters still support their brand of politics.

“It feels to me like a moment when we need to be bold and unapologetic,” Fiedler said. “There are so many people across the city and the state who do not feel a connection to politics…they don’t feel like ‘politics as usual’ is working for them.”

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