Philly legislative delegation getting younger

The election of Donald Trump has spurred a wave of young, progressive Democrats to seek political office, and many of first-time candidates will be targeting state legislative seats next year.

But it seems change has already come to Philadelphia’s state house delegation, and a youth movement of sorts is already underway. 

Historically, Philadelphia’s state house seats don’t turn over a lot. They tend to be won by party faithful, often ward leaders, who hold on to them for decades.

But if you compare the city’s state house members to those in office just six years ago, in 2011, there’s been a striking change. Of the 26 people holding house seats then, 14 are gone, for a variety of reasons (see chart below).

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Some of the seats were cleared by scandal, including a state sting operation. Three newcomers beat party-backed incumbents to get into the legislature. One is Chris Rabb in Northwest Philadelphia, who says the 2016 presidential campaign energized progressive Democrats, even last year.

“I’ve never seen this level of excitement, of interest, in hyper local politics or politics in particular,” Rabb said. “I haven’t seen it in 15 years, and that fervor definitely helped me. There’s a lot of people who say me as a metaphor, as a beacon of hope.”

Young gunsEight of the newcomers are younger than 40. One is Morgan Cephas, who at 33 now occupies the West Philadelphia seat held for two decades by Louise Williams Bishop. Bishop resigned after it was revealed she’d accepted $1,500 from an undercover operative in a government sting operation.

Cephas said in an interview there is an affinity among the new, younger members of the delegation, and a sense of common purpose. “We call ourselves the youngest caucus,” she said. “We look at different issues that pretty much align with our goals when we look at our specific districts, and we try to come together and be a voting block.”

The young progressives aren’t reshaping tax policy or education funding in the Commonwealth, since Republicans dominate both houses of the legislature. But the new Philadelphians say they can have a meaningful impact, moving modest pieces of legislation in cooperation with Republicans, and having their say.

“I can speak out in hearings and on the floor of the house, and I use that in a very strategic way,” said Joanna McClinton, who represents the 191st district in West Philadelphia. “I don’t speak out on every issue, but on those that are most critical to my district.”

McClinton, a Villanova Law School graduate who spent seven years as a public defender, focuses on issues of criminal justice.

Jared Solomon, who unseated long-term incumbent Mark Cohen three years ago is establishing a program to clean the business corridor in his North Philadelphia district. “That gives you get the huge benefit of a cleaner business corridor,” Solomon said, “but most importantly it sends a message to people, ‘wow, things are different.’ These guys are out there, cleaning up, I should get involved.”

The city’s delegation, now 25 members, is overwhelmingly Democratic, but it’s youngest member is Martina White, 29, of Northeast Philadelphia. She’s one of only two Republicans in the city delegation. She said despite partisan and ideological differences, she and the young Democrats try to support each other when they can.

Veterans still aroundNot all of the newcomers are youngsters. One is 67-year old ward leader Isabella Fitzgerald. She took the seat of Dwight Evans, who went to Congress after U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was convicted on corruption charges.

The changes have dropped the median age of the city’s delegation from 57 to 51, so there are still plenty of grey hairs in the caucus. The median age of those elected since 2011 is 38.

There’s one disadvantage to being young in Harrisburg: seniority matters in legislative bodies. Philadelphia used to have powerful leaders in the legislature including Democratic state Sen. Vince Fumo and Republican House Speaker John Perzel. Both went to jail in corruption scandals, and the city is far less well-represented in leadership caucuses now.

The chair of the city’s house Democratic caucus Maria Donatucci is a veteran of Harrisburg. She noted that city Democrats have only one member in a leadership position in the state capitol. That’s Rosita Youngblood, who’s represented Germantown and parts of North Philadelphia for 24 years. Youngblood is secretary of the state house Democratic caucus, and I’ve heard of a couple of young challengers who plan to take her on in next year’s Democratic primary.

Donatucci said seniority is important, and mentoring from veteran legislators is valuable. But she said, she likes have the new, younger members in the delegation.

“I admire them. I love watching them,” Donatucci said. “They have great ideas. They’re not afraid to tell you their ideas, even if they’re going to get shot down. But they have this, ‘oomph’ about them.”

Former Democratic party chair TJ Rooney said many of the new representatives bring impressive resumes, and thinks they’ll do great things as they gain experience.

More change will come to the delegation next year. A crop of candidates is getting ready to challenge incumbents, and one veteran lawmaker, Republican John Taylor has announced he won’t seek re-election. Even many Democrats say that’s a loss for the city, since Taylor worked with city officials on Philadelphia issues in Harrisburg, and was a respected member of the majority party.

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