Democratic voters in Roxborough, Manayunk and East Falls face a choice in this year’s Pennsylvania primary: Re-elect state Rep. Pam DeLissio or give first-time candidate Dave Henderson a chance.
Her case for re-election
Compared to many counterparts, DeLissio, 57, still considers herself a relative newcomer, but not a newbie.
To her, it’s an important distinction that constituents should consider on May 20 when deciding whether to give her a third term in office.
“Two terms would almost be a disservice to the district,” said DeLissio.
Both chambers of the state legislature have staunch Republican majorities.
In a recent interview with NewsWorks, DeLissio argued that it’d be better to stick with someone who’s already been building relationships in the name of bipartisanship than to start from scratch.
“When I look to do things, I’ve reached across the aisle to find somebody else to [cosponsor] a piece of legislation,” she said. “And now, I find my colleagues, who are Republicans, reaching across the aisle our way.”
DeLissio attributed her consensus-building skills to decades spent in the private sector serving long-term care companies.
Before running for office, DeLissio was an administrator for a pair of residence communities in the district. She then became a consultant for nonprofit and for-profit companies.
The challenger’s response
Henderson, a 29-year-old Army veteran, said he thinks he’d be just as good at working with representatives from the state’s red districts.
The West Point grad served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. During his time overseas, he often did counter-insurgency work. Some days, that involved trying to sit down with local leaders who didn’t always have fond feelings for the U.S. Army.
Henderson said it was important to keep that in mind during, but not let it dictate the nature of, discussions.
“They might have been anti-U.S. at one time, but for whatever reason or another, it changed,” he said. “It’s the same with Republicans and Democrats. Things might have been a certain way years ago, but that’s no reason that has to spoil progress now. We have to open lines of a communication first.”
Henderson doesn’t worry much about his lack of political or private sector experience. The service, he said, has taught him the dedication, discipline and work ethic needed to tackle any challenge.
“If you get elected, your job is to serve the people. It’s just like being in the Army. Your job is to serve the nation,” he said.
On the issues
DeLissio and Henderson both take education seriously.
DeLissio is most concerned with basic education and working towards a fair-funding formula so that all Pennsylvania public-school students have the same resources.
The Philadelphia School District’s ongoing and severe financial woes are certainly a big reason why.
“Our students should be assured of a consistent, quality education whether they’re in Philadelphia, Punxsutawney or Pittsburgh,” said DeLissio.
She said also wants to find ways to restore funding for state-funded health services — mental and otherwise — that, she said, have recently “taken a pounding.”
Many behavorial-health providers, for example, haven’t seen a rate increase in years.
For his part, Henderson said he wants to help increase high-school graduation rates. He said he became concerned after hearing about the rate at his alma mater, Roxborough High School.
“[Parents] want to know that their kids have opportunities to excel after high school,” he said.
Henderson is also interested in economic development and, in particular, commercial corridors.
If elected, Henderson said he’ll look to work with the city’s elected officials to address vacant storefronts.
Incumbency and residency
Incumbents anywhere, but especially in Philadelphia, are generally considered to have a big leg-up over their challengers.
In 2012, DeLissio won a two-person Democratic primary with 60 percent of the vote.
A challenge to DeLissio’s residency last month, however, has made her second re-election bid a bit bumpier than anticipated.
In an objection filed in Commonwealth Court, two constituents maintained that DeLissio didn’t live in the 194th Legislative District, a requirement for candidates seeking state office.
“I was dumbfounded,” she said.
In 2006, DeLissio bought a townhome in Dauphin County, near Harrisburg.
Three years later, she applied and was granted a homestead exemption, which gives participants a real-estate tax break. It’s only supposed to be used for your primary residence, per the state.
DeLissio said she purchased the property because she was routinely dividing her time between Philadelphia and a Harrisburg suburb for work, but that she was — and remains — a Roxborough resident.
“Philadelphia is where I put up my Christmas tree, where my garden is planted. It’s clearly my home,” she said. “There is no if, ands or buts about it.”
DeLissio’s license, car insurance and registration were also tied to Dauphin County until the day before she first appeared in court.
She has also repaid the $341 in property taxes she saved during the past five years.
Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman later dismissed the challenge, keeping DeLissio’s name on the ballot.
DeLissio said she doesn’t expect the episode to hurt her campaign.
“After 33 town halls in 39 months, I think people pay attention more than people think,” she said. “I think that I will be judged on my performance and record, not this distraction, this hiccup, whatever you want to label it or call it.”
Henderson isn’t so sure.
“I believe it’s something that voters are not happy about. I’ve had people calling me to vent about these issues,” he said. “Ultimately, she will have to answer to the voters about the decisions she made.”
If elected, both Henderson and DeLissio will represent constituents that, until this year, weren’t part of the district. As a result of redistricting, the 194th Legislative District now represents more voters in East Falls and Roxborough.
The 194th also covers parts of Montgomery County, including Lower Merion.