Lancaster city councilors Izzy Smith-Wade-El and Janet Diaz are competing in the Democratic primary for the newly drawn 49th state House District in Lancaster. (Photos courtesy of the campaigns)
(*This story was updated at 3:29 p.m. on Sunday, 4/24/22 to include additional comment from the Smith-Wade-El campaign. It was further updated on Wednesday, 4/27/22 at 10:47 a.m. to clarify comments made by candidate Janet Diaz.)
When Pennsylvania’s redistricting commission approved new state House and Senate maps in February, a key selling point was that the updated district lines would help the 230-year-old General Assembly reflect the state’s growing diversity.
“We have about 20 percent people of color in the Commonwealth,” House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said at the time. “This map should have, finally, for the first time in the House, 20 percent people of color in the House.”
A previous Capital-Star analysis found that just 31 legislators out of the 253 members of the House and Senate were not white, when in proportion to their share of the state, there would be 47 sitting lawmakers who identify as Black, Latino, Asian or with another group.
Now, as the May 17 primary approaches and the ballot is set, it appears that the Legislature’s racial makeup could change, adding more Black and Brown lawmakers, particularly from a number of smaller central Pennsylvania cities.
Zooming in on 11 districts — 10 in the House and one in the Senate — that lack incumbents by design – or due to retirements – and that have a one-third or higher minority population, all feature at least one person of color on the ballot, mostly on the Democratic side.
However, despite the commission’s frequently stated desire to create more opportunities for Latino communities, just four of those districts feature a Latino candidate on the ballot, according to a Capital-Star analysis.
Oliver Truong, executive director of Lead PA, a progressive nonprofit that recruits and trains future candidates for office, noted the discrepancy between expectations and reality.
The maps “will move the needle on reflective democracy, but we’re still a long way away from that.”
This disconnect is particularly notable in Allentown, a majority-Latino city where “there was a lot of to-dos? to create a Latino-majority seat,” Truong said. The commission obliged by shifting a white incumbent into a neighboring district, leaving an open, majority Latino House seat, the 22nd District in the Lehigh Valley.
Senate leaders also agreed to move the 14th Senate District, currently located in northeastern Pennsylvania, to the Lehigh Valley. The redrawn seat includes most of Allentown, as well as rural parts of neighboring Northampton County.
But after all that, just two Latino candidates out of six will be on the ballot in the swingy 14th Senate District. The only Latino candidate in the solid-blue 22nd House District, Democrat Norberto Dominguez, withdrew for a lack of signatures on his nominating petitions.
Dominguez told the Capital-Star that the condensed time frame to collect petitions was “a killer” for his campaign, but he had already been encouraged to run again. Candidates had 12 fewer days this year to get on the ballot because of delays in the redistricting process.
“This seat was specifically made to be run, hopefully, by a Latino. That was the intention,” Dominguez said. “So not having a Latino, it’s going to hurt our community.”
Left in the 22nd District race are 32-year-old county caseworker Saeed Georges, and 28-year-old Allentown City Councilmember Joshua Siegel. In interviews, both argued that their approaches to politics would be inclusive and help them reach and fight for the Latino community.
Georges, a first-generation Syrian immigrant, emphasized his Allentown roots. He graduated from the city’s public schools, where he now coaches volleyball. And he lives on the same block where he grew up.
“I’m not a politician,” Georges added, “I’m just a born-and-bred kid from this area.”
He said he could be a voice for the Latino community because he understands their struggles, from language barriers to holes in the country’s immigration system, and because Georges “grew up around them. Their traditional morals and values and ethics. I was raised on.”
As for campaign issues, he’s focused on improving the local quality of life, including more funding for public schools, continuing Allentown’s economic growth, and increasing public safety, such as passing a law to permanently impound ATVs or dirt bikes if the rider is caught on city streets.
Siegel meanwhile pitched a platform focused on fighting the “affordability gap” for working class people, including expanding access to paid family and sick leave and tuition-free pre-K and public universities.
“It’s all about where your priorities lie and your values system,” Siegel told the Capital-Star. “When I talk to Latino constituents, white constituents, African-American constituents, they all have the same pains — it’s too expensive for working people to live.”
These are issues that would help all people, regardless of skin color, but would disproportionately aid Black and brown workers, he argued.
Siegel added that he’d also hire a bilingual constituent service staff that reflects the new district, so that he could both help those who need to access state services and start to build a bench of individuals who could replace him when he moves on.
While getting encouragement to run, Dominguez hasn’t endorsed. But he did say of Georges. “I like where his heart is.”
Even where there is a bench of experienced Latino candidates, competition is tight. The new House map splits the city of Lancaster, fusing some mostly white neighborhoods with the city’s northern suburbs while creating a majority-minority district with the rest of the city.
Running for the seat are two rival city councilors, Janet Diaz, a Latina, and Izzy Smith-Wade-El, who is Black.
At a small canvass kickoff on a snowy March morning, Smith-Wade-El, 32, talked up a bipartisan housing plan championed by Harrisburg progressives that would set up a state grant and loan program to help homeowners and landlords pay for home repairs and upkeep.
Afterwards, he argued his campaign could succeed by uniting people of all races and class around common issues such as homeownership, while also keeping an eye on specific issues such as making sure undocumented immigrants receive in-state tuition.
“No one has said to my face ‘a Latina should be representing this district. You shouldn’t be running,’” Smith-Wade-El said. “What they have said to me is ‘how are you going to represent the Latino folks in your community?’ And I think that that’s an important challenge to rise to.”
The two have differed on some key issues.
Diaz, for instance, was the only no vote in 2018 on an ordinance decriminalizing marijuana in the city. And in a 2020 forum, Diaz also backed Lancaster’s former police chief, with whom Smith-Wade-El at times clashed over the tone of Black Lives Matter protests.
“I think he did an excellent job in Lancaster,” Diaz said at the forum of former chief Jarrad Berkihiser. “Coming from a family of police officers … he did his best to keep our city safe and I will always have respect for him.”
Jessica Lopez, a 33-year-old housing advocate in the city, told the Capital-Star she met Smith-Wade-El at an “oppression protest” in the summer of 2020. They then started working together on projects to address housing and policing.
“I feel like he would be the progression,” Lopez said of Smith-Wade-El. As for Diaz, she’s worried she’d be “too pro-police.”
On the marijuana vote, Diaz told the Capital-Star that she voted no because she received the legislation 15 minutes beforehand, and had concerns that the proposed enforcement mechanism wouldn’t work.
*A spokesperson for Smith-Wade-El contested that version of events, pointing to Diaz seconding an amendment to the bill during a Sept. 11, 2018 council session — a week before council’s final vote..
It’s emblematic of her approach to her time as a city council, where she also noted she voted against a $1 million contract with a Florida vendor because she heard from local artists and architects who didn’t like the work going to an out-of-state firm.
Overall, she argued she’d bring a mature approach with no “attacking or fighting” to the state House, while listening to what her constituents ask her to do, and voting how they ask her to vote.
“You can’t vote on something people aren’t going to be happy with,” Diaz said.
The local Democratic establishment also has coalesced around Smith-Wade-El. He’s earned the endorsement of the local Democratic party as well as a number of city council colleagues and school board members, his campaign said.
But running against the powers that be is nothing new for Diaz, 56, who won her seat on city council without party backing, and who beat the party’s choice in the primary when she ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2020. She also was the leading vote getter in the city’s at-large council election last year.
In fact, Diaz argues her lack of an endorsement is a plus; some voters tell her they back her because she didn’t receive the approval of the local party, who Latino voters feel may be taking them for granted.
“My constituents and voters say it is time,” Diaz said. “They are tired of voting for the white man, they are tired of voting for the Black candidate. They want to vote for their own.”
*In a follow up email to the Capital-Star, Diaz said she wished to stress that her constituents were tired of being taken for granted and “this is why many of them don’t vote.”
Harrisburg Republicans have occasionally struck similar notes while attacking the new maps, and pointing out the apparent misalignment between Democrats’ rhetoric on diversity and actions.
Democrats complaining about there not being enough minorities in the General Assembly: pic.twitter.com/Pgs4M8e5Ct
— Jason Gottesman (@jggottesman) April 11, 2022
“On its face, the map routinely sorts voters into districts on the basis of race in order to rig districts to protect Democrat incumbents,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said when the maps were approved.
A look at the seats, many of which do lean Democratic, show that seven have at least one Republican on the ballot in these races.
That includes in the most Republican-leaning opportunity district, the 116th House District, which includes Hazelton, in Luzerne County, and parts of Schuylkill County. Non-white voters make up about 40 percent of the district, though former President Donald Trump took 63 percent of the voter there in 2020.
Two of six GOP candidates on the ballot in the 116th told the Capital-Star they did not identify as Hispanic. The other four did not reply to a request for comment.
In a phone call, one of those candidates, 22-year-old political organizer Dyllan Angelo-Ogurkis, told the Capital-Star that as the only candidate in the GOP primary who lived in Hazleton, he planned to emphasize turning out Republican voters in the majority-Latino city.
Before running, he worked for both the Republican National Committee and former state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Luzerne, who represented the city, to turn out voters.
Latino voters, Anglo-Ogurkis said, just want to be treated like everyone else, not as a special subgroup. In particular, he tries to stress policies, such as a friendly business climate and anti-blight efforts, that will convince voters to make roots in Hazleton.
Latinos come to Hazleton “from New York, New Jersey and they want opportunity outside those big urban areas,” Angelo-Ogurkis said. “They want to grow their families and have four generations live here.”
Finding that message is important, Angelo-Ogurkis added, because “the Latino community is the future of the Republican Party.”
The Democrat in the race, 43-year-old Dominican immigrant and bakery owner Yesenia Rodriguez, acknowledged she faces long odds in the red district. But she still promised to give it “200 percent” with a campaign focused on improving Hazleton’s schools.
Rodriguez told the Capital-Star she remembers coming to America at age 14 and going to schools without knowing English. If elected, she wants to focus on getting state funding to help the district hire bilingual teachers and administrators and set up after school programs.
But to Rodriguez, it doesn’t necessarily matter if the eventual winner comes from her community, as long as they work to listen and understand its problems.
“I do believe it has to be somebody from here that is able to see everything,” she said.
Even if the candidates are unsuccessful this time, state Rep. Manny Guzman, D-Berks and a member of the House Latino Caucus, said he won’t be discouraged.
Between new maps and the condensed time period to get on the ballot, 2022 was a hard year for first-time candidates, which many Latino candidates were this year.
He’s looking to the handful of experienced candidates such as Diaz, and Reading City Councilmember Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, to break through on the maps this year. But even if they don’t, the new lines will remain in place for the next decade, while he expects the Latino community to keep growing.
Democrats need to win Latinos, Guzman added, in order to build a legislative majority, with this year’s redraw placing extra emphasis on minority communities in places like Allentown, Reading and Hazleton.
So in between elections, Guzman said his goal is to recruit, train and connect more Latino candidates with the levers of power so that, regardless of what happens now, his community will break through.
“If they don’t win this time, the opportunities for the Latina community are only going to increase,” Guzman said, “whether it’s a Janet Diaz, a Johanny Cepeda, or another candidate who comes out of the woodwork.”
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