(*This story was updated at 11:21 a.m. on 10/7/20 to correct the spelling of Democratic state Senate candidate Julie Slomski’s last name)
By Sebastian Fortino
With just just about month to go before Election Day, Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, recently took a five-day drive across Pennsylvania to meet with candidates and voters.
As part of his self-styled “Flip Pa.Tour,” Kenyatta drove 2,189 miles, and met with 17 candidates from all corners of the state. Republicans have controlled the state Senate since 1994 and the state House since 2010.
In 2016, President Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by a little more than 44,000 votes, or less than 1 percent of the state’s total electorate. But while the biggest focus this year is on the race for president, positions in the state Legislature are equally important to determine people’s quality of life.
“Winning the White House and control of the United States Senate is absolutely crucial,” Kenyatta told the Philadelphia Gay News. “But, for Pennsylvania to get results on strengthening our economy and ending deep poverty, saving lives during this COVID-19 pandemic, improving our education system, preventing gun violence, and strengthening our commonwealth, we must flip the Pennsylvania state Senate and the Pennsylvania state House.”
About 90 percent of the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s 253 lawmakers are up for election this year. That includes all 203 House members, and half of the 50-member Senate. Democrats need to flip four seats to tie the Senate, and nine seats to win the House.
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Kenyatta — an out gay representative who delivered a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in August — said he sees a troubling lack of bipartisan discussions which are not addressing issues in his district and the rest of the state. Despite a seemingly disparate mix of urban, suburban, and rural areas in Pennsylvania, the different regions can still suffer from the same issues, including access to quality education.
A look at the Poconos
Claudette Williams, who is running in Monroe County’s 176th district, met Kenyatta on the second day of his tour. She said that “right now [during the COVID-19 shutdowns] it is impossible to discuss education without talking about the lack of access to broadband Internet that exists both here and in Rep. Kenyatta’s district. We need changes in our policies, and we need to elect the people who will fight for that change.”
Williams is a 30-year military veteran and single mother of three children who served in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Her campaign stresses economic security which includes housing, as well as healthcare, attracting new businesses which protect her community’s environment from destructive initiatives such as fracking or mining, and education.
She agrees all Pennsylvanians want many of the same issues, but Williams shared also that her district is often “out of sight, and out of mind.” Many people view her Poconos district as a vacation spot or handy day trip from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.
“In 2016, we saw the unfortunate side-effects of this history in the results of the election. People in rural Pennsylvania, and the rust belt more generally, often feel forgotten by our state and national government,” Williams explained. “[And] I look forward to giving a stronger voice to my community as State Representative.”
In central Pennsylvania
Democratic Senate candidate Shanna Danielson who’s looking to unseat incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Regan in central Pennsylvania’s 31st Senate District, echoed similar statements regarding both rural areas and cities, especially when it comes to economic issues. Danielson was raised in the same communities which she hopes to represent in Harrisburg. The district includes York and Cumberland counties.
“My community knows that we have a rigged economy, both in Philadelphia and south-central Pennsylvania, that doesn’t work for working people,” said Danielson, who recently left her job as a public school music teacher to go all on her campaign, said. “I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, and if I win, I’m going to bring that experience to the Senate and fight tooth and nail for a government that works for all Pennsylvanians, not just those at the top.”
To that end, three of her biggest topics are fully expanding education across the state, making sure healthcare grows to support some half-million Pennsylvanians without coverage, and “Boldly taking action on the effects of climate change in our community.”
“We know that all Pennsylvanias — whether they live in rural Pennsylvania or urban Pennsylvania — want a better system,” Danielson said when asked about the commonality between urban and rural issues. “They want a system that works for them and gives them a decent shot at the chance to better their families’ life.”
Other candidates Kenyatta met with include Dan Smith, an openly gay man who is running to unseat state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe in Butler County’s 12th House district; Emily Skopov, who’s running for the Allegheny County-based 28th District seat vacated by former House Speaker Mike Turzai; Debra Ciamacca, candidate in Delaware County’s 168th House District, and *Julie Slomski, who is running for state Senate in the Erie-based 49th Senate District.
Kenyatta stressed the importance of Erie County in taking back the state House — and also defeating Trump.
“Whenever Erie County goes to the Democratic candidate in a presidential election, they win,” Kenyatta said. “Simply put, if we win Erie County, we win Pennsylvania.”
Ultimately, Kenyatta is hopeful the voters will flip enough seats in the state for Democrats to win a majority.
“You go down the list, and folks understand what’s at stake in the next election. But what is important is that we recognize that so many of those issues will be dealt with in the state capitol. Support Biden, but make sure you think about how you can support your local officials serving in Harrisburg.”