After committing a ‘jerk move,’ veteran Vitali faces first primary in two decades

By: - March 2, 2020 1:06 pm

Haverford nonprofit executive Jennifer Leith, left, is challenging state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, in the April primary. (Photos courtesy of Leith and Vitali Facebooks)

A suburban Philadelphia primary battle will pit one of Harrisburg’s longest serving liberals against a challenger with a political axe to grind — the newest in a series of generational battles over the future of the Democratic Party.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, who’s spent 14 terms representing the 166th House District, is facing a challenge from Jennifer Leith, a nonprofit executive from Vitali’s home turf in Haverford, Pa. 

She told the Capital-Star that she’d be results oriented, and put education, reproductive rights and pay equity front-and-center in her campaign. 

Leith and Vitali also have history. Vitali’s flip-flop on a Congressional run in 2018 led Leith to drop out of a bid for state House. Now, she’s hoping to finish what she started two years prior.

“People here are yearning for things to get done in Harrisburg and I think that falls squarely on the people we send there year after year,” Leith, 47, said. 

If in the private sector, “you don’t accomplish something in eight or 10 years, you’d be fired,” she added. She argued that term limits would provide more of the same accountability to the public sector.

Vitali, 63, has spent all but four of his 28 years as a legislator in the minority. But he’s often used his bully pulpit to champion environmental causes and good government reforms. 

Vitali pointed to his work against mandatory minimums and for climate action decades ago, when such issues were “the province of the far left,” he told the Capital-Star. 

Now, many of those same issues have moved front and center, Vitali added.

“I think what I’ve tried to do in my time up here is just speak honestly and say what I feel and let the chips fall where they may,” Vitali said. “So, yes, the political landscape has changed, but ironically, I think the new people coming in are coming in advocating the positions I’ve been advocating for many years.”

For her part, Leith said she “wouldn’t vote dramatically different” than Vitali — but he had one “dramatically bad vote.” That was against expanding the statute of limitations for childhood victims of sexual assault to due their attackers or the institutions that protected them, she said.

Even on that issue, Vitali has been a consistent “no” vote, even when every other House Democrat has backed the change. As with his opposition to opposing mandatory minimums, Vitali argued that in time, his stance would be vindicated in the future.

“If you could just tailor the elimination of statutes of limitations to guilty Roman Catholic priests, I’d be all for that,” Vitali said. “But the reality is that statutes of limitations protect every person in our society.”

The 166th House District includes parts of Haverford, Radnor and Lower Merion Townships. Lower Merion straddles both Delaware and Montgomery counties.

The percent of residents with a college degree is among the highest in the state, and the district’s constituents are among the wealthiest in the state.

A harbinger of today’s suburban Democratic bloc, Vitali flipped a long-red seat in suburban Philadelphia in 1992 and has served since. He’s brushed aside Republican challengers over the past decade, and hasn’t faced an intra-party challenge since at least 2000.

Vitali’s 2018 bid for Congress led to some bad blood between him and Leith.

In January of that year, Vitali announced he’d run for Congress and would not run for state House. With the 166th seat open, Leith was one of three candidates who announced to replace Vitali.

But Vitali renounced his congressional ambitions a month later and Leith and the two other Democrats dropped out of the state House run. But then, in the confusion of the state’s court- ordered congressional redistricting, Vitali re-filed to run for Congress while he also ran for his 14th term in Harrisburg.

Leith told the Capital-Star the switch was “a jerk move.” Speaking to the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, Vitali said that he ” simply changed [his] mind.”

Democratic observers noted that the longtime incumbent Vitali isn’t a slouch, regularly knocking  constituents’ doors himself. 

But the challenge fits into this year’s battles over identity and generational change that are defining primaries from Allegheny County to Allentown. Vitali’s 2018 indecision also turned some friends to enemies, as reported by This Is Lower Merion And Narbeth, a local news website. 

Vitali didn’t make any predictions about his reelection, leaving it up to his constituents to “decide whether I’m doing a good job and whether I should continue with that job.”

As for Leith, she cut a fighting tone.

“If you’re not willing to hand off the baton, some of us are going to be willing to come after you and take it,” Leith said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.