While Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are bitterly fighting over voters in the Philadelphia suburbs, a smaller-scale political street fight rages on in Northeast Philadelphia.
If you live in 170th legislative district, this is no secret. You’ve been inundated by campaign mailers and billboards and lawn signs begging you to vote for incumbent Republican Martina White or her Democratic challenger, Matt Darragh.
The race is shaping up to be one of the closest-watched in the city. White overcame a 2-to-1 Democratic registration advantage in the district last year and cruised to a stunning 14-point victory over Democrat Sarah Del Ricci during a special election. White, the youngest woman in the Pennsylvania House, became just the second Republican to represent the city in the legislature.
In the last year, White has become a polarizing figure in the city, sparring with the mayor over her sanctuary city legislation, sponsoring a bill that would make it harder for public officials to release the names of police involved in shootings and arguing in her office with immigration activists.
Now, Democrats want the seat back.
To run against White, they’ve tapped Matt Darragh, a former auditor who worked on Del Ricci’s campaign. The race is heated, and both sides are flinging insults and pointing fingers. White says Darragh’s positions are too extreme for the district. Darragh says she’s spreading lies and relying on fear-mongering.
Either way, the seat won’t determine the lean of the state House. It’s still decidedly Republican. But a win for the Democrats would get the left one small, incremental step toward making up lost ground.
The state of the race
Safe to say things are tight. Unlike the major races, there’s little public polling in state House races to help discern who might be ahead. White has the advantage of incumbency, but Darragh has a registration advantage in a presidential year. There are more than 21,000 registered Democrats in the 170th District, compared to just over 11,000 Republicans. White was able to overcome that last year during the special election, when there’s usually lower voter turnout.
In that race, White won 3,500 votes compared to Del Ricci’s 2,600 for a total of about 6,100 votes. For comparison’s sake, in the last presidential election year in 2012 when Brendan Boyle was running for the office unchallenged, more than 17,000 votes were cast.
That’s undoubtedly putting pressure on the Republicans who may struggle to hold the seat purely because of registration and turnout on Election Day.
Now, Democrats are chiding both White’s campaign and the Republican Party of Pennsylvania for ads running in the district like this one, featuring Darragh taking a swig out of a bottle of booze:
Or this one of him holding a big ol’ beer:
Or this one, which features a knife-wielding… serial killer?… and wording that implies Darragh “is with” murderers, robbers and drug dealers because he supports Philadelphia’s sanctuary city policy:
Darragh pushed back against that characterization, saying White’s opposition to the city’s sanctuary city policy is “an election-year gimmick,” but he says that doesn’t mean he’s soft on violent criminals.
“It’s odd to have to say I will give no quarter to murderers or rapists,” Darragh said. “That, I think, was the most insulting attack in this campaign. It’s just really appealing to the lowest common denominator.”
White didn’t respond to requests for comment.
White’s appeal to voters so far is simple: Harrisburg is controlled by Republicans. And Philadelphia deserves a seat at that table by sending a Republican to Harrisburg.
“I think there’s no question the Democratic machine in Northeast Philadelphia is coming for my seat,” White told The Inquirer. “I’m sure I’m one of the top seats that they’re gunning for, in terms of the state Democratic Party.”
But Darragh said that effectiveness is only worth touting if she’s pushing legislation that’ll help the city. He contends she isn’t, and that he’s a better choice for the job even though he’d be entering a legislature in gridlock.
“My opponent likes to talk about she’s a voice in the Republican caucus for Philadelphia,” he said. “Frankly, that Republican caucus doesn’t care about Philadelphia.”
White’s assertion in campaign ads that Darragh is a political insider in the Northeast is not untrue. Just after attending Temple, he started interning in now-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack’s state Senate office in the Northeast and later became a committeeman in the area. After college, he went on to work for the state auditor general in its Philadelphia office auditing liquor stores.
Now, his campaign is trying to describe White, a former financial advisor, as an extreme right-winger who “has never paid property taxes” and supports spending property tax dollars on private schools.
Darragh said he’s aware the city and the party are watching this race more closely than any other state House race in the city. He said certain things — like the noise being caused by the presidential race that can influence down-ballot races — are out of his hands. Instead, he’s more concerned with continuing his door-knocking and his appeal to voters.
“The thing that makes me feel pressure is making sure people understand that we’re working very hard,” he said. “You can make your best pitch to a voter, and sometimes that pitch isn’t going to land. I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and say I gave it my best possible shot.”
The key issues and where they stand
Four issues have emerged as key in this race, and all are ones that White has voted on or taken a stance on:
White was the prime sponsor of a bill making its way through the legislature that would essentially ban sanctuary cities in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia has a sanctuary city policy put in place by Mayor Jim Kenney, which dictates that local police will not comply with ICE detainer requests unless the person in their custody is a violent criminal.
The policy has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has been particularly outspoken against sanctuary city policies. White and Kenney have publicly sparred over the topic and he claims her bill is “extremely dangerous.”
Meanwhile, Darragh called White’s bill an “election-year gimmick.”
Darragh has knocked White for her abortion stances. The freshman representative is part of a caucus that has pushed a bill that’s been called one of the most restrictive in the country — it would ban abortion after 20 weeks and a relatively uncommon procedure called “dilation and evacuation” which is most often used by women in their second trimester. Darragh says he would not support such a bill.
White says in campaign materials that she “never” voted against a woman’s right to choose and that she believes in abortion in cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.
White came out strong against Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget last year, which would have increased personal income taxes in Pennsylvania. Darragh said one of his main focuses is increases in property taxes, which he says can be alleviated by increased funding to the city from Harrisburg for education and other programming and services.
Darragh said that though he grew up in the Catholic school system, the issue he’s most passionate about is public education funding, as he says Philadelphia has been “short-changed for a long time” by Harrisburg lawmakers. White’s platform is focused on increasing opportunities for additional training before entering the job market.