Pa. Rep. Martina White; Challenger Mike Doyle

Updated 4:56 p.m.

A new GOP-funded attack mailer circulating in far Northeast Philly paints state Rep. Martina White’s Democratic opponent as a degenerate lawbreaker.

“Mike Doyle can’t stop getting arrested!” the front of the flyer reads. On the back: “Northeast Philly wants a lawmaker…not a lawbreaker. Vote ‘NO’ on Mike Doyle.”

The mailer, which is based on a string of arrests candidate Mike Doyle incurred as an activist, marks the first public jab of its kind in White’s uncharacteristically quiet bid for reelection in the 170th House district.

The typically firebrand Republican lawmaker — whose policies detractors have call anti-immigrant and anti-Black Lives Matter — is facing off against Doyle, a political newbie with little money and name recognition. But despite White’s reputation as a Trump-like lawmaker, and the 2-to-1 Democratic advantage in her district, there hasn’t been a big push to galvanize a mini blue wave.

In general, the race has not shaped up to be the closely watched battle many predicted. Some observers say White has avoided hard-nose campaigning because several Trump-styled candidates lost their seats this year.

Doyle, a 40-year-old realtor who lives in Parkwood, notes that there’s plenty White could attack him over: his membership with the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, his advocacy for safe injection sites and sanctuary cities — and on a personal note, his past struggles with alcohol, which include a DUI in 2004. Earlier this week, Doyle told Billy Penn he was surprised that, so far, the White camp hasn’t dug up photos of him “drinking from Jack Daniels bottles or anything.”

The mysterious mailer, sent out earlier this week, speaks to two candidates who couldn’t be any more different, policy-wise.

Lawmaker vs. lawbreaker

Last year, Doyle was arrested twice in D.C. during two separate protests against the Affordable Care Act repeal and the GOP tax bill. He was similarly arrested this year at a protest with the Poor People’s Campaign in Harrisburg, and in D.C. during the contentious Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.

The Dem candidate pushed back against the vague characterization of himself as a “lawbreaker.”

“I would like to thank the Pennsylvania Republican Party for highlighting my activism,” Doyle said. “I believe all Americans have the freedom to express their concerns regarding our government’s decisions in a prayerful and peaceful manner, particularly participating in civil disobedience and direct action… I will gladly be a ‘lawbreaker’ if that means following in the footsteps of the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Congressman John Lewis and other historical leaders.”

White’s campaign did not pay for the “lawbreaker” mailer, which doesn’t mention her name at all. Photos received by Billy Penn show the mailer was financed by state Republican Party. It remains unclear how many have been sent out.

Big handcuffs graphic notwithstanding, it’s a tame stunt compared to some of the material sent around during White’s last campaign.

When White ran against Democrat Matt Darragh in 2016, she was hammering her signature “law and order” issues: dismantling Philadelphia’s sanctuary city status and protecting officers who have been involved in on-duty shootings. One of her campaign mailers showed a man stalking a young blonde woman with a butcher knife on a darkened street.

“Murders. Robberies. Drug Crimes…All committed by illegal aliens who weren’t supposed to be here,” read the ad.

At the time, White and the Republican party also portrayed her opponent Matt Darragh as a party insider — a Democratic yeoman whose time to ascend the throne had come. One mailer took liberties with a photo of a young, buzzed-looking Darragh pounding a liter of stout. White ended up winning by more than 2,000 votes, securing her first full-term in the House.

Playing it safe?

This year, White’s four-point reelection on her website platform speaks to a broader, bipartisan base: more jobs, fewer taxes, stronger schools, better quality of life. Will Patterson, White’s district office manager and a volunteer with her reelection campaign, said the candidate isn’t intentionally avoiding her trademark issues.

“People are aware of her for those things already, so it’s not something that we have to necessarily remind me people,” he said, “as much as other issues Martina has been working very hard on that they might have missed.”

Patterson added that White is still pushing legislation to protect the release of officers’ names after they’ve been involved in on-duty shootings as well as hold Philadelphia on the line for millions over Mayor Jim Kenney’s sanctuary city policy.

Some observers believe White has purposely avoided campaigning on those issues as the midterms approach.

“She was Trump before Trump got elected, and we’re not hearing nearly as much of that this year,” said Adam Erickson, founder of Princeton Strategies, a political consulting firm on retainer with Doyle. “So I’d say that Doyle’s campaign has already won if we can get her to tone down some of that rhetoric.”

Doyle hasn’t raised enough money to mount a considerable end-game operation. According to the candidate, his campaign has raised over $40,000. Sources in the district say “street money” — small sums doled out to hundreds of operatives for get-out-the-vote initiatives — could total $15,000 alone. That leaves little left to mount television appearances as Election Day approaches.

Several influential officials, including former Gov. Ed Rendell, have thrown support behind Doyle. He has also been courting progressive activist groups around the city to help bolster his chances in the far-flung district. His endorsements include Reclaim Philadelphia and BuxMont DSA. (He has been a member of Philadelphia DSA since January but the chapter did not endorse him.)

Yet Democratic leaders on the city and state level have been less than eager to raise money for the self-styled progressive. Some say that may be because they see his left-leaning politics standing little chance in the one of the city’s most conservative districts.

“I don’t think he has a firm grasp of how the people up here think and believe,” Patterson said. “He’s for sanctuary cities. He’s for safe injection sites. There are some stark contrasts between the two of them.”

White, meanwhile, has the backing of some Democrats and several large unions, including the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. Her most recent campaign finance report from May shows nearly $82,000 cash on hand. Patterson would not confirm how much the campaign had raised since.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...