185th Pa. House District candidate Regina Young; current state Rep. Maria Donatucci

Thirty-five Twitter followers, 566 likes on Facebook, and $9,757 in the bank. On the surface, Regina Young’s campaign didn’t look like a political revolution in the making.

The 46-year-old Democrat’s bid for the 185th Pa. House District, which spans Southwest Philly and parts of Delaware County, went six months without a peep of news coverage. The pandemic put a muffle on the down-ballot races. Handshaking your way through the city’s sea of Democrats became a health hazard. When the coronavirus hit, the city’s political casino quietly began to bet on the house: incumbents take all.

Voters had another plan.

With only a few hundred remaining mail-in ballots in the district, state Rep. Maria Donatucci has lost the seat her family has held since 1978. The unexpected power shift comes a year after her brother-in-law, former Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci, was ousted by Tracey Gordon.

According to unofficial returns, the politically unknown challenger holds a commanding 56% to 43% lead, garnering over 5,400 votes over Donatucci’s 4,100. Only a few hundred votes remain to be counted, according to the City Commissioners’ office. Young declared victory over the weekend, and Donatucci later issued a statement congratulating her presumed successor.

“I’m ecstatic and excited,” Young told Billy Penn.

Democratic insiders expressed shock at the upset, with some chalking it up to an anti-incumbent bent and others to Young’s tenacious shoestring campaign.

With Democratic nomination in hand, Young would be all but guaranteed to take office in Harrisburg next year — as the first African American to hold this seat in a predominantly Black district. No Republican or third-party candidates are registered to run in the November general election.

Young would join a cadre of Democratic challengers to successfully unseat well-backed establishment politicians in recent years. Unlike other insurgencies this cycle, however, Young’s campaign did not fit into a neat mold.

Nikil Saval, who’s been declared winner over state Sen. Larry Farnese, holds footing in the local Bernie Sanders-connected progressive movement, as does Rick Krajewski, who is poised to unseat 35-year veteran state Rep. James Roebuck in West Philly, according to unofficial returns. Both ran well-oiled campaigns that secured ample support from the city’s growing left base, as well as traditional Democratic players.

How did Young pull it off with an-all volunteer campaign staff, virtually no money and zero big endorsements?

“I don’t have a background in politics,” Young said, “but I do have a background in human connections.”

Democratic candidate for Pa. House District 185 Regina Young and family Credit: Regina Young campaign

Reaching voters directly, in person and via phone

A native of New Haven, Conn., Young moved in 1999 to Philadelphia, where she married her husband, a construction worker with the Local 14 Insulators’ union. She has a background in social work and community development, and worked for Mayor Jim Kenney’s universal pre-K program as a community schools coordinator from 2016 until she resigned to run for office late last year.

From January through the election, Young claims she reached out to every household in the district. She phone-banked, held events and knocked on doors, even when her volunteer staff could not tag along.

Young espouses what is a boilerplate Democratic platform among the city’s state lawmakers — criminal justice reform, boosting funding for public education and improving constituent services, particularly for the district’s refugee and immigrant population. But she said she did not make specific policy promises to voters.

“I didn’t want people to come in thinking I know a whole bunch about legislative work,” Young said. “It’s so much different once you get on that floor, and oftentimes, that’s how the lies start as politicians. As a candidate you say ‘This is 100% what you advocate for and this is what I’m going to get done,’ but it looks a lot different once you cross that other side.”

The Young campaign didn’t get this far entirely without political guidance.

Lacking experience and know-how, Young sought advice not from her former boss Jim Kenney — but rather his longtime rival, state Sen. Anthony Williams.

Williams said he had nothing against Donatucci, but she didn’t seek his endorsement or support in their shared district. Young reached out, he said. He offered her campaign advice, not money or an endorsement.

Incumbents rarely get beat in Philly, he said. But in small state legislative districts — this particular race was decided by fewer than 10,000 voters — it’s doable with limited resources. Sitting lawmakers are often too busy doing legislative work to knock on doors.

Asked if Young’s lack of legislative experience would hurt her in Harrisburg, Williams said: “No more than the two-thirds of the rest of them who come in not knowing anything about a bill.”

‘The numbers don’t lie’

Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady chalked up Young’s lead to “an anti-incumbent” sentiment, which has downed numerous Democratic players in recent years.

Anton Moore, the Democratic leader of South Philly’s 48th Ward, said he would have bet on the pandemic aiding the incumbent voters. But Young campaigned everywhere in his neighborhood.

“The numbers don’t lie,” Moore said. “You see that the community was looking for change. They want to see people who are knocking on their doors.”

Observers said the district, too, has changed over the decades, despite the steady Donatucci leadership. According to unofficial returns, Donatucci won her home turf in the 26th Ward, a mostly white, middle-class pocket of deep South Philly, while Young swept nearly every other ward.

The candidate said she never made race an issue an issue in her pitch to voters, nor did she cast aspersions at the incumbent.

“I was encouraging people not to vote for me because I was a new face, but because I was the best choice,” Young said. “I didn’t tell people to vote for me because I’m Black and this is a primarily Black district.”

In a statement issued after this article was published, Donatucci, 66, said she adhered to the stay-at-home order and avoided face-to-face contact with voters throughout the cycle.

“Although I was hoping you would choose me, I stand proud that I ran a clean campaign, free of negativity,” Donatucci wrote in a statement. “I stood on my voting record, constituent services and for bringing all that I could to the district.”

The lawmaker’s re-election campaign outraised Young five times over. Most of Donatucci’s $50,000 in contributions this year came from fellow politicians and private interest groups, including $10,000 from the influential political arm of the Local 98 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ union, though the union appeared to mix up Donatucci and Young’s ballot numbers on their literature. Through May, records show the Donatucci campaign didn’t raise a dollar from a private, non-elected citizen.

She also enjoyed incredible name recognition. Her husband, the late state Rep. Robert Donatucci, held the same seat since the late 1970s, held prior to that by his brother, former Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci, who was ousted last year. Newly minted Register of Wills Tracey Gordon claimed to have unseated the veteran politician with even less money than Young — just $2,476, according to the Inquirer.

Maria Donatucci succeeded her late husband in a special election following his death in 2010. This year was the first time she faced a Democratic challenger in the primary.

Young’s campaign received donations from the political action committee for Insulators and Allied Workers Local 14, where her husband works, and two other unions. Nearly all of the money she raised went to canvassing materials and fees for an attorney to handle her campaign finance reports, campaign finance reports show.

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...