Pa. Rep. Martina White; Challenger Mike Doyle

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Fighting in Philadelphia politics? Common as sin. Casting aside grievances for the sake of a historic election year? Somewhat less usual.

Notoriously acrimonious Democratic leaders in Northeast Philadelphia will unite behind a candidate challenging one of the city’s few Republican officials — but a formidable one: state Rep. Martina White.

Elected to represent the 170th District in 2015, White, the 32-year-old star of the city’s ailing GOP, has built a base for herself in the conservative-leaning Northeast with her opposition to city policy on immigration and police reform. Last year, she became the first woman to chair the local Republican party.

White’s reelection race carries high stakes in Pennsylvania. Forget the presidential contest for a second. To regain a majority in Harrisburg, Pa. Democrats need to flip just nine seats in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Leaders say they’re all in for Democrat Mike Doyle, a 43-year-old realtor and activist.

“It’s winnable,” U.S. Representative Brendan Boyle told Billy Penn. “If Dems are going to get nine state rep seats, this really needs to be one of the nine.”

Toward that goal, Boyle headlines a weekend event billed as a way “to promote Democratic unity” at Nick’s Roast Beef in Northeast Philly. Top Democratic bosses will be there to support Doyle, including state Sen. John Sabatina Jr., a longtime political nemesis of the Boyle and his brother, state Rep. Kevin Boyle.

“I hope people will bury the hatchet for the greater good for the Democratic party,” said party chairman Bob Brady, a former U.S. Rep. “I do it all the time. I kiss up and do what I have to do.”

It’s not all bad blood. More than a dozen other Democrat elected officials are also attending the event, including U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, Pa. Sen. Sharif Street and a host of state representatives and ward leaders.

A battle for support in the conservative Northeast

Party leadership did not unify behind Doyle when he ran two years ago, and lost to White, and the party did not field any candidates in the June 2020 primary. However, Doyle ran a write-in campaign and earned enough votes to get on the Democratic ticket for the general election.

“In ’18, I was new to the whole thing,” Doyle said. “It’s nice to have everyone throw their weight behind the campaign. We’re doing what we got to do to push all Dems up and down the ballot.”

Doyle faces an uphill battle. White has won the backing of the local police union, as well as the powerful building trades unions, which traditionally back Democrats.

Her campaign also flashes around $80,000 cash on hand at the moment. Campaign finance reports for Doyle were not available at the moment due to the fact that his candidacy was not certified until the end of June, he said.

Republicans are not taking the challenge lightly. The state party paid for mailers proclaiming that Doyle wants to “defund the police”‘ and force “families and seniors to give up their healthcare plans.” The party circulated similar claims against the Democrat two years ago.

Doyle said the mailers are “falsehoods and lies.”

Will Dem unity make a difference?

Party chairman Brady characterized the Sabatina-Boyle split as something that hurt Democratic standing in Northeast Philly. In Sabatina’s corner was former Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, who has since left politics for a career in show biz. In recent years, these intraparty feuds have led to ugly dustups — split endorsements in heated Democratic races, thrown beverages at political events, a salacious defamation lawsuit, to name a few.

Boyle, the U.S. rep., downplayed the feud and said Democratic leaders had no problem uniting in their attempt to flip the seat.

He knows the district well. Boyle was the only Democratic to hold this seat in recent memory, vacating the post in 2015 to run for Congress.

Party infighting allowed the young White to swoop in and restore the seat to GOP control. Despite the Democrats’ oft-cited 2-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans in this district, Boyle said it’s always been a district that leans right in local races, while splitting more evenly at the top of the ticket. Republican City Councilmember Brian O’Neill, who represents the area, has been in office since 1980.

The event for Doyle will take place outdoors from 2 to 7 p.m. on Sunday at Nick’s Roast Beef on Woodhaven Road.

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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...