Why Philly’s Special Election Matters

Voters will pick three new members of the city's Harrisburg delegation. It could use some fresh faces.

Photo by Derek Hatfield/Shutterstock.com

Photo by Derek Hatfield/Shutterstock.com

In a special election on August 11th, a small sliver of voters will choose Philadelphia’s three newest representatives in the state House. The winners are virtually predetermined, but the race is still worth watching. No, seriously. We promise. Don’t stop reading!

The candidates are Democrat Ed Neilson and Republican Timothy Dailey in Northeast Philly’s 174th District; Democrat Joanna McClinton, Republican Charles Wilkins and Independent Tracey Gordon in the 191st District, which stretches from Southwest Philly to Darby Township; and in the 195th District, which includes parts of North and West Philly, Democrat Donna Bullock, Republican Adam Lang and write-in candidate Judith Robinson.

The Democratic candidates — who were selected by their party ward leaders, not voters — will very likely win because 1) there are innumerably more Democrats than Republicans in these districts; for instance, consider their beastly 13-1 voter registration edge in the 195th district. And 2) it’ll be a low-turnout election in which only diehards will show up the polls. But the races still matter for a few reasons:

1. This Is an Opportunity for Philly’s Delegation to Become a Little Less Disappointing

With its schools underwater and its poverty rate sky-high, Philadelphia badly needs a star-studded delegation to fight for it right now in Harrisburg. Instead, it’s mostly made up of inexperienced freshmen lawmakers, do-nothing veterans, and capable politicians who might get something done, if only they could get on the same page.

Until recently, Philly’s delegation also included a handful of representatives who had pleaded guilty to corruption charges. In fact, the special elections in the 191st and 195th districts are taking place to replace two lawmakers who did just that: Michelle Brownlee and Ronald Waters. (The race in the 174th is being held to fill the seat vacated by John Sabatina, Jr., who stepped down after he won a spot in the state Senate in a separate special election.)

This election is a chance for Philadelphia’s delegation to become a little bit better. Ed Neilson, a former City Councilman, would go to Harrisburg with a good handle on what City Hall needs from the state capital. So would Donna Bullock; she was a senior aide to Council President Darrell Clarke. Joanna McClinton has solid credentials: She’s a lawyer and chief counsel to state Sen. Anthony Williams. And if any of the Republican candidates can pull off a big upset, they’d be giving Philadelphia some badly needed representation in the GOP caucus, which controls the Pennsylvania House.

And hey, not even one of the candidates is a known target in a state or federal investigation!

2. Philly’s Republican Party Really Needs to Prove Itself Right Now

With credible Independent candidates such as transportation expert Andrew Stober running for city office these days (not to mention other, bigger-name Indies who have seriously considered running), the GOP is at risk of losing some of the only seats it has held onto in recent years in Philadelphia: the two positions reserved on City Council for members of non-majority parties.

As we noted earlier, it’s very, very unlikely that a Republican will win one of Philly’s three special elections. But if a few of the the party’s candidates finish well, it will demonstrate that it is at least on the right track.

3. One Race Will Measure a Neighborhood’s Dissatisfaction With PHA’s Eminent Domain Plan

Last month, City Council signed off on the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s plan to seize 1,300 properties as part of a $500 million project to remake the Sharswood neighborhood.

As a Council aide, Bullock is seen by some as being part of the establishment that is supporting the proposal. Adam Lang, who owns land that is on PHA’s list of properties that will be taken through eminent domain, has made the issue a key part of his campaign. Judith Robinson has also voiced concerns about the plan.

Bullock is likely to win the race, but the extent to which Lang and Robinson can peel off votes from her will could show how much the district supports or opposes PHA’s plan.