The No-Bullshit Guide to the 2016 Philadelphia Primary

From the U.S. Senate race to ballot questions, here's everything you need to know for Tuesday's election.
Philadelphia Primary 2016

Clockwise: U.S. Senate candidates Joe Sestak, Katie McGinty and John Fetterman, and Congressional candidates Dwight Evans and Chaka Fattah.

By now, you probably know whether you’re voting for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich. My God, how couldn’t you know? The country has been bombarded with non-stop news coverage of the race for months.

But here’s the thing: There are a lot of important races this year that have nothing to do with Bernie Bros or #AnyoneButTrump. For instance, the results of the Attorney General’s election may well determine whether the office, y’know, functions after Kathleen Kane steps down. Meanwhile, the Democrat who wins Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate primary will take on Pat Toomey in the fall, and that race will help decide whether Democrats take back the GOP-controlled chamber.

We don’t blame you if you haven’t paid close attention to these races. That’s what this election guide is for. It’s a brutally honest, simple-to-understand description of the candidates’ pros and cons. Here are your choices.

The offices:

U.S. Senate

The basics: There are four Democrats running in Tuesday’s election. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is unopposed in the GOP primary. Pennsylvania is one of the battleground states that will determine whether Democrats take control of the Senate in 2017. If Democrats turn out in large numbers to vote against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz this fall, that would hurt Toomey’s chances.

John Fetterman

The basics: 46. Mayor of Braddock.

The case for Fetterman …

  • He’s made income inequality a major campaign theme. He talks passionately about the need for a higher minimum wage, the loss of American manufacturing jobs, and the downsides of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He told the Nation that he wouldn’t have gotten into the Senate race if it weren’t for Bernie Sanders: “When Sanders ran, that opened up a level of awareness in this state, that the issues I care about can make a viable campaign.” His other campaign issues include legalizing marijuana and reducing gun violence.
  • He’s brought change to Braddock. The once-booming steel town has a poverty rate of more than 30 percent. As mayor, Fetterman has helped attract some businesses, urban farming and young artists to the area. He’s also founded a nonprofit, Braddock Redux, which he says has helped advance his “social-justice agenda.” (The group is primarily funded by Fetterman’s father.)
  • He’s tough — or he looks that way, at least. Fetterman is six-foot-eight, weighs about 350 pounds, and, as reporter Tom Ferrick has noted, could easily pass as a character in Game of Thrones. If you like the idea of someone like that going up against special interests in Congress, consider voting for him. “If we want to reduce gun violence, first we have to stop electing cowards,” he says in a campaign ad. “Honestly, do I look like I’m scared of the NRA?”
  • Some believe he may be the hardest candidate for Pat Toomey to beat. Back in January, Pennsylvania Democratic Party boss Marcel Groen said Fetterman would “be the toughest candidate” in a general election against Toomey. “In a society looking for different, he could catch on.”

The case against Fetterman …

  • He’s facing an uphill battle. Fetterman has had trouble raising money, and a recent poll showed him with just 4 percent of support among likely Democratic voters.
  • He’s relatively inexperienced. He’s the mayor of a town with only 2,700 people in it. It’s a big jump from that to representing 13 million Pennsylvanians. And the position of mayor in Braddock isn’t really a powerful one: It’s the borough council that makes executive decisions.

Katie McGinty

The basics: 52. Former chief-of-staff to Gov. Tom Wolf. Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Ed Rendell. Environmental advisor to President Bill Clinton.

The case for McGinty …

  • She would be the first female senator to represent Pennsylvania. She’d also add gender diversity to the majority-male Senate: Only 20 percent of the nation’s senators are women. Additionally, McGinty would be the only woman in Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation; that’s right, there are no females in it now.
  • She’s been endorsed by EMILY’s List. “Katie is pro-choice, and supports Roe v. Wade,” the group says. “She understands that voting rights are under attack nationwide, and will fight back against Republican attempts to stifle and silence voters.”
  • She’s from Northeast Philly, and was born into a working-class family. Having a native Philadelphian in the Senate would increase the city’s clout.
  • She’s backed by big names in the Democratic Party. She’s the Democratic establishment’s pick: Everyone from Bob Brady to Ed Rendell to Barack Obama has endorsed her. She’s also gotten nods from numerous labor unions, including AFSCME, SEIU and Philadelphia’s building trades. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is supporting her as well.
  • She has extensive experience dealing with environmental issues. She was the head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, and an environmental adviser to President Bill Clinton.
  • Her campaign has been focused on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, fighting for women’s rights, and creating jobs. Of course, the other Democrats in the race would say those are major issues in their campaigns as well.

The case against McGinty …

  • She’s never been elected to office. Tom Wolf, who is serving in elected office for the first time, is facing serious challenges. Do you want to give someone else lacking elected experience a try at this high of a position?
  • She only ran for office once before this year, and lost badly. During her gubernatorial bid in 2014, she got less than 8 percent of the vote. Does that portend a poor outcome if she were to run against Toomey in the fall?

Joe Sestak

The basics: 64. U.S. Congressman between 2007 and 2011. Former Navy admiral.

The case for Sestak …

  • He was in the Navy for more than three decades. He joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, and eventually became a three-star admiral. He was President Bill Clinton’s Director for Defense Policy, and managed the Navy’s warfare budget of $350 million. His foreign policy experience sets him apart from the pack.
  • Democratic Party leaders despise him, in large part because he ran against Arlen Specter after the late senator cast the deciding vote for Obamacare. Tired of machine candidates? A vote for Sestak is a vote against the Democratic establishment.
  • He’s the only candidate who has served in Congress. He was in the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011, so he theoretically knows how things in D.C. work.
  • He lives in Delaware County. He may not be from Philly proper like McGinty, but he hails from the region. So a Sestak win would give the Philadelphia area more political power.
  • For most of the race, he has been the frontrunner. A recent poll shows him tied with McGinty, however, each with 39 percent of support among likely Democratic voters.

The case against Sestak …

  • He was defeated by Toomey in 2010. Sure, it was a close race: Sestak got 49 percent of the vote; Toomey got 51 percent. But do you want to take the chance of having Sestak lose to Toomey again? Wouldn’t someone else have a better shot?
  • He’s loathed by Democratic Party leaders. If you think political outsiders are less likely to get things done in Congress, you might not want to vote for Sestak.

Joseph Vodvarka

The basics: 72. Small business owner.

The case for Vodvarka…

  • He boasts that he is an underdog, and not a politician. He proudly says on his website that he is the “Democrat Underdog that the media doesn’t want you to hear about!”
  • If you don’t like your options and want to cast a protest vote, Vodvarka is your guy.

The case against Vodvarka …

  • He’s a long, long, long, long shot. His campaign has gained virtually no traction.
  • According to his website, he holds many controversial conservative views, which is odd given that he’s a Democrat. He says he wants to “make English the national language,” and “put up a complete fence on our southern border and do what is necessary to make our borders more secure.” He also asserts that he has been “a life member of the NRA since April of 1974, and … will protect the Second Amendment.”


The basics: After Congressman Chaka Fattah was indicted on corruption charges last year, four candidates jumped into the 2nd Congressional District race. (One has since dropped out.) This is the only competitive Congressional election in Philadelphia. Whoever wins in the Democratic primary will be the presumed winner in the race against Republican James Jones in the fall. In the 1st Congressional District, Democratic U.S. Rep Bob Brady and Republican Deborah Williams are both running unopposed. So is Congressman Brendan Boyle, a Democrat, in the 13th District.

Dwight Evans

The basics: 61. State Rep. from Northwest Philly for 35 years. Former mayoral and gubernatorial candidate.

The case for Evans …

  • He helped revitalize West Oak Lane. When he first took office, more than half of Ogontz Avenue’s commercial buildings were empty. Today, about 80 percent of the storefronts are occupied. If elected to Congress, he says he would try to do for the rest of the city what he’s done for his district. “I’ve used my neighborhood like a laboratory,” he told NewsWorks.
  • He’s a shrewd politician. He was the Democratic chairman of the state’s powerful appropriations committee for 19 years. Though he lost that post in 2010, he has rebuilt his political clout in recent years by endorsing Jim Kenney and Tom Wolf early — and decisively — in their respective races. He has also received numerous endorsements this year, including from Mayor Kenney, former Mayor Michael Nutter, former Gov. Ed Rendell and the Daily News.
  • He’s part of the powerful Northwest Coalition. This is a political organization, made up of African-American politicians from Northwest Philly including Dwight Evans, Marian Tasco and Cherelle Parker, that will likely continue to gain influence in years to come.
  • If you believe his poll, he’s the frontrunner. According to a poll commissioned by Evans, he is leading the race, with 37 percent support to Fattah’s 21 percent. Gordon polled at 8 percent, while Muroff had 3 percent. The poll was conducted in January, however, and before Brian Sims dropped out of the race. Evans has also raised more money than any other candidate in the race: He had $323,945 on hand earlier this month.

The case against Evans …

  • He would be a freshman in Congress at age 61. Seniority matters in Congress, as Fattah regularly points out.
  • Philadelphia’s integrity officer released a report in 2011 that accused Evans of using bullying tactics to make sure a favored nonprofit got a contract with the school district. He also lied to the Daily News about his involvement. For his part, Evans said in a statement following the report that he was “stunned” to be portrayed “as a puppet master who has the ability to pull strings and make people dance.”
  • The state investigated a nonprofit he founded for two years. The state eventually ended the probe without accusing the organization of any wrongdoing, but only after it agreed to return $1.2 million in taxpayer funds.
  • He helped create the School Reform Commission. He played a major role in crafting the legislation that gave birth to the SRC and took away control from local officials. If you’re no fan of the SRC, perhaps you shouldn’t cast a vote for Evans.
  • He’s never won a race other than for state House. He unsuccessfully ran for both mayor and governor.

Chaka Fattah

The basics: 59. U.S. Congressman for 21 years. Former state representative and state senator.

The case for Fattah …

  • He has focused on education and neuroscience during his tenure in Congress. He pushed through a bill that created Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, which is said to have spent billions of dollars on college readiness programs for low-income students, and he has called for more funding for neuroscience research. He also says he’s brought a large amount of federal dollars to Philadelphia.
  • He sits on the powerful House appropriations committee. In the future, he hopes to be the Democratic chairman of the panel.
  • He’s been in Congress for decades. All of that seniority that Evans would lack in Congress? Fattah’s got tons of it. But he has lost political clout since being indicted.
  • He insists he’s innocent. He says the federal prosecutors who have charged him with corruption have a “vendetta” against him. “I have never participated in any illegal activity or misappropriation of taxpayer dollars as an elected official. I will proudly continue to serve my constituents and look forward to helping millions more,” he said in a statement shortly after the indictment. His trial begins May 2nd.

The case against Fattah …

  • Well, federal prosecutors have accused Fattah of using taxpayer money and charitable donations to pay back a $1 million loan to his 2007 mayoral campaign — a loan that itself far exceeded campaign contribution limits. Does public corruption get much worse than that? Yes, Fattah is “innocent until proven guilty,” but two members of his inner circle have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with authorities. Read the indictment against him for more information: It’s a stunning, highly detailed document.
  • He used taxpayer dollars to promote himself during the campaign. He has used what is called the “franking privilege” to air radio ads and send out mailers about himself. Sure, it’s technically legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Brian Gordon

The basics: 55. Lower Merion Township Commissioner.

The case for Gordon …

  • He’s made public education a major part of his campaign. He may come from the suburbs, but he talks passionately about how unfair it is that Philadelphia and Lower Merion students have vastly different public school resources. He also wants to pass a federal law that would allow states to decide whether to legalize marijuana, while requiring they spend the tax revenue on schools with low-income students.

The case against Gordon …

  • If he wins, Philly would lose some clout. Since he’s a Lower Merion guy and all.
  • He’s seen as an underdog in the race. In the first quarter of 2016, his campaign had only raised $11,200.

Dan Muroff

The basics: 49. Former president of Ceasefire PA. Democratic leader of Philadelphia’s 9th Ward.

The case for Muroff …

  • He’s the anti-gun violence candidate. He was head of Ceasefire PA. He has called for mandatory background checks, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and closing “private sale” loopholes.
  • He has expressed support for Black Lives Matter. “Dan believes that our nation must do more to confront racism along with the risks, obstacles and societal burdens unique to African-Americans,” his campaign website says. “The routine impacts of discrimination and racism are revealed in a parade of tragic and graphic incidents that demand recognition for what they are.”
  • He’s worked as a Congressional aide. That means he is the only challenger who understands Congress, he argues. The Inquirer cited this experience, as well as his history of fighting gun violence, in its endorsement of Muroff.

The case against Muroff …

  • Like Gordon, he’s viewed as an underdog in the race. However, he has raised more money than Gordon ($81,760 in this year’s first quarter). And he is the Democratic leader of the 9th Ward, where he may perform well.

Attorney General

The basics: Three Democrats and two Republicans are running to succeed the embattled Kathleen Kane. Whoever wins the general election will face the gargantuan task of restoring order — and the public’s trust — in the Attorney General’s office.


John Morganelli

The basics: 59. Northampton County District Attorney for the past 25 years.

The case for Morganelli…

  • He has prosecutorial experience. That makes him different than his opponent Josh Shapiro, who has a law degree but who has never worked a trial.
  • He believes the criminal justice system should be overhauled. He believes Pennsylvania should decriminalize pot, increase the number of crimes that can be expunged, and require judges to set nominal bail for low-level offenders.

The case against Morganelli …

  • Some believe he’s a faux candidate. U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman says Stephen Zappala’s nephew told him that he and Morganelli are working together against Shapiro. Zappala and Morganelli deny teaming up to peel away votes from Shapiro.
  • He lost to Tom Corbett in 2008. After Morganelli won the primary that year, Corbett bested him in the general election by almost seven points. Perhaps he’s not the right person to run against the Republican nominee in the fall.
  • He’s facing an uphill battle. Political observers believe this race is really one between Josh Shapiro and Stephen Zappala. Do you want to potentially waste your vote?

Josh Shapiro

The basics: 42. Montgomery County Commissioner for the past four years. State representative between 2005 and 2012.

The case for Shapiro …

  • He’s a rising star in the Democratic Party. He’s known as an ethical, problem-solving politician with lots of potential. Bigwigs like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer have encouraged him to run for higher office.
  • He’s a talented politician. In Harrisburg, he orchestrated a deal that gave the Democrats control of the state House, which led to lawmakers there actually passing legislation (no, really!). He also helped wrestle control of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners from the GOP in 2011. There, he has implemented zero-based budgeting, among other things.
  • He wants to use the office to pursue civil cases. For instance, he wants to fight alongside the Public Interest Law Center and the NAACP for a fairer statewide system for funding education. He also promises to sue frackers that violate environmental regulations and expand the Gun Violence Task Force if elected.
  • He’s racked up endorsements from several boldface names. President Barack Obama, Council President Darrell Clarke, Sen. Bob Casey, several LGBT groups, the Philadelphia Tribune and the Inquirer are supporting him.

The case against Shapiro …

  • He’s a little too ambitious, perhaps. The two most important cases in Pennsylvania in recent years have also been the most politically controversial: the Philadelphia sting and the Penn State sex abuse scandal. Some believe Kathleen Kane and Tom Corbett mishandled those cases partly because of their desire to attain higher office. It’s widely assumed that Shapiro wants to eventually run for governor — could his ambitions get the best of him?
  • He hasn’t ever worked a case, though he has a law degree from Georgetown. Should he really be the top law enforcement official in the state?

Stephen Zappala

The basics: 58. Allegheny County District Attorney for the past 18 years.

The case for Zappala …

  • Like Morganelli, he’s got tons of prosecutorial experience. If that matters to you, you should take a look at Zappala.
  • He knows how to run a big public office. As Allegheny County’s D.A, he oversees 100 lawyers as well as investigators and magisterial district judicial offices. He says that since taking office in 1998, his team has managed more than 300,000 indictments. That’s good experience for someone running to lead the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office.
  • Despite being a western PA guy, he has been endorsed by many Philadelphia unions and politicians. The city’s building trades are backing him, as well as Kenney, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, state Sen. Tony Williams, City Councilman Bobby Henon, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and the United Ward Leaders of Color, among others.

The case against Zappala …

  • He’d owe powerful electricians union leader “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. Doc is one of Zappala’s biggest supporters. Without Dougherty, it’s doubtful that he would have been endorsed by all those Philadelphians listed above. Does Pennsylvania really need another pol indebted to Dougherty? Especially when the A.G.’s office is investigating Doc over his involvement in a fistfight with a non-union electrician?
  • African-American leaders have sharply criticized one of his political ads. At a recent press conference, black political leaders demanded that Zappala stop airing an ad featuring images of Sandra Bland and Walter Scott. “We are sensitive about the images of black suffering — the Black Lives Matter movement has been very profound — and we think images of people being shot in South Carolina and in Texas should really be [the] third rail in a political ad,” said Rev. Marshall Mitchell.
  • Critics say he went easy on a white man who beat up an African-American man, as well as the four white men who watched the incident. The four friends got probation, while the assailant received a sentence of three to six years in prison. The issue is the subject of a campaign ad by Shapiro.


Joe Peters

The basics: 58. Private consultant for law enforcement agencies. Former prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office.

The case for Peters …

  • He’s a career prosecutor. In the Attorney General’s office, he served in the Bureau of Narcotics Investigation. He was also a formerly a federal prosecutor and patrol cop. And, most interestingly, he helped prosecute Philly mob boss “Little Nicky” Scarfo.
  • He hasn’t been endorsed by the Pennsylvania GOP. Not feeling the Republican establishment this year? Perhaps you should cast a vote for Peters.

The case against Peters …

  • He was Kathleen Kane’s communications director for almost a year. How can he clean up the Attorney General’s office when he worked for the person who helped cause its disarray?

John Rafferty

The basics: 51. State senator representing Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties for the past eight years. Pennsylvania’s Deputy Attorney General from 1988 to 1991.

The case for Rafferty …

  • He has worked in private business, the Senate and the Attorney General’s office. Rafferty says this resume makes him uniquely qualified to lead the Attorney General’s office, which handles civil and criminal cases.
  • He serves as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. There, he helped push through the 2013 transportation funding package. He also has written legislation to crack down on repeat DUI offenders, extend sentencing guidelines for arsonists, and strengthen child protection laws.
  • He’s been endorsed by the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

The case against Rafferty …

  • He doesn’t have as much legal experience as Peters. Peters argues that Rafferty’s qualifications for A.G. amount to working as a Medicare fraud prosecutor for three years.

State House and Senate Races:

The basics: There are contested primary races in the 1st and 5th Senatorial Districts, as well as the 170th, 175th, 181st, 182nd, 190th, 192nd, 194th, 195th, 200th and 202nd House Districts. The Committee of Seventy and BillyPenn both have helpful guides on the races.

Ballot Questions:

The basics: Philadelphians will see three ballot questions when they enter the voting booth Tuesday. Officials won’t count the votes for one of them, though: The Commonwealth Court decided at the last minute to postpone a question about judicial retirement ages for the general election. We broke down the other two questions into really, really plain English here.

Presidential Delegates:

The basics: When it comes to delegates in Pennsylvania, Democrats and Republicans do things differently. The ballot will clearly state whether each Democratic candidate for delegate is committed to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. But nothing on the ballot will reveal whether the Republican candidates support Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich. To make matters worse, the stakes are really high in the Republican delegate race! So what’s a GOP voter to do? The Tribune-Review asked the 162 GOP delegate candidates who they would vote for; the newspaper heard back back from 139. Check out the results of the survey here. Then look up your sample ballot on the City Commissioners’ website to figure out which candidates are running in your area.

Follow @hollyotterbein on Twitter.