Martina White: The It Girl of Red Philadelphia

How a fresh-faced 29-year-old from the Far Northeast channeled decades of racial and economic anxiety to become the most pivotal, and polarizing, politician in the city.

Martina White at Aldo’s Pizzarama in Somerton. Photograph by Neal Santos

Martina White knew this was coming.

Less than two weeks before the most shocking presidential election in modern history, the Republican lawmaker was sitting at a gym in Northeast Philadelphia, debating Matt Darragh, a Democrat trying to unseat her from the General Assembly.

Then, just as expected, Darragh said the words that have followed White since day one: Donald Trump. He accused her of exploiting the “same sentiments” as Trump and embracing his “direction for the United States.” An activist in the audience saw a connection, too: Standing between two basketball hoops, she waved a sign that read STOP TRUMPMARTINA.

White, a bottle-blond 29-year-old who could pass for a Fox & Friends host, tried to change the subject as quickly as possible, dodging a question from the event’s moderator about whether she’s “in the basket of deplorables.” Then she unleashed the cutting ferocity for which she’s known. She attacked Darragh as selling an “extreme agenda.” She accused him of spreading lies, insisting that she sees eye-to-eye with Trump only on certain issues. “I support our law enforcement protecting our communities,” she said. “I do support getting rid of sanctuary cities.” She even mocked her opponent by touting her labor endorsements: “The fact that Matt does not have the full support of our local unions and he is the Democratic candidate is really shocking, right?”

To this day, White won’t say whether she voted for Trump. But she’ll talk about sanctuary cities till Ivanka’s 2024 campaign comes to fruition.

White is a household name in the city — and Republican elites are eying her as a candidate for statewide office — because she’s leapt into the middle of two big hot-button issues: immigration and police reform. She’s proposed a bill to strip Philadelphia and 18 other counties of $1.3 billion annually because they refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities’ detainer requests. The legislation has simultaneously made her Progressive Enemy Number One and captured the zeitgeist of Red America — a lethal combination for a modern Republican. She told that audience in Somerton last fall that her proposal “protects communities like ours” from a “dangerous policy” and “criminal illegal immigrants.” Plus, she said, Northeast Philadelphians are footing the bill for migrants’ crimes: “Our taxpayers are paying for it!”

White rocketed onto the city’s political scene in 2015, instantaneously soaring from no-name 20-something to barrier-breaking, attention-grabbing, forever-polarizing politician. She was the first Republican to win an open House seat in the city in a quarter century, and is currently the youngest female lawmaker in the General Assembly.

Her swing district is home to many of the sorts of white working- and middle-class voters who helped send Trump to Washington, D.C., and observers have largely sought to understand White’s ascendancy through the lens of the Trump phenomenon. Mayor Jim Kenney, who made Philadelphia a sanctuary city, told reporters that White is an opportunist who targeted the policy in hopes of attracting Trump fans: “She’s trying to dog-whistle for Donald Trump.” State Rep Brian Sims said in a fund-raising email that “like Trump,” she wants to deport “all” immigrants. In op-eds, pro-immigration activists have written that she is Trump’s “protégé” and that her bills show “the obvious impact Donald Trump and his racist rhetoric is having.”

The similarities between White and Trump are unmistakable: They’re both “law and order” politicians who paint sanctuary cities as horrifically dangerous. They have die-hard fans in police unions and building trades. They both got an assist from an inept and corrupt Democratic Party. And neither would be where they are if they hadn’t convinced white working-class Democrats to vote GOP.

But is the Trump movement the best way to make sense of White? Would she have lost her seat in Northeast Philly if Trump hadn’t been at the top of the ticket? Is she a one-hit wonder who will tumble down the memory hole if the nation’s Trump fever breaks in 2020?

It seems unlikely. Many Americans would like to believe that Trump is a blip in the nation’s history, a Republican fluke. But the truth is that he illuminates fear and divisions that have always been here, inside millions of people and in towns and cities, even the proudly liberal ones. Love her or hate her — and those are the only two ways that people seem to feel about her — White is a homegrown phenomenon. She’s the walking, talking embodiment of a chasm between the Far Northeast and the rest of Philadelphia that has never been closed, and that yawns ever wider in times of economic and racial change.

Martina White where she feels most comfortable: talking to constituents. Photograph by Neal Santos

Decades before Trump talked about America’s “forgotten man,” Northeast Philadelphians called their home the “forgotten city.”

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, residents in the Northeast complained that their taxes were too damn high and that they had little to show for it compared to the rest of the city: Their streets had enough potholes to keep a small army busy, the cops were tied up with crime in other neighborhoods, and the trash collection left much to be desired.

White is well aware that a similar discontent is still in the air today. When asked why she won office, she says, “People weren’t receiving either the services or the representation that they really wanted, and when they had an alternative … they took note.”

So when City Hall rolls out an idea that White thinks is bad for the Far Northeast, she doesn’t hesitate. Her legislation would put a kibosh on Mayor Kenney’s sanctuary-city policy (which, per Pew, has less support in the Northeast than anywhere else in the city). After Kenney persuaded Council to pass a soda tax, White signed on to an amicus brief asking the Commonwealth Court to overturn it, arguing it would drive out Northeast employers like Crown Holdings. And when the city’s police brass announced that they would start releasing the names of cops who shoot civilians within 72 hours, it only took her a few months to introduce a bill to temporarily shield their identities. After all, she represents the Northeast’s Somerton, Chalfont, Bustleton and Parkwood neighborhoods, which are home to many of the city’s police officers and firefighters. The House and Senate adopted her police ID legislation, but Governor Tom Wolf vetoed it, so she’s now trying to pass it again. Both chambers have approved anti-sanctuary-city bills in different sessions.

White isn’t the only Northeast politician who’s made a political career out of her neighbors’ sense of alienation. State Rep Kevin Boyle, a Democrat who represents Fox Chase and Rhawnhurst, says, “Martina has tapped into what Hank Salvatore was talking about in the 1980s” as well as an “ancestral DNA in Northeast Philly.”

Frank “Hank” Salvatore was the legendary Northeast politician who in 1983 introduced a bill in the state House to secede from the rest of the city. One poll showed that Northeast residents supported the creation of “Liberty County” four to one. Later, Salvatore won a seat in the state Senate by vowing to stand up for his “forgotten city” via chairing the powerful Urban Affairs and Housing Committee. “I would then be in a negotiable position, where the mayor would have to come to me,” he told voters. “I would demand things for the Northeast.”

Whether the Northeast truly gets the short end of the stick is up for debate. Sure, there really ought to be a Roosevelt Boulevard subway, and the property tax abatement is sparse there. But other neighborhoods feel just as neglected by City Hall. Another factor in the debate is that the salaries and pensions of municipal workers living in the Northeast make up a huge part of the city budget.

Nearly everyone agrees, at least, that the area’s services are better today than they were 30 years ago. But Salvatore’s movement was never just about trash collection. It was also propelled by the Far Northeast’s identity as a place more politically moderate, semi-suburban and white than the rest of the city, says Matthew Smalarz, a Bustleton native and history professor at Jenkintown’s Manor College. He writes that Northeast Philadelphians pushed for Liberty County partly because they were “deeply unsettled by the shifting economy and demographic makeup of the city in the 1980s.” It was the era of white flight, crack cocaine and shuttering factories. More than anything, Smalarz says, they were driven by the 1983 election of the city’s first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode, which “stoked racial anxieties.”

Now, as then, things are changing in the Northeast. In 2015, the year that White was elected, the Nabisco factory on Roosevelt Boulevard closed its doors, forever vacuuming the sweet smell of cookies out of the air and, according to local politicians, shipping the company’s good-paying jobs to Mexico. Black Lives Matter was marching in the streets over the death of Brandon Tate-Brown, a 26-year-old African-American who was shot by police during a routine traffic stop in the Northeast’s Mayfair neighborhood. A Pew report found that sections of the Lower Northeast were some of the most diverse immigrant areas in the city, with large numbers of Latino and Asian residents; at the same time, parts of the Far Northeast had seen relatively few demographic shifts, with White’s district remaining 75 percent white.

Unlike Salvatore, White hasn’t filed for divorce from the city. But she’s come up with the next best thing in the eyes of her constituents: With the help of the General Assembly, she can effectively veto any local policies she doesn’t like.

To her base, she’s fighting back against a city that takes them for granted. But to others, she’s imposing the will of the Far Northeast’s white residents onto a majority-minority city — and robbing Philadelphia of its right to govern itself in the Trump era.

Photography by Neal Santos

The grainy 34-second video opens in the middle of a spat.

It’s April 2016, and a clutch of activists has shown up unannounced to White’s Harrisburg office. They’re protesting her anti-sanctuary-city bill and clearly dislike the way she addressed them. “So how would you like me to refer to you?” she asks.

“As Latinos, as immigrants, as people. Not as ‘these people,’” says Erika Almirón, leader of the pro-immigration group JUNTOS. White insists she’s just done that. “We’re asking you to stop using ‘these people,’” another woman reiterates. That’s when White snaps. “This is what the benefit of being in America is!” she yells. “It’s that you have the freedom of speech! Please leave my office now! I’m not going to be harassed in my own office!”

This clip, published by Al Día, was the first time many Philadelphians had heard of White. She’s also gotten headlines for airing an all-white campaign ad and (inadvertently, she says) quoting an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center identified as a hate group, all of which has given her a reputation as a fiery demagogue. When I meet her in June, though, I don’t find a grenade-tosser so much as a buttoned-up saleswoman.

The Suburban Diner, located right off Bustleton Avenue, has drop ceilings, wood paneling, and a $10.99 salad bar. White’s wearing what is more or less her uniform: pantsuit, silver necklace and chain-link bracelet. The French manicure and black eyeliner are also staples.

She just got back from a meeting with PennDOT. “Mostly, we just wanted to make sure they’re planning to cut the grass on Woodhaven Road,” she says. “It’s kind of, uh, out of control.” White orders her favorite dish off the menu, the chicken fingers and fries, and I ask how an urban millennial like her became a conservative.

“So I would say I’m more of a moderate,” she immediately corrects me. “Not a hard-core conservative.” She sees herself this way because she doesn’t care “what party people are from,” she says. “Am I going to completely disregard a great idea that comes from a Democrat? Absolutely not. We definitely need more legislators who are willing to cross party lines.” White says she works with Democrats often, from Council members to state representatives to the Governor himself. “But in any case,” she continues, “I think once you have a job, and once you get into your life, you come to realize taxes are brutal. That a fair amount of your paycheck goes to the government to be spent on what the government thinks it should be spent on.”

According to purity testers on the right, White is indeed moderate: On a scale of one to 100, the American Conservative Union Foundation and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry both rate her in the 50s, mostly because she’s a reliable pro-labor vote. Liberals, of course, would disagree with that analysis, and not only because of her two signature bills. She’s also voted for the GOP’s austere budgets.

White is the opposite of a wonk, however. She doesn’t reference The Road to Serfdom while explaining her ideology. She talks much more like, well, a regular person from Northeast Philly — and in 2017’s political climate, that’s a strength to voters. She labels all of her bills as “commonsense” and portrays the people who oppose them as foolish. “How can you swear to uphold the laws of our land,” she says in a rant about Kenney’s sanctuary-city policy, “and then in the very next breath, you don’t do that?” Asked if her legislation stokes fear of immigrants or exacerbates racial divides, she waves away the criticism: “My bills protect all races, all police officers and all legal immigrants.” She insists several times that she is all for legal immigration: “I think it’s great. We need more diversity, and we need to continue to make sure folks who want to achieve the American dream … have that opportunity.”

At least, that’s what she’s like when I ask questions in her comfort zone.

When I bring up things that White hasn’t ever talked about with reporters, or that could be a liability in her swing district, she’s more guarded — awkward, even. What does she think of the GOP’s health-care bill? “I leave the federal issues to the federal Congressmen,” she says. Gay marriage? “I haven’t taken a position on that.” Immigration reform? “That’s up to the federal government.”

For as much as she talks about working with different-minded people, she hasn’t ever sat down with Black Lives Matter or JUNTOS. She is terse, too, when asked what she makes of the high-profile police shootings across the country: “I do not have the facts necessary to formulate an opinion on specific cases, and it would be irresponsible for anyone to do so without them.”

White has only been a politician for two years. She hasn’t yet learned the art of schmoozing — how to sound like you’re answering a question without actually answering a question. But some Democrats mistake that for having “no there there,” as one insider put it, and that undersells how calculating and disciplined White can be.

She represents a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, just like Salvatore did once upon a time. Back in 1984, the Daily News wrote that he shrewdly “soft-pedaled his Republican affiliation” in an area so politically purple.

When White extols the virtues of bipartisanship and centrism and dodges questions about gay marriage and Trumpcare, she’s doing the exact same thing.

In an era in which candidates are desperate to prove they’re not career politicians, White is the real deal: She was a complete novice when she ran in 2015.

She had never worked in government before. Never volunteered for a candidate. Never gone to a protest. Hell, she knew less about the city’s political system than many commenters do. A story she likes to tell is that when she first met with Republican leaders to discuss a campaign, they quizzed her on which ward and division she lived in. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what that is,’” she laughs.

Growing up, White wanted to do what everyone else in her family did: start a business. Her dad was in real estate. Her great-grandfather — she keeps a black-and-white photo of him on her desk in Harrisburg — owned one of the biggest trucking companies on the Eastern Seaboard. “He was an immigrant from Italy,” she says, “and when he came over here, he sold fruit in the street. Then he bought his first truck.”

That White saw firsthand where a bootstrapper’s ethos can get you — and that she was raised Catholic by Republican parents — almost certainly played a role in the development of her ideology.

White studied business at Elizabethtown College, and after graduating in 2010 landed a job as a financial adviser for families and small companies. The Great Recession was technically over by then, but its shadow continued to swallow up the American dream. White could see it in real time: “[People] were still struggling, even with two jobs.”

Then, in late 2014, a family friend who was a committee person for the Republican Party came to White with an idea: The GOP was looking for a candidate for a special election, since Brendan Boyle, a Northeast Philly state representative, had just won a primary contest for Congress. White should run, the friend told her.

A body of research shows that female candidates often have to be asked several times to run for office — and are usually overqualified — before they say yes. White was unusual: She was game immediately. When I ask why she thinks she was the exception to the rule, she acts as if it was a no-brainer: “I just figured it was worth it to fight for the Northeast. These are my friends, my family, my neighbors.”

There’s something else that explains why White was so eager: She has a ruthlessly competitive Type A personality.

During the 2015 campaign, she knocked on 8,000 doors. The next year: 18,000. Marc Collazzo, a former GOP ward leader, remembers the first time he witnessed the detail-oriented side of White: “I had never seen her bark at anyone before,” he says. “She had a campaign consultant who was helping her with mailings. There was a minor thing that was wrong with it … and she grabbed the phone and said, ‘No! You will change this!’ She wanted it just right.”

Collazzo was one of those party bosses who gave White a pop quiz on political wards and divisions. They interviewed three other potential nominees before picking her. “I know it sounds corny, but there was something about her,” he says. “And we all just look out because of our optics. Here is a smart, intelligent, outgoing, attractive female.”

Her finance background also came in handy. “What became apparent was that a lot of her sales training was very, very useful,” says State Rep John Taylor, who’s represented his Northeast district since 1985. “I remember taking her to lunch and saying, ‘Could you talk to everybody in this restaurant?’ She said, ‘Absolutely.’ And before she left, she did it.”

When the city’s GOP leaders announced that White was their woman for the job, they were bullish about their chances. “Republicans routinely do well in this section of the city,” they said, where residents “are tired of the higher taxes and poor services they have received.”

Infighting among White’s potential Democratic rivals, particularly the Northeast’s Boyle, Stack and Sabatina families, cleared her path to victory. A falling-out between police union president John McNesby and Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack led to White winning the support of her most important ally: the Fraternal Order of Police.

Now, the state’s power crowd is talking about White’s future. Thanks to her past life in finance, Taylor thinks she could campaign for auditor general in a few years. “The political world’s wide open for her,” he says. Val DiGiorgio, boss of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party, is also talking her up: “Maybe a statewide row office, or lieutenant governor.”

If White ever ran statewide, the word “Philly” could sink her chances. Then again, White represents the part of the city that’s most in lockstep with the rest of the state. Come to think of it, many Pennsylvanians feel an awful lot like Northeast Philadelphians do: They, too, gripe that all their money goes to the city, which, in turn, rubs their noses in it by passing nuttier and nuttier laws each year.

White is, yet again, knocking on doors. She does this from time to time, even when she’s not running for office. Just to keep her finger on the pulse of things, she says.

On this humid July day, she’s making her way down Cabell and Lester roads, along blocks of tidy, nearly identical garage-fronted rowhomes. Everybody who comes to the door seems to be a cop or a schoolteacher or a veteran. White gives the same bubbly, rapid-fire speech to them all. She introduces herself (“Hello! How are you today? I’m your state representative, Martina White”), hands over a packet of information on government services (“I know some folks are concerned about the opioid epidemic that’s happening across the city, and there’s some resources in here”), says her office has a veteran specialist (“He can help you with all kinds of medical benefits”), and then asks if there’s anything they’re worried about in the city.

It’s immediately clear that this is where White feels the most comfortable. She starts winking at people and cracking jokes and goofing off with kids. Many residents recognize her. For some, she’s an all-out celebrity. “We’re Facebook friends! I agree with everything you say!” one teacher says to White as two tots circle her.

Another woman tells White her husband is a veteran and a Philly cop; after they part ways, the husband, who is white, bursts out the door. “Any updates on that bill they’re trying to do on officers involved in shootings?” he asks. He’s been following the story of Ryan Pownall, a police officer who in June shot and killed an African-American man named David Jones who was running away. “They put his picture all over,” the man says of Pownall. “If that was me, I’d be a little fearful people were going to come to my house.”

“It’s scary!” White agrees, adding that she saw Pownall’s face on faux WANTED posters online. The man says officers would “greatly appreciate” it if her bill passed.

“You deserve it,” she replies. “You work really hard, and we want to keep you safe.”

Here in the mostly white area of Parkwood, the fact that the city releases the names of cops after they shoot civilians is a real source of anxiety. A few miles away, in African-American neighborhoods in North Philly and West Philly and Southwest Philly, many residents are terrified that they or someone they love will be on the other end of the barrel of a police officer’s gun. They’ve watched over the years as juries have acquitted Philly police officers charged with corruption, and as a local cop with an apparent Nazi tattoo has been allowed to stay on the force, and they’ve wondered: Who’s working to keep us safe?

State Rep Jordan Harris, a Democrat who represents Grays Ferry and Point Breeze, worries that White’s bill will worsen already-fraught police-community relations. “Instead of shielding information when these things happen, we should be more open and transparent,” he says. “As a black man in Philadelphia, where I’ve seen systemic racism and oppression, it’s hard for me to want to trust the system. It’s hard for me to want to believe that without light, the system will do what is right.”

Many Latino neighborhoods live in a heightened state of fear of police these days, too. In the wake of Trump’s election, JUNTOS has trained undocumented residents about their legal rights when ICE shows up at the door. It has held workshops for teachers at the Philadelphia School District, where students speak more than 120 languages and 10 percent of kids are learning English, on the same topic. Erika Almirón of JUNTOS says White’s anti-sanctuary-city bill is deepening unease in Hispanic areas.

In fact, Almirón is speechless when I tell her that White is being talked about as a candidate for higher office. “I’m so angry, I’m sorry … ” she says, trailing off. Eventually she tells me, “Martina White is a far-right xenophobe. It’s scary. The things she talks about actually destroy people’s lives.”

The 2017 district attorney’s race showed just how many Philadelphians are crying out for radical criminal justice reform. In fact, it seemed like a direct rebuke of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police when Larry Krasner, a left-wing civil rights attorney who’s sued law enforcement and other government agencies more than 75 times, won the Democratic primary. And even though Krasner, who’s white, ran in a seven-way race with an African-American candidate, he won the majority of the city’s predominantly black wards.

White says “police are concerned” about Krasner and that he was funded by a “multi-billionaire” who’s “not an American,” by which she means George Soros. She and the police union are backing Republican DA candidate Beth Grossman, a former prosecutor from the city’s much-maligned civil asset forfeiture unit. When I ask White if there’s anything she plans to do to stop Krasner’s agenda, she says, “Should Krasner win, we’ll take those things into consideration.” Other GOP-controlled states have chilled progressive prosecutors’ plans: In Florida, for instance, Governor Rick Scott yanked a state attorney from several murder cases after she said she wouldn’t pursue the death penalty.

Sometimes it seems like a miracle, or a nightmare, that Philadelphia hasn’t cleaved apart already.

An elderly man in a BLUE LIVES MATTER t-shirt raises his hand.

For the past 30 minutes, White has been answering questions at a meeting at the FOP’s senior citizens’ home on Byberry Road, mostly about tax rebates and traffic problems and the dance she holds for Northeast Philly’s old folks every year. But this resident has something else on his mind: “Will you marry me?” he asks.

The crowd goes wild with laughter. “You think you’re the first man to ask?” White jokes. “How many other ladies got asked the same question in this room?”

The women here adore her just as much as the men do. After the event, they crowd around White and ask for copies of a petition urging Governor Wolf to sign her police bill. “Because of the national incidents that have been occurring, police are de-policing,” White says, referring to the so-called “Ferguson effect,” a theory popular among conservatives that says crime is rising due to increased police scrutiny. “They’re afraid!” the mother of a cop agrees.

One of the residents, Nancy Jorett, tells me she admires White not only for her policies, but also for having the guts to be a woman in politics: “She’s got what they call in Jewish, I think, ‘chutzpah.’ Most people won’t do what she does. I know I wouldn’t.”

White talks a lot about wanting to see more women in government. “We’re more than 50 percent of the electorate!” she often says. If she’s thinking about campaigning to become the first female mayor or auditor general, though, she’s not showing her cards. Per usual.

When I ask if she might run for higher office someday, she gives me a canned response: “I’m very happy and very grateful for the opportunity that I have right now as a legislator.” Then she cracks a joke about the latest gossip that she may challenge Congressman Boyle: “I’m sure he was shaking in his boots when that rumor started!”

The fact that GOP leaders see White as the future of the party shows that she is much more than an outgrowth of the Trump phenomenon. It’s also a reminder that Trumpism didn’t begin with Trump — and won’t end with him, either. Immigration fears, white identity politics, and a defiant resistance to the most incremental police reforms aren’t some aberration unique to the 2016 election. They’re fundamental parts of the modern GOP.

At 29, White could be in office for the next five decades. She very well may play a major role in shaping Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. John Taylor says that contrary to what many Democrats believe, White wields considerable clout in Harrisburg. There’s a theory among some Democrats that White didn’t come up with the ideas for her high-profile legislation herself but instead was given them wholesale by GOP bosses and police union leaders — that she’s a pretty face to sell ugly bills. Taylor insists that’s not true: “Nobody fed her that.”

White, too, denies the accusation. She says that after the police department announced its new policy of identifying cops who shoot civilians, she called up FOP Chief McNesby for help writing her legislation. “Go figure!” she says. “He was already trying to come up with something himself!” Whether it was really that coincidental, Taylor notes that White’s two signature bills have passed with bipartisan support: “She’s demonstrated that she can do big things.”

After the FOP event, I ask White if she would ever use her influence to, say, secede from the city. Apparently, some Democrats think this is enough of a possibility that they’ve broached the topic with her. “Legislators have come up to me in the past and they’re like, ‘Martina, don’t leave the city. Don’t let your district leave the city,’” she says. “There probably is a desire to leave the city, and that’s why you see people leaving, literally, the city. But there’s a bunch of people who love the Northeast, who love being in quote-unquote Philadelphia and having that as their address and getting to remember the good ol’ times.”

Then again …

“If it ever came up and the people wanted it,” she laughs, “look out, Mayor Kenney!”

Published as “The It Girl of Red Philadelphia” in the September 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.