The No-Bullshit Guide to the 2020 Presidential Election in Philly
President. Attorney general. A shot for Dems to take over the state legislature. Ballot questions. What you need to know about the latest most important election of your lifetime.
Here we go again. When we put together this guide four years ago, we thought the upcoming election would be the most consequential of our lives. God, if only we knew what was coming. … Four years of Trump, the rise of white nationalism, a demolition of norms, so much blatant law-breaking and corruption that registered nothing more than a collective hmph, an impeachment, and, to top it all off, a pandemic combined with voter suppression and a president who has suggested he won’t accept the results of the election. Yeah, we think it’s fair to say that this election is actually the most consequential of our lives. The only thing that hasn’t changed is our unhealthy relationship with the latest polling averages on FiveThirtyEight (although even those, we trust less than we used to).
On the face of it, this presidential election might seem less significant for Pennsylvania than the last one. There’s no Senate race, and most of the House seats in the Philly suburbs are solidly Democratic, after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the 2016 map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
But there’s still plenty happening this year. There is increasing consensus among the political pundit class that Pennsylvania could be the “tipping point” state that determines who wins the Electoral College. In the suburbs, there’s a vulnerable Republican incumbent (Brian Fitzpatrick) trying to hold on as a moderate. Meanwhile, state Democrats actually think there’s a shot to flip not one but both houses of the state legislature in Harrisburg. That would take a monumental effort (particularly the state Senate), but the fact it’s even being openly discussed goes to show how much anti-Trump backlash seems to exist across the state.
There are important statewide races, too: attorney general, auditor general, treasurer. Not to mention a few important ballot questions in Philly proper.
So buckle up. This is the No-BS Guide to the 2020 Election. And remember this, too: As tempting as it is to count down the hours to Election Day, we probably won’t know the results of any of these races by Tuesday night. Another strange sign of the times …
- Attorney General
- Auditor General
- State Treasurer
- U.S. House
- State House and Senate Races
- Ballot Questions
Donald Trump. Republican. Incumbent.
Joe Biden. Democrat.
Usually, in a guide like this, we break down the pros and cons of each candidate. But we’ll spare you that for the presidential race. (We’re not so self-centered that we think what we write here is going to change anyone’s mind after the past four years.) But allow us at least to note that of all the races on the ballot this year, this remains the single most important contest.
The basics: The attorney general is the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the state. He or she is responsible for criminal prosecutions as well as civil suits.
Josh Shapiro. Democrat. Incumbent.
The basics: 47. Born and raised in Montgomery County. Former State Representative and chair of Montco County Commissioners before winning his first term as state attorney general in 2016.
The case for Shapiro …
- He’s been an extremely active AG, launching lawsuits against big corporations, including Purdue Pharma, Juul Labs (the e-cigarette manufacturer) and, most recently, the Postal Service (to block proposed changes that would have disrupted the delivery of mail-in ballots before the election.)
- He’s been active on gun violence. One example: Shapiro launched a gun-tracing initiative across the state that led to better data sharing among local law enforcement. He also started an anonymous tip line in schools, Safe2Say, through which students could report mental health concerns or fears over possible school shootings. Safe2Say has fielded 40,000 tips to date.
- Arguably Shapiro’s single largest undertaking as attorney general was his investigation into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, which led to his office naming more than 300 predator priests across the state. Shapiro has advocated (unsuccessfully, as of yet) for the state legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of children.
- He hasn’t been indicted. Normally, that wouldn’t be all that impressive, seeing as the attorney general is supposed to be on the delivering end of indictments. But then, you haven’t already forgotten about the halcyon days of the Porngate scandal and former AG Kathleen Kane, have you?
The case against Shapiro …
- He’s ambitious. Which would normally be fine, except that if you’re a Pennsylvania Democrat with ambition, 2022 is shaping up to be a pretty tantalizing year. Not only is Pat Toomey relinquishing his Senate seat; the governorship will also be up for grabs. Among political rumor peddlers, Shapiro has long held an interest in succeeding Tom Wolf. If that’s true, Shapiro would have to leave office before his four-year term as AG is complete.
- He’s clashed with progressives. He came out against Philly’s plan — endorsed by Mayor Kenney and other city officials — to open the nation’s first-ever safe injection site, and when four state attorneys general filed amicus briefs in support of the site last year, Shapiro’s name was nowhere to be found. Shapiro has also bickered with DA Larry Krasner’s office at times and reportedly encouraged local media to criticize Krasner’s handling of gun charges, according to a story in the Intercept.
Heather Heidelbaugh. Republican.
The basics: Heidelbaugh 62, has lived in Pittsburgh since 1998 and is a partner at the law firm Leech Tishman. Her only prior experience holding elected office came from 2011 to 2015, when she served on the Allegheny County Council. She’s reasonably well-funded and has spent more than $1 million on her campaign as of September. Much of that money has come from Pat Toomey-affiliated PACs.
The case for Heidelbaugh …
- She’s got lots of experience as a lawyer. She’s been a trial attorney for 35 years, and she says she’d focus her efforts mostly on criminal prosecutions. That would be a significant point of departure from Shapiro, who has pursued plenty of civil litigation during his first term.
- Other Republicans seem to like her. She has scored the endorsements of Senator Pat Toomey and resident CNN Trump defender Rick Santorum. Heidelbaugh’s priorities include fighting the opioid crisis, preventing scammers and robocalls by boosting enforcement of the state’s Do Not Call List, and rooting out corruption.
The case against Heidelbaugh …
- Shapiro has been remarkably effective in his emphasis on civil litigation. Refashioning the AG’s office into an entity that focuses more on criminal prosecutions might strike some as a weakening of the AG’s influence.
- For all of Heidelbaugh’s stated priorities, the view she’s been able to most clearly articulate is her belief that Josh Shapiro is going to leave his term in 2022 to run for governor. But at best, that’s a reason not to vote for Shapiro; it’s not really a reason to vote for Heidelbaugh.
- Her position on Trumpism is unclear. Heidelbaugh used to occasionally criticize Donald Trump on Twitter. Now, those tweets are gone, and when she was recently asked by a reporter if she disagreed with the President on any subjects, she replied, “I would prefer he use Twitter less.” Heidelbaugh has also accepted the endorsement of Pat Toomey, who despite his occasional efforts to distance himself from Trump has voted in line with the President more than 85 percent of the time in the Senate.
Daniel Wassmer. Libertarian.
The basics: According to his bio, Wassmer, 60, has represented the Fraternal Order of Police in New York. He also has his own civil law practice and is a part-time faculty member at Bucks County Community College.
The case against Wassmer …
- One of our rules here at Philly Mag when it comes to election analysis is that if you’re an overt conspiracy theorist, you’re automatically disqualified from receiving a serious write-up in our No-BS Guide. Unfortunately for Dan Wassmer, he has failed to clear that extremely low hurdle, having speculated on Facebook that the COVID-19 pandemic actually began in Silicon Valley and, even less coherently, suggesting that the timing of the pandemic was coordinated with the Pennsylvania state legislature, which last year passed a law allowing for no-excuse mail-in voting. Hmm … Someone has been spending a little too much time online consuming far-right propaganda.
The case for Wassmer …
- There is none.
Richard Weiss. Green Party.
The basics: 53. From Pittsburgh; formerly an attorney for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The case for Weiss …
- He supports ending cash bail, decriminalizing sex work and drugs, and creating better police oversight through civilian-led boards.
The case against Weiss …
- He’s not likely to win, and although he’s undoubtedly further left than Josh Shapiro, the only real role he could play in our two-party system is that of spoiler.
The basics: The state auditor general keeps an eye on how state funds are spent, conducting audits of state agencies as well as of organizations that receive public funds. Outgoing auditor general Eugene DePasquale (now running for Congress) produced a number of significant audits during his tenure, including one that that highlighted the state’s backlog of rape kits and another that documented failings at the state’s child abuse hotline. And if you pay attention to local politics, you know how Rebecca Rhynhart — the city’s equivalent of auditor general — has developed quite the political muscle through her own auditing position. Which is all to say that the perch of auditor can actually be quite powerful.
This race is guaranteed to make history. Both the Democratic and Republican nominees are people of color, and never before in Pennsylvania history has a person of color been elected to statewide executive office. Whichever candidate wins this race will be the first.
Nina Ahmad. Democrat.
The basics: 61. PhD in chemistry from Penn. Former deputy mayor for public engagement in Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration; member of Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; former president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women.
The case for Ahmad …
- As the former deputy mayor for public engagement, she fought to launch the city’s Commission for Women and end workplace harassment.
- She’s been endorsed by Obama, Biden and Harris, which means if you’re pining for a return to the Obama era, she’s the candidate for you.
The case against Ahmad …
- She hasn’t had any prior experience in an auditing position, unlike her opponent.
- She’s got a history of funneling tons of her own money into losing elections; she previously spent more than $650,000 in a failed 2018 bid for lieutenant governor. (On the plus side: At least she wasn’t spending huge amounts of other people’s money on her failed campaigns, right?)
Timothy DeFoor. Republican.
The basics: 58. Current Dauphin County controller; former investigator in the state attorney general’s office.
The case for DeFoor …
- He’s got a 25-year background in the public sector, having worked as an investigator for the Office of Inspector General and the attorney general’s office. He’s investigated fraud in the Medicare program as well as by government contractors. And his current role as Dauphin County controller is essentially the county version of the statewide auditor general’s office.
- In 2015, he “recovered” over $1 million in taxpayer money during his first term, according to his campaign website.
The case against DeFoor …
- Frankly, there isn’t much of one. Both he and Ahmad have impressive experience in government. DeFoor says he thinks of himself less as a politician and more as a public servant, but at the end of the day, this probably comes down to the fact that DeFoor is a Republican and Ahmad is a Democrat.
Jennifer Moore. Libertarian.
The basics: 38. Former Eastern District vice chair of the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania.
The case for Moore …
- She has experience as an auditor in her township and has worked in finance for almost 20 years.
- A vote for Moore is a show of support for the Libertarian Party nationally.
The case against Moore …
- She has little chance of winning.
Olivia Faison. Green Party.
The basics: Faison, 69, is a retired chemist.
The case for Faison …
- A vote for Faison is a show of support for the Green Party nationally.
The case against Faison …
- She gave a pretty wacky interview to the Penn Capital-Star earlier this month in which she suggested there might be a way of preventing COVID-19 that’d be “less invasive” than a vaccine. “I can envision a device that would detect and remove pathogens and filter them from our immediate environment,” Faison mused. Her reasoning: If scientists can detect gases all the way on the planet Venus, then they also should be able to remove pathogens from the air right here on Earth. Maybe she’s onto something. She’s a chemist!
- As for the other case against Faison? Well, she has little chance of winning.
The basics: This person is in charge of managing Pennsylvania’s annual budget of $100 billion (you know—the treasury). The treasurer also manages the state’s 529 college savings program and is in charge of returning unclaimed property to citizens. Another way of describing the job is to say that the treasurer is supposed to not lose taxpayer dollars. That wasn’t something we used to be all that worried about until 2018, when the Philly government thought it had somehow misplaced $33 million. (Turns out there was only about $530,000 missing … which the city only discovered after paying an auditing firm $500,000.) The treasurer is like good background music: It’s important that someone’s there, but you also don’t really want to actively notice it.
Joe Torsella. Democrat. Incumbent.
The basics: For a guy running for a sorta bland job, Torsella, 57, actually has a not-so-bland résumé: Rhodes Scholar, ex-diplomat to the United Nations, former CEO of the National Constitution Center.
The case for Torsella …
- He has actually increased the amount of money in government coffers. That’s because Torsella sued a bunch of the biggest banks in the world last year, alleging that they were price-fixing in their bond sales. Torsella ended up earning a settlement that totaled nearly $400 million. (The settlement was split among multiple plaintiffs.)
- He has experience and seems to actually like the job. That’s not nothing.
- In a year that saw the state budget obliterated due to COVID-19, it’s perhaps more important than ever to have someone at the helm who knows how to count and track whatever money is left for the state.
- He hasn’t lost $33 million in taxpayer funds. (Ahem.)
The case against Torsella …
- When Torsella last ran for this position in 2016, we noted that he “supports open data.” Well, during his tenure, the treasurer’s transparency rating actually dropped from a B grade to a C, according to the watchdog Public Interest Research Group.
- He also harbors Shapiro-like ambition. Torsella, with his thick-framed black glasses and semi-stylish dad vibes, just looks like a guy destined for things beyond the state treasury. (You might recall he did run for Congress in 2004 and then for Senate in 2010.) Perhaps that’s why his name has been floated as a possible candidate to run for Pat Toomey’s vacated Senate seat in 2022. In a recent interview with the Penn Capital-Star, Torsella didn’t do much to put the kibosh on that speculation. “ I love public service, and if there is an opportunity, I am gonna think about the place with the most impact,” he said. “Right now, that is treasurer.”
Stacy Garrity. Republican.
The basics: Garrity, 56, was an Army Reservist who served in Iraq, supposedly earning the nickname “The Angel of the Desert” because she helped run a prison for Iraqi detainees that didn’t torture inmates. Afterward, she worked as an accountant for a refractory powder company.
The case for Garrity …
- She supports greater transparency and has criticized Torsella for allowing that decline in transparency rating to happen on his watch.
- Garrity also says she would eliminate fees from the state’s money managers and increase student access to the state’s college savings program.
The case against Garrity …
- She also seems focused on the fact that her opponent has rumored political ambition. Which has always struck us as a somewhat risky line of attack, as it suggests that the current officeholder is not just qualified, but perhaps even overqualified and slated for bigger things — as if that’s a negative.
- Garrity ran for the seat in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District in 2019 but failed to win the Republican Party nomination.
- Not that this has much to do with one’s ability to be treasurer, but it’s been suggested that Garrity hasn’t always followed best COVID-19 safety practices. She was diagnosed with coronavirus in October, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that she’d posed in numerous photographs, in close proximity to other people, without a mask. (Garrity’s campaign has said that she only removes her mask for photos.)
Joe Soloski. Libertarian.
The basics: Soloski, 63, has been an accountant for 35 years.
The case for Soloski …
- He wants to reform the system from the inside. If you believe that the state treasurer, responsible for managing $100 billion in government funds, shouldn’t believe in ambitious programs of government spending, then Soloski is the candidate for you.
- He has some other ideas, like establishing term limits, supporting the hemp industry, and lowering the corporate income tax.
The case against Soloski …
- Unfortunately for Soloski, in order to accomplish any of these things listed above, he’d need to run for a different office.
- He’s not likely to win.
Timothy Runkle. Green Party
The basics: 37. Chairman of the Lancaster County Green Party.
The case for Runkle …
- He supports progressive legislation like the Green New Deal.
- He wants to repeal the uniformity clause. That would make tax reformers in Philly quite happy, as the city would finally be able to tax corporations more and people less.
The case against Runkle …
- He’s bailed on elected office before. After he waged a write-in campaign to become tax collector in Elizabethtown and won, he decided not to take the job.
- Like his Libertarian colleague Soloski, Runkle appears to be running for the wrong office. If Runkle actually wants to change the uniformity clause or pass climate legislation, it’s going to be … pretty tough to do it from the position of treasurer.
- Also like his Libertarian colleague Soloski, he’s got little chance of winning.
The basics: There are, of course, many different House races taking place around the Philly region. We’re highlighting just one, though, which is also shaping up to be the most competitive: the 1st Congressional District, with Republican incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick taking on Democrat Christina Finello. Fitzpatrick is just about the only suburban Republican who didn’t drown in the 2018 blue wave that brought the likes of Mary Gay Scanlon, Madeleine Dean, Chrissy Houlahan and Susan Wild into office. Will Fitzpatrick, facing a competitive challenger yet again this year, be able to hold on in 2020? Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by 16,000 — out of 540,000 total voters. The latest poll on FiveThirtyEight shows Finello with a one-point lead, while the Cook Political Report has graded the seat “Lean Republican.”
Brian Fitzpatrick. Republican. Incumbent.
The basics: 46. Member of the House of Representatives since 2016. Before that, Fitzpatrick spent 14 years as an FBI agent, working on political corruption and counterterrorism. According to federal campaign finance filings, he has spent more than $3 million on the race.
The case for Fitzpatrick…
- He’s a self-described moderate. And true to form, he has often diverged from President Trump, only voting with the President 37 percent of the time in the past two years, according to FiveThirtyEight. Fitzpatrick was also rated the most bipartisan politician in the entire House by Georgetown’s school of public policy. If, after the past four years, you still believe that bipartisanship can be saved or is even worth saving, maybe Fitzpatrick is the guy to help do it.
- His record is more middle-of-the-road than those of most Republicans. He’s proposed bipartisan legislation that would create a carbon emissions tax, helping to fund new infrastructure projects. And he was one of just three Republicans to vote for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases across police departments nationwide.
The case against Fitzpatrick …
- He voted against impeaching Trump. Which makes us pretty skeptical that Fitzpatrick is as much of a moderate as he says he is.
- He voted for the Trump tax cuts, which were actually tax cuts for the rich.
- He voted against the House Democrats’ updated HEROES Act, which would have provided another round of coronavirus stimulus, though there was universal Republican opposition to the bill and even some defections among moderate Democrats.
- In the 2016 campaign, he said he would vote to defund Planned Parenthood. And when he first entered office in 2017, he voted for a bill (later signed by Trump) that made it easier for states to potentially block funding for health-care providers, like Planned Parenthood, that perform abortions. That could be a problem in a district where suburban women are an important constituency. Fitzpatrick’s record on abortion is also why a super PAC attached to Planned Parenthood has spent roughly $2 million dollars against him.
Christina Finello. Democrat.
The basics: 44. Born and raised in Bucks County. Degree from Villanova Law and a PhD in clinical psychology from Drexel. Prior to running, Finello worked for 10 years as the deputy director of the Division of Housing and Human Services in Bucks County. She’s only spent $900,000 on the campaign, compared to Fitzpatrick’s $3 million, though she has benefited from multiple outside groups that have spent millions on anti-Fitzpatrick advertising.
The case for Finello …
- She would be a suburban PA Democrat, with hearty meat-and-potatoes policy proposals: She supports lowering health insurance premiums, investing in clean energy, making community college free, and instituting background checks on gun purchases. Go here to read more about her policy specifics.
- She would cement Democratic control of the Philly suburbs in the House of Representatives.
The case against Finello …
- Lots of outside groups seem to be taking an interest in the race and are spending big — not to directly support Finello, but to attack Fitzpatrick. Those super PAC groups have spent at least $9 million in all. Meanwhile, Finello says she wants to overturn the Citizens United court case that allows outside groups to spend such large sums on elections in the first place.
The basics: Normally, the state legislature races feel less important than the offices above. But this year, Democrats actually think they have a shot at flipping not just one but both chambers in Harrisburg. (To do that, they’ll need gains of nine House seats and four Senate seats). There’s reason to be optimistic: In 2018, Democrats flipped five Senate and 14 House seats. The House is more likely to flip than the Senate, but the fact this is even up for discussion shows you how much Democrats have gained in the four years since 2016.
We’ve selected four races — three Dems seeking to unseat a Republican incumbent, and one Republican taking on a Democratic incumbent — that should play a big role in the fight for Harrisburg.
The 9th Senatorial District candidates:
- John Kane. Democrat.
- Tom Killion. Republican. Incumbent.
The case for (and against) Kane: Kane brings a lot of personal experience to his policy focuses: A cancer survivor and recovered alcoholic, he cites affordable health care and tackling the opioid crisis as two of his most important issues. Last election cycle, Kane lost a race for the same state Senate seat by about four percent of the vote. Read more about his policies here.
The case for (and against) Killion: Killion served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for 13 years, then won a special election for state Senate in 2016. Before that, he worked as a stockbroker and a financial planner. His platform focuses on tax breaks and economic development. Read more about his policies here.
The 168th House District candidates:
- Deb Ciamacca. Democrat.
- Christopher Quinn. Republican. Incumbent.
The case for (and against) Ciamacca: A former Marine and public school teacher, Ciamacca quit her job to run for office after she was inspired by a former student who had done the same. Her policy focuses include safe and better-funded education, gun control, and a commitment to bipartisan cooperation. She recently penned an op-ed in Time titled, “I Was a Marine. Now I’m a Teacher. Don’t Give Me a Gun.” Read more about her policies here.
The case for (and against) Quinn: First elected to the 168th House District in 2016, Quinn has a background in insurance and industrial development. He co-sponsored a clean energy bill in the House that would require Pennsylvania to transition to 50 percent clean energy by 2050. (Tom Killion sponsored the same version of the bill in the Senate.) Read more about Quinn’s policies here.
The 160th House District candidates:
- Craig Williams. Republican.
- Anton Andrew. Democrat.
The case for (and against) Andrew: A child of two immigrants from the West Indies, Andrew has worked as a public defender and at Cheyney University. He first ran for this seat in 2018 against longtime Republican incumbent Stephen Barrar and lost. But now that Barrar is retiring and Andrew is running for the seat yet again, he’s the closest thing to an incumbent in the race. His policy priorities include fighting climate change, banning all assault weapons, and instituting universal background checks, and protecting abortion rights. Read more about his policies here.
The case for (and against) Williams: Williams has spent his career in the military and law enforcement. After 28 years in the Marine Corps, he served as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, focusing on terrorism, fraud and the drug trade. His focus is on combating the opioid crisis and increasing financial responsibility in the state government. Read more about his policies here.
The 143rd House District candidates:
- Wendy Ullman. Democrat. Incumbent.
- Shelby Labs. Republican.
The case for (and against) Ulman: Last year, Ulman became the first Democrat to represent the 143rd District since 1980. She’s brought the pork back to her Bucks County district, securing $4.7 million in state grants that have gone to schools, environmental protections, firefighters, and small farms in the district. Read more about her policies here.
The case for (and against) Labs: A former business attorney, Labs has promised on her campaign website to “hold the line on taxes” and “defend our quality of life.” Read more about her policies here.
This year there are four questions on the ballot for Philly voters to decide, running the gamut from symbolic to significant.
The first question proposes a modification to the City Charter that would “call on the police department to end the practice of unconstitutional stop-and-frisk.” Only one problem: The police department says it’s already working to end unconstitutional stop-and-frisk. Key word: unconstitutional. The police department still uses stop-and-frisk and claims it’s a viable strategy so long as stops only occur when there is reasonable suspicion.
Of course, there are those who think stop-and-frisk is inherently discriminatory and unconstitutional. The ACLU, which has been monitoring the district’s stop-and-frisk practices under a consent decree dating to 2011, continues to note that the district’s current stop-and-frisk practices disproportionately fall on Black Philadelphians. Black Philadelphians accounted for 71 percent of all stops in the second half of 2019, according to the latest ACLU report, and Black people were also 50 percent more likely than white people to be victims of unreasonable stops.
But as it relates to this ballot question, the proposal is essentially ordering the police to stop something they say they’ve already started to stop. Which is why this is ultimately a symbolic measure.
The second ballot question asks whether the city should create an Office of the Victim Advocate to help crime victims. That’s the kind of thing that sounds good in theory — who can oppose helping victims of crime? But not everyone in the city is supporting the ballot question. The progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia, for instance, claims that victim advocate offices have historically supported harsh sentencing laws and have generally opposed the most ambitious criminal justice reform efforts. The DA’s office and the Kenney administration, on the other hand, both support the proposal.
Ballot question three asks whether the city should create a new citizen’s police oversight commission, a proposal that came out of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The current Philly police oversight board is weak and underfunded; the new citizen’s police oversight board would, in theory, provide more teeth to police oversight in Philly, creating an agency on par with those in New York City and Chicago. But even if this ballot question passes, City Council will still have to determine the contours of the commission — including on the critical question of funding, which in other cities is tied to the police department budget, unlike Philly’s current oversight body.
The final ballot question asks whether Philly should issue $134 million in bonds to pay for capital projects that include infrastructure, parks, museums and the Streets Department. Ah, the age-old dilemma where voters are asked to choose between going into debt and funding such luxurious projects as parks and sanitation!
For more on the city’s ballot questions, check out the Committee of Seventy’s voter guide here.