Leaders like Anton Andrew will be why Pennsylvania flips blue again

There are a few different paths that Democrats can take to win back the White House, but all of them require turning Pennsylvania blue. And to do that, Democrats need to continue what local leaders like Anton Andrew began in 2018: Reviving a moribund state party and energizing voters, turning long-time Republican strongholds into swing districts and Democratic victories up and down the ballot.

Democrats need just nine seats to take back the State House and pass laws like marijuana legalization and start funding schools again. Winning those districts will also translate into a Joe Biden victory, so the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The change is coming from the bottom up. In Andrew’s legislative district, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Democrats hadn’t even run a candidate throughout most of the last decade, with just two half-hearted campaigns between 2008 and 2016. In the wake of the Republicans’ sweep through Pennsylvania, Andrew, a former public defender and the chair of environmental and educational non-profits in the area, decided that he had to take action.

As a first-time candidate, he tapped his deep community ties and won the Democratic primary, then took on the long-time Republican incumbent. The state party refused to help, reasoning that he wouldn’t come close to winning. But Andrew was used to being told he couldn’t do something and using it to fuel his passion instead of snuffing it out.

He was born in the United States, where his parents were students at Howard University, but spent the first ten years of his life in Jamaica and Trinidad. Then they moved to Long Island, hoping to get Anton and his siblings a better education. On his first day at his new school, his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. When Andrew answered “a lawyer or politician,” the class erupted into laughter — teacher included.

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“It never occurred to me that [being black] was something like a permanent handicap, but one of my friends clued me in at lunchtime. He asked me, ‘Do you know of any black lawyers? Do you know of any black politicians?’” Andrew recalls. “I remember at that moment thinking, well, we’re going to change that.”

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Fast forward several decades and Andrew was an accomplished lawyer and educator running a grassroots campaign out in the suburbs. He knocked on thousands of doors himself, determined to turn the political tide. Even without the Democratic Party’s help, Andrew came within just 800 votes (or 2.5%) of upsetting the GOP representative in 2018 of District 160, a shockingly close result.

Now, Andrew is running again to finish the job. He’s such a formidable candidate, in fact, that the Republican he nearly unseated decided to just up and retire, leaving Andrew with an even better shot of winning the seat. That he won the Democratic nomination again by over 20 points after a slim victory in 2018 is a very good start. An endorsement from President Barack Obama and a nice fundraising total thus far only help.

The day I spoke to Andrew, he was getting ready to go speak with the local police union, hoping to receive their endorsement. At first, I was surprised to hear that, considering both his party affiliation and everything I knew about his politics and past. But as he explained to me, he’s a coalition builder with enough credibility to reach out to seemingly opposite sides.

Andrew spent years as a public defender in Miami, a career he pursued after seeing some of his Black and brown friends at Penn arrested by cops for no obvious reason and unable to pay for their own private defense. When he moved with his wife and young children to Pennsylvania, where they had no paid public defender positions, he did it in a volunteer capacity as he worked for Cheyney University, the oldest HBCU. Where Andrew lives in Pennsylvania, police had joined in with protestors during the Black Lives Matter marches, leaving him hopeful that change is possible.

“I absolutely think we need to reform the police,” he says. “We need to re-fund social agencies — as a public defender working in Miami, coming up with those alternatives to incarceration, I was really lucky to have a team of social workers, educators, and health professionals to help. Those groups barely exist within the criminal justice system anymore.”

Along with police reform, Andrew is passionate about the environment — he’s on the board of trustees at his local chapter of the Nature Conservancy — and is, like any responsible citizen, very concerned with how the state recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Legalizing and taxing marijuana, as Gov. Tom Wolf proposed, is near the top of his list, as is closing the loophole that allows many of the state’s businesses to incorporate in neighboring Delaware and avoid taxes. Education is key, as well — Andrew also works at an educational resource center.

The goal is to ensure that no Black child gets laughed at when they say they want to be a lawyer, but instead, they get every opportunity to make that dream come true.

“This might be the moment where me being a black candidate in an all-white district, I can lean into that, and I have been leaning into that,” Andrew says. “And the polling is showing that the residents of the district are buying into it. I’m very happy about having the opportunity to be completely authentic, and have that be to my advantage.”

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