The Best Way to Turn Pennsylvania Blue in 2020

As always, the 2020 election will hinge on Pennsylvania. So how can we turn it blue?

The State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania provided voting rights advocates three big wins on Thursday. First, the court ruled that the state must count all absentee ballots postmarked by November 3rd so long as they arrive by that Friday. Second, it authorized the placement of ballot drop boxes around the state to make it easier to vote. Third, the court kicked the Green Party off the ballot, which means ballots can be sent to voters.

These big victories come at a crucial time. Joe Biden has a significant lead in national polls, but the popular vote is as good as a participation trophy right now. In the states that he has to win, the former veep has a much smaller lead, and in some, he’s got smaller leads than what Hillary Clinton had in September 2016.

Pennsylvania is one of the states where some polls show Biden scuffling. The native son of Scranton should be a shoo-in for the state, but nothing makes sense anymore. So, what can we do? We can’t control Trump’s onslaught of outright lies, but we can make a big difference.

By helping down-ballot candidates, we’ll be powering the GOTV efforts for Biden, as well. Plus, Democrats are just nine seats away from flipping the State House, and given how many close races there were in 2018, turning it blue this year is very, very doable. If we do that, we end gerrymandering in the state, pass progressive policies, and expand voting rights permanently.

Here’s a breakdown of the five most contested State House races this November — if you want to help, you can donate to 10 Pennsylvania Democratic candidates via the button below!

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State House District 49: While Democrats lost this district by just 11 votes in 2018, the party somehow managed to let a cranky Facebook racist take the nomination unopposed. They denounced the cranky Facebook racist (his name is Randy Barli) in July and now Dems are leaving District 49 as a painfully missed opportunity. I thought I’d highlight this just to show how much work we have to do in state and local parties.

State House District 168: After getting smoked by 13 points in 2016 and not even running a candidate here in 2014, Democrats fell just 450 votes short of flipping this seat in 2018. This year, after a spirited primary, Dems nominated Deb Ciamacca. She is a teacher who was initially inspired to run by one of her own former students, Del. Chris Hurst, who ran for the Virginia House of Delegates after his girlfriend, a reporter, was killed on live TV.

State House District 105: This is one of my favorite races of the year because it truly crystallizes the difference between the two parties. GOP Rep. Andrew Lewis is a very corrupt, self-dealing, union-busting construction company owner who showed up to the Capitol building in Harrisburg while he was infected with COVID-19. Even worse, he didn’t tell Democrats or Capitol employees for days, putting lives at risk.

Lewis won by just over 500 votes last year and now faces a very formative opponent. Brittney Rodas is a smart and passionate 25-year-old legislative staffer and mother of two who is running for office after her father was more or less killed by the state’s healthcare laws. I interviewed her earlier this year — check it out here!

State House District 178: Another race that was decided by just over 500 votes in 2018. This year, Democrats are running an attorney named Ann Marie Mitchell in this Bucks County district. She clearly has a good ground game going — she earned over 1000 votes more in the primary than incumbent Rep. Wendi Thomas. This is a county that’s turning blue very quickly, though they lost a COVID-marred special election in the area in March.

State House District 144: Republican Rep. Valerie Gaydos won this Pittsburgh-area seat by less than 2% in 2018 and she seems determined to thin out the eligible voting population with her response to COVID-19. She, along with a couple dozen other Republicans, urged local district attorneys not to enforce Gov. Tom Wolf’s business shutdown orders when the virus began ravaging the state. Just last week, she railed against the legislature for not voting to override Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency disaster measure. Gaydos is facing a rematch against Democrat Michele Knoll, a teacher and school board director.

State House District 160: Here’s another race featuring a Progressives Everywhere endorsee. Anton Andrew is really a dream candidate, an incredibly passionate public defender and educator who has worked for environmental and educational non-profits for decades. He lost by just over 800 votes in 2018 and has been organizing ever since, ready to finish the job of flipping this long-time Republican seat. You can read my interview with Andrew here!

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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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Pennsylvania’s COVID-bomb Republican has an inspiring opponent

On May 27th, Pennsylvania State Rep. Andrew Lewis (HD-105) publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19… on May 18th. While Lewis told his GOP colleagues about his illness, the press release was the first time Democrats who serve at the State House were informed that their colleague may have exposed them to the extremely contagious, extremely deadly virus.

That brazen display of deadly selfishness should tell you all you need to know about Lewis, who has spent most of the pandemic fighting to reopen Pennsylvania’s construction sites so that his family’s non-union construction business can resume work. Just about any Democrat would be better than Lewis, who won by just 500 votes in 2018, and his opponent in this November’s election, Brittney Rodas, is far more than just any run-of-the-mill Democrat.

Just 25-years-old, Rodas has a deep understanding of the government’s complex inner-workings. She worked as a policy analyst in the state legislature beginning in college, working with fellow Democrats to meet with constituents and draft new rules and laws that touched the everyday lives of people across the state. What inspired her to run in this very swingy Harrisburg-area district, however, was the death of her father, a former steelworker and Vietnam veteran. With his passing, Rodas experienced first-hand the very real consequences constituents face when the state falls short of its promises.

CLICK HERE to donate to Brittney Rodas’s campaign via Progressives Everywhere’s ActBlue page!

“My dad died in July last year after he struggled for a lot of his life with health care,” Rodas tells Progressives Everywhere. “And a lot of those struggles were because of his time in the service. He had COPD and all these other underlying issues. So I had been fighting for insurance for him through [government programs]. Ultimately, he made $7 over the Medicaid limit, which meant he couldn’t afford prescription drugs. When he died, I felt like the system had failed him and I had spent all of my time working for this system.”

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This little-known Philadelphia office is a key to voter turnout in 2020

The road to the White House will, as always, run through Pennsylvania in 2020. A swing state at every other level, Pennsylvania had gone blue in every presidential election since 1988 before Donald Trump swung it Republican in 2016, a shocking victory that has largely been chalked up to his strength in the state’s suburbs and more rural counties. But it wasn’t just his own campaign’s strengths that won him the Keystone State — just as crucial was the drop in turnout in urban areas, including Philadelphia.

Sure, Hillary Clinton won 82% of the vote in Philly, but percentages can be misleading — she beat Trump by about 35,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign. Turnout was down in the city’s less affluent wards, and while some of the blame certainly falls on the Clinton campaign, the city itself also deserves some heat for ongoing voting issues.

Even in the 2018 election, when Democrats won some big elections in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia ranked 63rd out of 67 counties in voter turnout. It’s a troubling number, especially in a big city that could use a lot more democracy. And as much as grassroots organizations can work to register and turn out voters, the onus is also on the city to make voting much more accessible. That is the job of the City Commissioner’s office, which oversees Philadelphia’s elections and runs its voter education programs.

So, how do we help reform that little-known but absolutely crucial office? Enter Jen Devor, a long-time community organizer and committeeperson for the city’s 36th ward. She has been working to build grassroots power within Philadelphia’s working communities for over a decade. The Commissioner’s office consists of three members, including two for the majority (Democratic) party, and she’s running in a crowded primary on the idea of turning it into a year-round outreach and education operation, to rekindle democracy in the city and ultimately increase turnout.

Progressives Everywhere spoke with Devor about her campaign, the issues with Philadelphia’s voting system, and how she plans on fixing them.

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Iowa’s governor tries to steal a legislature seat, PA schedules three special elections

It’s getting to the point that cheap tricks and voter suppression are the only tools that Republicans have to consistently win elections. Take the upcoming special election for the Iowa State Senate, for example. Democratic State Sen. Jeff Danielson resigned in mid-February, triggering a special election in the state’s 30th State Senate district. Newly elected Gov. Kim Reynolds decided to schedule it on March 19th, which just so happens to coincide with the University of Northern Iowa’s spring break.

Here’s a breakdown of just why she did that, via Bleeding Heartland:

Normally, governors are required to give at least 45 days’ notice of a special election to fill a seat in the Iowa House or Senate. But because this vacancy arose during the legislative session, state law says “the governor shall order such special election at the earliest practical time, giving at least eighteen days’ notice.” Reynolds could have set the vote for March 12, but she picked the following Tuesday.

UNI is a huge presence in the district, and Reynolds’ decision to schedule the election earlier than necessary will effectively stop many students from voting. That’s a huge blow to Democratic nominee Eric Giddens, who is a member of the Cedar Falls School Board and has made supporting public education one of his main campaign priorities.

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