PA-4 Senate Race Running Under the Radar Screen and Difficult to Gauge

There’s been an unusual primary race brewing in PA’s fourth Senatorial District since candidate petitions were filed on March 11. Two challengers already were set to battle incumbent Democratic veteran legislator LeAnna Washington when posing a credible challenge to an incumbent in these parts is almost unprecedented. And then on March 12 the political earth moved in PA-4 when criminal charges were filed against Washington for diverting state resources to past re-election campaigns.

Challengers Brian Gralnick, an activist with a career in the non-profit world and Cheltenham Township Ward 2 Comr. Art Haywood are running to unseat Washington, who has served in the Senate since 2005 and before that in the House from 1993. Oddly, all three candidates reside in Cheltenham, with Washington having moved in recently.

Yet with about a month before the May 20 primary, the political battlefront has been barely within earshot. In party political circles, of course, plenty of notice was taken, but whether much interest has taken root in the primary electorate is an open question. None of the party committees in Montgomery County have made endorsements in the race, although Washington has picked up support from the Philadelphia regular party organization in Wards 9,12,17 and 22, according to her campaign manager, Derek Green.

Representing a population of more than 250,000 people spanning SE Montgomery County and NW Philadelphia, while serving in a legislative body of only 50 members statewide, a senator from PA-4, as well as any of the other 49, is in some sense by definition a force to be reckoned with in Harrisburg and locally. That is, whether or not voters are paying attention.

“I’ve been out canvassing. . . and people are just unaware that there are races going on,” lamented Cheltenham Democratic Committeeperson Ken Mirsky. “It’s difficult to break through the lack of press coverage. People are generally uninformed and uninterested. In off-years, unfortunately, so many people don’t think these races are important,” he continued. “It’s why you have such a drop-off in voting.” In fact, Mirsky contends races in years like this one are “almost more important” than presidential contests. Those on the state level, for governor and the legislature, affects “every-day matters,” he said, pointing to hot button issues in PA like education and voting rights. “There are so many things, yet people don’t seem to care.” Mirsky suggested that another possible cause of voter disaffection is the lack of civics and politics studied in schools, especially with the more recent emphasis on standardized tests.

The Cheltenham activist was also firm in his belief that the problem of the lack of voter engagement was not necessarily a reflection on the candidates, especially not in this year’s Fourth District Senate race. “The candidates that I know have been working very hard to get their name out and their message out, but it’s difficult.” The obstacles to reaching voters are formidable, as any candidate or activist knows (the yield for door knocking, for instance, tends to be less than one in ten), including the fact that there are often no forums for local races such as this one, where voters can take the measure of candidates facing off on the issues and making pitches for their personal effectiveness.

Last October the possibility of Washington’s legal troubles first surfaced when investigators from the state Attorney General’s office with warrants seized documents and other materials from her Roslyn and Philadelphia district offices. The fact that she has been charged is no clear indication that she can’t win, according to most election professionals. Of course, Washington could eventually be cleared, win or lose.

Citizens’ Call spoke to two of the three campaigns, both of which said they are actively reaching out to voters. “Every night we’re doing two or three events so it’s a voluminous amount of activities on the Philadelphia side and on the Montgomery County side,” said Green. She’s having an active campaign, she’s running for re-election and every event she’s asking people for their support. . . to continue to do the things that she’s done over the years by providing resources back to her constituents.” He also said the campaign was having a “rally” this Saturday at Center in the Park on Germantown Ave. Green chose not to respond to a question on how Washington deals with the criminal charges she faces while on the stump.

But the local perception of the Washington campaign has been largely one of quiet, somewhat in keeping with the sense of some observers that her general visibility in the suburbs has been no match for it in her Philadelphia wards. Still, the candidate has attended a number of gatherings of party regulars, including the recent Area 9 Awards Dinner, Cheltenham, Abington Rockledge and Springfield Democratic Committee meetings, as well as an Abington Rockledge fundraiser, said Green. In addition, as an early backer of the Marjorie Margolies PA-13 campaign for Congress, Washington attended the Margolies fundraiser at the Warwick Hotel in Center City featuring Bill Clinton last week. However, sources say it is rare that Washington speaks publicly at events like those.

On the issues, education is one being emphasized by all three candidates. Green calls it Washington’s “number one” issue. Throughout her public career, Washington has focused on improved social services, especially for children and women suffering abuse. Washington’s own background includes both.

However, both Gralnick and Haywood have stressed that a particular Washington education vote was a major impetus for their decisions to oppose her. In late 2011, Washington voted yes on SB 1, a Senate bill that would provide taxpayer-funded allotments – vouchers – to low-income students in the worst schools in the state for use at a public or private school. While the press and public officials consistently referred to the bill, which was never passed in the House, as a “voucher” bill, the Washington camp maintains that “Sen. Washington did not vote for a voucher bill.” When asked, Green did not provide an explanation. Washington is on record as having voted in favor of SB 1, which opponents said would be another step toward stripping public schools of vital funding.

“She (Washington) can say what she wants to but the facts and the record is clear that she gave up on public education,” said Gralnick. “She gave up on public education when she supported and co-sponsored a voucher bill and she gave up on public education when she didn’t even bother to show up in Harrisburg to vote on $45 million for Philadelphia public schools,” a vote that occurred without her participation in July of 2013.

Gralnick told Citizens’ Call he is meeting voters in a variety of ways, including going door-to-door, speaking at small gatherings, talking with clergy, assisting with voter registration and attending party functions. He said he would welcome any candidate forum that would provide an opportunity to get his message acrosss, but does not expect one to turn up in the remaining weeks of the campaign.

Gralnick continues to emphasize issues around public education, economic opportunity and strengthening the middle class, he said. His campaign office is on the third floor of an office building on Rydal Road at Susquehanna in Abington.

Candidate Haywood did not return numerous phone calls and emails requesting comment on his campaign. According to the campaign’s facebook page, he has been endorsed by The Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club and has been active in attending political and community gatherings. His campaign office is in Elkins Park East, across from the Walgreen’s pharmacy.

An opportunity to meet informally the Democratic candidates for Senate and other offices will be at the Cheltenham Democratic Committee’s “Chili, Chat & Chomp” set for 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, May 9 at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 235 Limekiln Pike in Glenside. But it will cost you – $50 to get in ($55 at the door). For more info., call 215-576-0776.

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