After Pennsylvania Redistricting, Democratic Party Leaders Try to Pick Their Own Primary Winner

Betty Jane Hansen, 91, casts her vote at the volunteer fire department during Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District special election on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images)Betty Jane Hansen, 91, casts her vote at the volunteer fire department during Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district special election on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

After the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled that congressional district lines throughout the state were “unconstitutional,” and ordered them to be redrawn, Democratic Party leaders are looking to capitalize in congressional districts where the political demographics now favor Democrats.

The shift of Pennsylvania’s 5th congressional district from one safe for Republicans to one that is now strong for Democrats has incited a flood of 14 Democratic candidates vying for the Party’s nomination there. Hillary Clinton won the originally drawn district by 2 percentage points, but the newly drawn district by 28 points — the most dramatic shift of all 18 congressional districts caused by Pennsylvania’s redistricting, which has favored Democrats overall.

In the 5th district’s Democratic primary, Delaware County Democratic Party leaders are bracing to clash with Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a politically powerful union based in Philadelphia that is backing one of their allies, Rich Lazer. The union has spent $500,000 on Republican candidates in the county, where Republicans have historically dominated.

In a March 7 email, Delaware County Democratic Committee Chairman David Landau outlines an interview process meant to “reach a consensus on the best candidate.” In contrast, however, the Delaware County Democratic Committee will formally endorse their preferred candidate. Landau said the large field of primary candidates poses a challenge that the County Democratic Committee wants to reduce by directly determining who is the best candidate for the district.

In another email sent out on March 26, the Delaware County Democratic Committee released six candidates they recommended in the race leading up to a nominating convention to be held on April 8. The recommended candidates included George Badey, Shelly Chauncey, Thaddeus Kirkland, Ashley Lunkenheimer, Dan Muroff and Mary Gay Scanlon.

The Delaware County Democratic Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The newly drawn 5th congressional district in Pennsylvania includes all of Delaware County and parts of south Philadelphia, southwestern Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pennsylvania) has represented the district since 2008, though the redrawn district borders have turned it 13 percentage points in favor of Democrats, according to the Cook Partisan Index.

Representative Meehan announced his retirement in January 2018 shortly after reports surfaced that he used taxpayer money to settle a sexual misconduct complaint made against him by a former aide.

As the Delaware County Democrats look to back their own candidate in opposition to a powerful, politically-tied union in Philadelphia, progressives and other candidates outside the county are caught in the crossfire.

“I went into my endorsement interview knowing that I wouldn’t be recommended by the committee, because a young Chinese-American woman isn’t exactly their idea of an ideal candidate. Indeed, during the interview, I shared my prediction with them, which none of them even bothered to deny,” said Lindy Li, a Princeton Graduate running for the 5th district, in an interview with Truthout. “Voters should choose their elected officials without the machine interfering.” Li, at 27 years old, would be the youngest member of congress if elected.

“It is an evolving process and we’re still not sure what process they’re going to use to make an endorsement,” said Molly Sheehan, a Democratic candidate backed by Our Revolution-Southeast Pennsylvania running in the 5th district. “One of the biggest concerns we are hearing from committee people is they are going to release their recommended list of candidates at the same time as the criteria they are using to select those candidates, so there’s no room for community feedback even from committee members and there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with that process.”

A medical researcher with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Sheehan is running on single-payer and campaign-finance reform. She currently resides just outside of the district with her in-laws who help with child care, but she owns a house in the Philadelphia portion of the district, where she has lived for seven years. She and Dan Muroff are the only candidates who were filed to run in the race prior to the court-mandated redistricting that made the race more competitive for Democrats. Muroff lives in Delaware County and served as a legislative staffer to four congressional representatives, including chief of staff to Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Massachusetts). Michael Capuano (MA-08)

“The wins in 2017 happened because the resistance was activated…. They had a lot of people excited to work for the candidates who had stepped up to run. They need to make sure those people stay engaged by having an open democratic process that actually engages the community,” Sheehan said.