This week’s primary election in Pennsylvania held several bright spots for working families, public education advocates, and those who value accountability for our politicians.
One victory was in the West Philadelphia House District 188, where incumbent Rep. James Roebuck faced a primary challenge from Fatimah Muhammad. Rep. Roebuck is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, and has been a major opponent of school vouchers and other forms of education privatization. This made him a target of the American Federation for Children (AFC), the big-money pro-voucher group headed by major right wing zillionaire Betsy DeVos, as well as Michelle Rhee’s anti-teacher PAC Students First.
“I see a move by essentially a handful of very wealthy people who want to privatize public education for a wide variety of reasons,” Lawrence Feinberg, co-chairman of the anti-voucher Keystone State Education Coalition, told the Philadelphia City Paper. “Not the least of which has to do with crushing labor unions, but they also want tax dollars going to private and religious schools.”
These out of state corporate-backed groups spent almost a $1 million on down-ballot races in Pennsylvania, littering Roebuck’s district with glossy mailers accusing him of hurting students – when in fact he has been protecting students and families from privatization, as well as fighting Gov. Corbett’s deep budget cuts:
Roebuck is even blamed for alleged widespread cheating on standardized tests at Philadelphia schools—cheating encouraged the by the high-stakes tests, which now play a decisive role in teacher evaluation and even a school’s survival, touted by these very same school reform advocates.
Like pro-voucher efforts nationwide, the Pennsylvania campaign conceals the corporate money behind local front groups. The word “voucher” does not appear in any of the attack ads.
Luckily, Working America organizers worked with brothers and sisters from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) to let West Philadelphians know about the money behind Muhammad and the truth of Rep. Roebuck’s record, on the phone and door-to-door. And despite the money spent against him, Roebuck pulled out a win with an 887 vote margin.
In another part of Philadelphia, Democrat Ed Neilson squared off with Republican Dave Kralle for an open seat in House District 169. With close votes on everything from education funding to voter suppression, an open House seat isn’t small potatoes, and the choice in the 169th was clear. Not only had Neilson advocated for workers as Deputy Secretary of Labor under Gov. Rendell, he also had been a union electrician, a lifelong member of IBEW Local 98. That’s right: Philly had the chance to send someone to the legislature who actually understood the perspective of the average working family.
It was tight, but in a District formerly represented by a Republican, the electrician engineered a 592 vote victory in this special election. Neilson and Kralle will face off again in November.
Lastly, in Western Pennsylvania, redistricting had forced two Democratic Congressmen to compete for the 12th Congressional District. Still, there was a clear contrast. Rep. Jason Altmire voted against the Affordable Care Act, which we know is an enormous boon to young people, seniors, and families seeking health care coverage. Altmire voted ‘no’ on health care even after telling his constituents it was a priority for him. Meanwhile, he voted for the Republican “Balanced Budget Amendment,” a right-wing measure that would have opened the door to cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
Working America worked with the United Steelworkers as part of the AFL-CIO’s Labor Program to get out the vote for Rep. Mark Critz, an advocate for job creation, workers’ rights, and protecting the social safety net. Because the way the map had been drawn, the area Critz had represented was only 27 percent of the new district, giving him a disadvantage. Still, when the two records were made clear, working Pennsylvanians chose Critz – the margin of victory was just over 1,000 votes, or one percent.
Working America will continue to work with our allies to ensure that the politicians we send to state houses and the U.S. Capitol have working families’ best interests in mind. Not only do these three narrow victories show that every single vote counts in every single race – it also gives us hope for the high-stakes elections later this year.