On the campaign trail in the 179th district

  • The race is on: State Rep. James Clay Jr. (pictured) is being challenged by Jason Dawkins for the 179th Pennsylvania House seat. The district stretches to Olney and Feltonville from eight divisions in Mayfair through Wissinoming, Frankford, Northwood and Oxford Circle.

  • The race is on: State Rep. James Clay Jr. is being challenged by Jason Dawkins (pictured) for the 179th Pennsylvania House seat. The district stretches to Olney and Feltonville from eight divisions in Mayfair through Wissinoming, Frankford, Northwood and Oxford Circle. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

The Demo­crat­ic Party primary on May 20 should be an in­ter­est­ing one, es­pe­cially in the Lower North­east, where there are a few con­tested races. One of them is for the 179th Pennsylvania House seat now held by fresh­man state Rep. James Clay Jr. 

The dis­trict stretches to Ol­ney and Felton­ville from eight di­vi­sions in May­fair through Wissi­nom­ing, Frank­ford, North­wood and Ox­ford Circle. More than 60 per­cent of the dis­trict’s roughly 65,000 res­id­ents are black, with the re­mainder split between His­pan­ics and whites.

Clay, who won an un­con­tested primary in 2012 after three-term in­cum­bent Tony Payton Jr. was knocked off the bal­lot, is be­ing chal­lenged by Jason Dawkins. Dawkins worked as an aide to City Coun­cil­wo­man Maria Quinones Sanc­hez, whose 7th Dis­trict in­cludes Frank­ford. He resigned his city job to run against Clay.

Dawkins’ chal­lenge was no sur­prise, Clay said earli­er this year. The rep­res­ent­at­ive said Dawkins told him in 2012 that he would run against him.

The 34-year-old law­maker has lived for about a year on the 900 block of Her­bert Street in North­wood. Be­fore that, he was born, raised and lived on the 1800 block of Mar­garet Street in Frank­ford. Dawkins, 30, is a lifelong res­id­ent of the 4600 block of Lesh­er Street in Frank­ford. The Clay cam­paign, however, main­tained he has lived else­where, and un­suc­cess­fully tried to boot Dawkins off the bal­lot.

There was a third Demo­crat in the primary race. However, Dav­id Hall was kicked off the bal­lot when Clay suc­cess­fully chal­lenged his nom­in­at­ing pe­ti­tions.

Both Dawkins and Clay have church, school, fam­ily and so­cial ties in Frank­ford, and both see in­creased edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies as key to im­prov­ing the lives of the 179th dis­trict’s res­id­ents. Both men at­ten­ded Hard­ing Middle School and Frank­ford High.

Neither man fa­vors dis­mant­ling the state’s Li­quor Con­trol Board or selling the Pennsylvania Lot­tery.

As a fresh­man le­gis­lat­or, Clay in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion aimed at in­creas­ing edu­ca­tion fund­ing. Along with state Rep. Ros­ita Young­blood, Clay backed a bill that would im­pose a 5-per­cent fee on state lot­tery win­nings in ad­di­tion to any taxes on them. He said that bill could raise up to $500 mil­lion for edu­ca­tion spend­ing. Dawkins sup­ports pla­cing a 10-per­cent tax on the com­pan­ies ex­tract­ing nat­ur­al gas from the state’s Mar­cel­lus Shale re­gion. If such a tax be­came law now, Dawkins said, it would bring in $2 bil­lion be­fore 2020.

Dawkins said more state money needs to be spent on Phil­adelphia schools. He said he is so dis­sat­is­fied with the city’s pub­lic schools that he en­rolled his son in Frank­ford Friends School.


“As a neigh­bor­hood guy, I un­der­stand the needs of the dis­trict, and will con­tin­ue to give the sin­cerest ef­forts to do all I can to im­prove the qual­ity of life here in my dis­trict, the city and the com­mon­wealth,” Clay said.

Dawkins said an of­fice­hold­er has to come up with ways to help people. You can be called on to join a protest, pay someone’s rent … help, he said. “You have to make that de­cision as a hu­man be­ing, not just as a le­gis­lat­or. There’s no can’ts … You have to fig­ure out how.” As a law­maker, Dawkins said, “You need to come up with policy to fur­ther the agenda of the people in your dis­trict.”

In that re­gard, Clay is ready­ing le­gis­la­tion that fo­cuses on hous­ing for re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dicts, a real hot-but­ton is­sue in Frank­ford. So-called re­cov­ery homes, which Clay says are far too nu­mer­ous in Frank­ford, will be defined and con­trolled un­der le­gis­la­tion Clay is push­ing. Clay said he has noth­ing against re­cov­ery, but not all of the 250 re­cov­ery houses he says are loc­ated in Frank­ford are ac­tu­ally set up to help ad­dicts. Some are just room­ing houses, a fact that gives real re­cov­ery homes a bad repu­ta­tion in the neigh­bor­hood. 

This isn’t just a Frank­ford worry, Clay ad­ded. “This is a prob­lem across the city,” he said.

Dawkins said he hasn’t read Clay’s bill. “I don’t know if it’s even ser­i­ous,” he said. “The is­sue is not re­cov­ery … The is­sue is poverty, deep poverty.” Most of the dis­trict is poor.

No mat­ter which neigh­bor­hood guy rep­res­ents the dis­trict, what’s clear is that he will have to work with 202 oth­er le­gis­lat­ors, most of whom are Re­pub­lic­ans. The GOP has the ma­jor­ity in the state House and Sen­ate, and that doesn’t seem likely to change.

Dawkins said he will make sure every single House mem­ber knows his name, and knows it quickly. “I will in­tro­duce my­self and find something in com­mon” with the oth­er le­gis­lat­ors, he said. 

Clay, now fin­ish­ing up his first term, said he’s ac­com­plished that already.

“I won’t be a fresh­man le­gis­lat­or this time around,” Clay said. Dur­ing his first term, he said, he ob­served and learned how the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess works.

His party will re­main in the minor­ity, so “learn­ing how (and bet­ter yet, who) to deal with on the oth­er side of the aisle when it comes to provid­ing for my con­stitu­ents will be key,” Clay said.

Both can­did­ates said they’re out in the neigh­bor­hoods, try­ing to get the voters’ at­ten­tion. Clay has been cam­paign­ing door-to-door and “get­ting to know the people who don’t know me,” he said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at his Frank­ford Av­en­ue cam­paign of­fice.

Dawkins, who also has a Frank­ford Av­en­ue cam­paign of­fice, is walk­ing the dis­trict, knock­ing on doors and meet­ing the people he hopes will be his con­stitu­ents.

“I’m work­ing on my third pass,” he said in mid-April. “I hope to get to a fourth. … I want to get in front of as many people as pos­sible.” Some­times, he said, he gets some at­ti­tude from voters who think he’s got some nerve run­ning against Tony Payton Jr., whom they tell him they like very much. He said he has to ex­plain to them he likes Payton, too, but Payton’s not their state rep any­more and he isn’t in the race.

This shows, Dawkins said, that Clay isn’t well-known. “Out­side of the 23rd Ward [in Frank­ford] they’ve nev­er heard of the in­cum­bent,” Dawkins said.

Clay, on the oth­er hand, said his Frank­ford Av­en­ue le­gis­lat­ive of­fice has served more than 7,000 res­id­ents.

Voter turnout in the 179th Le­gis­lat­ive Dis­trict is sure to be low. It al­most al­ways is, and even though there are nu­mer­ous can­did­ates in the gubernat­ori­al primary and a three-way race for a loc­al state Sen­ate nom­in­a­tion, there’s no reas­on to be­lieve there will be long lines at the polls on May 20.

Clay said he ex­pects 30 to 40 per­cent of the voters to turn out. That might be op­tim­ist­ic. When Clay ran un­op­posed in 2012, he got more than 19,000 votes in the gen­er­al elec­tion. However, primary turnout was about 2,900, ac­cord­ing to Clay’s cam­paign man­ager, Thomas Neilson. ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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