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.
POINTS OF VIEW
“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. ••