Pa. primary 2022: Candidates of color need more party support

Many of the candidates speaking to Spotlight PA described an uphill battle as they had few resources and a lack of “traditional” political experience, making it difficult to navigate the party system and gather support or funds. Non-white candidates often face “viability” issues that their white counterparts do not have.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Taveras began volunteering for political campaigns two years ago and helped organize for various Latina candidates.

She described “layers” of qualifications that must be considered viable candidates — prerequisites such as an internship for lawmakers or a degree in political science — that may be less accessible to immigrants or low-income nonwhite people.

Taveras emphasized that first-time candidates do not necessarily have to be inexperienced. Rather, their experiences differ from those of “traditional” politicians. However, this lack of traditional experience makes it harder to attract potential endorsements and donations.

Yesenia Rodriguez is the only Democrat to run in the State House District 116 primary. The district was drawn without an incumbent and includes the Latino-majority city of Hazleton.

Rodriguez immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 14 and owns a bakery in Hazleton, where she has lived since 2004. She became involved in local politics after learning of a lack of bilingual counselors in the Hazleton Area School District, where her children were enrolled. The issue led to her unsuccessful candidacy for a school board position in 2019.

“I think there’s always a challenge coming from the Latinx community,” Rodriguez said. “[Voters] Think of it as ‘this candidate will only represent the Latino community.’”

During her campaign, Rodriguez received no direct financial support from Lucerne’s Democratic Party, but she said the party provided volunteers to help with phone calls.

“You have to do your job, knock on everyone’s door, make phone calls and do your job as a candidate … but you also need money. You need money so you can make it [TV] Ads, radio ads, the newspaper,” Rodriguez said. “Funding is always an issue and usually those who get the funding from the big companies can be more successful.

“But it’s not all. I plan to go there this summer and knock on every door for my district if I have to.”

Running for state office often costs millions of dollars. General elections cover smaller areas, but campaigns still spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars buying ads, paying staff and conducting court cases. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer)

A need for campaign funds, connections

Running for state office often costs millions of dollars. General elections cover smaller areas, but campaigns still spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars buying ads, paying staff and conducting court cases.

According to campaign finance reports, only two of the six candidates Spotlight PA spoke to raised more than $10,000 between early 2021 and early May 2022.

Norberto Dominguez, a writer who also works in private security, was one of three Democrats to declare his nomination in State House District 22 and the only Latino. The district includes Allentown, has no incumbent, and has a 53% Hispanic and 67% minority voter composition.

Legislative candidates had less than two weeks to circulate nominating petitions and gather signatures on redistricting lawsuits, and Dominguez rushed to local grocery stores and barbershops to attend the vote.

The morning the petitions were due, he nervously drove to Harrisburg, having collected just over the 300 or more signatures required. He later withdrew his candidacy, saying he wasn’t sure the filing of the petition would stand if challenged. He did not have the resources to face a challenge in court.

“Part of me feels like if I had had the funds to pay a good attorney to deal specifically with elections, we might have gotten away with a couple 300+,” Dominguez said.

Before his retirement, Dominguez’s campaign grossed just over $1,000. The candidate who won the Democratic primary — Josh Siegel, an Allentown City Council member who is also chief of staff in the Lehigh County Controller’s Office — has raised over $42,000, including large donations from unions and local businesses.

Similarly, Taveras’ campaign reported raising just over $2,500, most of which was raised by a single donor. Her two opponents raised more than 20 times that amount, according to their campaign financial reports.

One opponent, Allentown school board member Nick Miller, loaned his campaign $20,000 and received contributions from local politicians, unions and PACs. Another candidate, Northampton County Commissioner Tara Zrinski, received $20,000 from a PAC supporting female candidates, among other large donations.

In Harrisburg, Fleming raised over $106,000, according to his campaign financial reports, a sum he attributed in part to his existing political connections.

He received money from the PACs of George Scott, a former State Senate nominee, and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia). Fleming also received a $10,000 donation in kind from the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, the “political arm” of the House Democratic Caucus, for “personnel expenses.”

Fleming was the only candidate Spotlight PA spoke to who received financial support from his party’s official campaign organization.

“These were like connections and people that I worked with in the Commonwealth, the people that I worked with in various government affairs capacities,” Fleming said. “That was quite unique — for me, to have that base or perceived base of support that I can draw from as a first-time candidate at that level.”

While opportunity districts offer good starts, Dominguez believes that not enough is being done to guide black candidates through the process and that mainstream political organizations and party institutions are not providing enough support for nonwhite candidates.

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