If Thursday night’s GRASP candidates forum at Second District Brewing Company is any indication, the contest between incumbent Larry Farnese and political newcomer Nikil Saval (a newcomer to running for office, at least, since Saval is a co-founder of Reclaim Philadelphia) for Pennsylvania’s 1st Senatorial District is shaping up to be one to see who can appeal most to South Philly’s budding progressive wing. It’s an interesting argument to make for Farnese, who will have to out-liberal a competitor whose political organization is largely responsible for the election of candidates such as Joe Hohenstein, Elizabeth Fiedler and, of course, Larry Krasner. But he’s going for it.
“One thing about me that has never changed is my progressive values,” said Farnese. “Even before I ran for the state legislature, I was a patient escort at Planned Parenthood, and I took those values to Harrisburg. I ran on a platform of reform.”
Farnese was progressive before progressive was cool, he argued.
“You may remember in 2011, [the state Senate] tried to give a sweetheart deal to the gas industry for up in Pike County with that cracker plant – about $66 million a year over 25 years,” said Farnese. “I was a no on that.” In his opening statement, he also touched on his unrelenting support of the environment, the LGBT community, affordable housing, women’s rights, Medicaid expansion and bike lanes. He got particularly loud applause for his efforts to spearhead a bill that makes it easier to implement protected bike lanes on state-owned roads. Even Saval clapped along with those in the audience.
Saval, not feeling the need to prove his progressive stances to anybody, took a different approach in his opening statement at Second District Brewing, 1939 S. Bancroft St.
He focused more on his personal history. He was a journalist at the New York Times and, until recently, wrote a column for The New Yorker on urbanism, city planning and architecture and design. He bikes and rides SEPTA a lot. He was an organizer with UNITE Here, a union of hospitality workers that represents hotel workers in the district, including cafeteria workers and workers in the sports complex. He organized 40 people to run as committee people in the 2nd Ward, which he had been the leader of until he resigned to run in this race.
“We transformed the ward,” he said. “We won the ward entirely, and I was elected ward leader.”
Subsequently, the ward became an open ward, which means its committee people vote on whom the ward endorses in local elections. (For the record, Farnese was quick to mention later in the night that the 8th Ward, which he’s the leader of, has been an open ward since 1972.) But Saval capped off his opening statement with the centerpiece of his campaign: A Green New Deal for housing.
“That would build dense, multi-family affordable housing near transit,” he said of his plan, which includes rebuilding and greening every school in the district. “I want to expand our transit infrastructure and expand our bike infrastructure and make that part of our Green New Deal platform.”
The first question of the night was about making Philadelphia’s elections “more fair and representative of all the residents” in the city.
Farnese cited open wards, early voting and early registration as potential solutions.
“I think we have to work on those issues, and I think we have to make sure we have access to candidates throughout every level of the process,” he said.
Saval sort of disagreed with the premise of the question.
“What I’ve seen from my work in the 2nd Ward and my work with Reclaim Philadelphia is that people do not simply turn out based on demographics,” he said. “It turns out that if you actually knock doors and canvas and have people spoken to on their values and what their stake is in an election and you have candidates that matter, that’s how people turn out to vote.” He added that the state should adopt same-day registration and open primaries.
From there, the conversation moved along to the city’s opioid abuse problem. Both Farnese and Saval voiced support for safe injection sites. Saval tied the opioid issue in with the war on drugs, which he called the “penumbra” around the opioid issue. (Can you tell he wrote for The New Yorker?)
“We should end mandatory minimums,” he said. “Our system of mass incarceration at least in part is predicated on the war on drugs, and the opioid crisis is a part of that. So I support safe consumption sites and [ending] mandatory minimums for drug offenses and also support life-saving medications for people in prison who actually suffer deaths from overdoses.”
Farnese said he supported the governor’s decision to declare a state of emergency over the opioid problem. He piggybacked on Saval’s talk of criminal justice reform.
“When folks come out of incarceration, they come out with either addiction or other types of issues,” he said. “We have to make sure that we have services in place to help them when they get out. They come out sometimes, they don’t have an opportunity to get a medical card. They don’t have an opportunity to get medication that they actually need while they’re incarcerated.”
When moderators moved on to questions about the best way to fund services in the state, Farnese jumped at the chance to say no to a sales tax increase, which he said often comes up at the state level. He called it a regressive tax. He said the state should “take a serious look at” raising the personal income tax rate, which hasn’t been raised since 1994. (For the record, this is also a regressive tax. Thanks to the state’s uniformity clause, personal income taxes in Pennsylvania are levied flatly at 3.07 percent across the board, unlike most states, which have tax brackets that tax higher income more. Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states to have a flat income tax across the board, or 18 if you count the states that have no state income tax at all.)
He also said the state had a “rainy day fund,” which the state could draw from to, say, fix the “toxic school problem” in Philadelphia without raising taxes.
Saval came up with an interesting idea to get around the state’s annoying uniformity clause: have a tax on wages and interest and another tax on wealth.
“If we reduce the taxes on wages and interest” – which would disproportionately affect lower income people – “and raise the tax on income from wealth” – which would disproportionately affect higher-income people – “that’s both equitable and it raises revenues,” he said. He cited a report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, which would raise about $2.2 billion annually.
Saval also advocated for the closing of the Delaware loophole, which, he said, “basically allows a lot of large, multi-state or multinational corporations to underreport the amount of business they do in Pennsylvania.”
Farnese said that he and the rest of the Democratic caucus has tried to lobby Gov. Tom Wolf to close the loophole “year after year,” but that “there just aren’t the votes in the Senate to get that done.” The best way to close the Delaware loophole, he said, “is to flip the Senate.”
The discussion eventually turned to affordable rent. Farnese bragged of bringing $14 million for 1,100 affordable housing units in the city. He grazed on the topic of rent control, without definitely saying whether he supported the idea or not.
“I think we have to have a conversation” about rent control, he said. He went on to praise newly elected City Councilmember Kendra Brooks for calling for hearings on rent control. Saval, however, went all in on rent control.
“I support a state-wide rent control measure,” he said, “which would allow cities to set rent increases tied to the cost of living.” Saval also said he supports the use of community land trusts in Philadelphia, which is a unique concept that prevents rapid increases of property value, virtually guaranteeing that residents never get priced out of their own homes. He also advocated for state-wide right to counsel for evictions and just-cause laws.
The Pennsylvania primary is Tuesday, April 28.