Joe Hohenstein is one of the only Democrats running for elected office in Philadelphia who isn’t guaranteed a sweeping general election victory this year.
Hohenstein is trying to unseat Rep. John Taylor, one of the last Republican stalwarts in an overwhelmingly Democratic city at a time when Republican big shots like Pat Toomey seem vulnerable from mere affiliation with their party’s presidential candidate. But his run for the city’s 177th state house district has drawn lukewarm support from Democrats in a city where Republican candidacies are routinely laughed off as folly.
“As a person, it’s an obvious frustration to know who I am and know I am in sync with where the Democratic party is as a whole and where the leaders are at,” Hohenstein said of his difficulties attracting big ticket endorsements.
Notable figures like Mayor Jim Kenney and Gov. Tom Wolf have pointedly stayed out of the Northeast Philadelphia race. The reason they and other state Democratic heavyweights are passing on the opportunity to help one of their own: Taylor is perceived as one of the last moderate leaders in the PA GOP and a kind of horse whisperer for upstate conservatives. Along with a robust track record of constituent service, the impression Taylor makes on his left-leaning colleagues in Philly is so great that no sitting mayor (all Democrats, obviously) has bothered endorsing any of the recent challengers to his 32-year reign.
And Taylor is not afraid to plump his reputation as a Republican fixer for a city perpetually in search of state funding, pointing to wins for public transit and anti-blight initiatives.
“In Harrisburg, I passed more bills than all the Democrats combined, in terms of legislation affecting the city,” Taylor said. “I think in general, if you ask Gov. Wolf or Kenney or the [Philadelphia School District] who's done more for the school district, they’re not going to come up with anyone better than me.”
While his district was redrawn to be a bit whiter than it once was, political math still dictates that Taylor should have lost his seat long ago. His district has a 2 to 1 Democratic voter registration advantage, and many of the white ethnic Republicans who elected Taylor decades ago have continued to trickle out of his new district, often replaced by upwardly mobile immigrants.
Democratic candidate for the 177th district, Joe Hohenstein
Despite all this and the continued withering of split-ticket voters, Hohenstein is still an incongruous longshot despite being, well, an actual Democrat with a decent resume, around $80,000 of funds he’s pieced together largely on his own, and endorsements from SEIU, Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters and the Liberty City Democratic Club.
An immigration lawyer who hails from the city’s Northwood neighborhood, Hohenstein also broadly hews to party line platforms, like increasing education funding by any means necessary and imposing an extraction tax on oil and gas drillers.
He says he’s incensed that Taylor is frequently painted by his left-leaning admirers as a “moderate” despite his increasingly rightward bent.
“[Taylor] is beginning to go over to the portion of the Republican party that is right now being championed by Donald Trump,” he said. “It’s too far to the right for anyone like John Taylor to save them – and I’m not even sure where Taylor stands on the political spectrum.”
Taylor acknowledges that he disagrees with some key progressive planks upheld by prominent Dems – namely Kenney’s steadfast support for Philadelphia’s status as a “sanctuary city” for immigrants. Taylor cosponsored a bill with fellow Northeast Republican state Rep. Martina White that would hold cities like Philadelphia liable for damage or injury caused by illegal immigrants.
“If someone is here illegally and committed criminal acts, I have no problem with them being deported,” he said. “I’ve known Jim Kenney a long time. It’s one of the things we disagree on.”
To Hohenstein, who remembers the troubled history of the city’s past cooperation with federal immigration authorities, that is anathema.
“I certainly oppose that type of legislation on principle, because it divides instead of unifies,” he emphasized.
Taylor had also long wavered on voting for Trump, telling City&State in June that he was distressed by the billionaire’s campaign, would not attend the Republican National Convention and, he says, is the reason he resigned his chairmanship of the local GOP because of Trump’s candidacy.
But a few months later, to the delight of the Hohenstein camp, he told the Northeast Times that he would reluctantly support the candidate whom local Democrats like Kenney have described as a “nincompoop.”
Yet if the mayor has any qualms with Taylor, he doesn’t publicly vocalize them.
“John Taylor is a tremendous asset for our city,” Kenney wrote in an email. “He epitomizes bi-partisanship.”
Through a spokesperson, he declined to comment on Hohenstein's candidacy at all, ditto Gov. Wolf. To political insiders, that’s just how the game works: Taylor seems valuable in an era of polarized, down-to-the-wire budget deals; Hohenstein is just some political neophyte from Northeast Philly.
But the lawyer, of course, says he’s the real deal.
“I recognize that I’m a new kid on the block and I’m an unknown quantity. But I’m also a Democrat who’s been with the party my whole life – I come from a union background,” he said. “I’m a kid from the neighborhood, my parents still live in the parish. My mom was a social worker and dad was a teacher in the public school system for years...The local party needs to be able to recognize that this time, I’m a strong candidate that people can identify with.”
But Taylor, for his part, seemed unconcerned with his first serious challenger in many years – his last opponent, William Dunbar, struggled with staffing issues and an embarrassing altercation with police on the campaign trail. Despite his unique position in PA politics, it is worth noting that Taylor’s margin of victory has narrowed in recent years – he won by 20 points in 2008, then by just 13 against Dunbar’s chaotic effort in 2012.
But the Republican said he felt secure despite this year's bizarre election cycle, even batting away unrelated rumors that this next term might be his last in the state capitol if he wins.
“At the local level, voters are not going to call Trump to fix a problem; they’re going to call me,“ he said, referring to constituent service calls. “It's a very physical job, and keeping up with it isn’t easy. But I don't feel 61 years old. I’m looking forward to a few more terms in the very near future.”