For a second time, Janet Diaz has won the Democratic nomination for elected office without the support of the county Democratic party -- this time to take on Republican Sen. Scott Martin and in doing so, becoming the the first county Latina nominated for a state Senate seat.
She did so without the party’s endorsement and without the financial support of local Democrats, with many of them contributing to her opponent, County Commissioner Craig Lehman. According to campaign filings, Lehman raised nearly to $69,186, while Diaz only raised $7,523 in their latest campaign filing with the Pennsylvania Department of State.
The twice- “underdog,” as one of her supporters called her, won 54% of the vote, or more than 12,000 votes, in last week’s primary. She won almost all of the city’s precincts and most of the suburban and rural areas, according to precinct returns.
She did so through a grassroots campaign and monetary and organizing support from women-in-government groups trying to push more progressive women into Pennsylvania’s Legislature, Diaz said.
“She trounced him,” said Diane Topakian, the chair of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee. “She obviously had a great campaign and did what she had to do to get votes, to get people to vote for her and they responded. Sometimes the voters will clearly tell us who they want their leaders to be.”
Represent PA, a political action committee that funds progressive Democratic women candidates, endorsed Diaz and contributed $3,500 to her campaign in May. Represent PA said Lehman was more of a “safe selection,” and wanted to support Diaz because she is a non-white, progressive woman, said Heidi Siegel, the communication chair for the group.
Diaz has also had support from Emerge, a program that coaches Democratic women to run for office. She graduated from their program in 2017.
But when it came down to getting voters, it wasn’t just her bump from groups supporting women candidates. Diaz was more committed to getting voters to the polls and tapped the county’s growing Latinx community, several Democrats said. She and her supporters, texted, called and knocked on doors to get out the vote to support her in the primary.
Win not a surprise
“I’m not surprised that Janet won this primary because it was obvious she was willing to put in the work,” said Lancaster city President Ismail Smith-Wade-El.
He is also vice-chair of the county Democratic party. “If you drive around the city, where she had significant support, you see Diaz signs every other block.”
Jose Rivera, a community organizer and activist in the city’s west end, said he knocked doors to get his neighbors out to vote for Diaz.
“I told [Lehman] face to face, ‘You’re gonna lose buddy,’” said Jose Rivera, a community organizer and activist in the city’s west end who supported Diaz’s campaign. “He’s a very cocky young man...I told him ‘you’re gonna lose.’ He laughed. I said ‘We’ll see who laughs last.’ He’s not laughing today.”
Lehman said he does not recall this conversation with Rivera, but said he wishes Diaz “all the best.”
“She won simply because the voters preferred her, and I’m fine with that,” Lehman added.
Diaz said she’s still not entirely sure how she pulled off the win to become the Democratic nominee.
“I’m not sure how I did that,” she said. “It was God’s spirit.”
State Dems targeting race
The 13th Senatorial District race is being targeted by the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee as a seat that could be flipped from Republican to Democratic because of the changing populations in the district.
In 2018, former Democratic congressional candidate Jess King received 88 more votes in the area than U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker.
Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) encouraged Diaz to run for the district after seeing her work on the Lancaster city council. Diaz was elected to city council in 2017. She was not endorsed by the city Democrats going into the primary, but won anyway.
Aside from her work on city council, Diaz works at Lancaster General Hospital as a stroke registrar and is a member of local advocacy organizations including the Latino Caucus of Lancaster County.
Street also credited her passion for farmers from her time living on a farm in Puerto Rico. He said her hard work is what won her the primary election.
“I think she brings a breath of fresh air,” Street added.
But Diaz will have an uphill battle, even with the county party’s support this time, Topakian said.
“Now the more difficult part comes in running against Scott Martin,” she added. “It’s all hands on deck. It’ll be an uphill climb for sure, but if this is the big year of change… we could see a win here.”
The Republicans are ready for the challenge, because of how Martin has served in his first term as senator and his record protecting taxpayers and helping small businesses grow, said Kirk Radanovic, the chair of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County, in a statement.
Radanovic said Diaz is a progressive who is “out of touch” with the 13th Senatorial District's values.
“She'll run a campaign straight from the Bernie Sanders playbook with radical policies that take away your individual rights and freedoms while increasing dependence on government programs,” he added.