MU MLK 8.jpg

Ismail Smith-Wade-El speaks during the 32nd annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast at Millersville University's Student Memorial Center on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020.

Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El will challenge state Rep. Mike Sturla in the 2022 primary election to represent the 96th House District in Harrisburg.

Smith-Wade-El, 31, who was elected to serve a second term on city council this week, confirmed he will officially announce his campaign on Tuesday. Sturla is a 16-term legislator and the county’s lone elected Democrat in the General Assembly.

Sturla, 65, was first elected in 1990, and hasn’t had a primary challenger on the ballot since then. A Democratic Socialists of America candidate attempted to challenge Sturla in the 2020 primary, but bowed out shortly after the Lancaster County Democratic Committee endorsed Sturla for a 16th term.

Smith-Wade-El, the vice chair of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee, is a specialist for the Lancaster County Homeless Coalition. He said he has wanted to run for the seat for at least two years, noting that Sturla has been his representative since he was a year old. It was during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s racial reckoning in response to several police killings of Black people that he decided he would challenge Sturla.

“We showed up for one another, and frankly, we did not see the kind of representation, advocacy and fight from our state representative during that time,” Smith-Wade-El said. “That’s what sort of turned the switch for me.”

“People are getting sick now, people are homeless now. We have to deliver as soon as possible,” he added. “This city deserves a representative who shows up like its citizens do and works as hard as families do.”

Sturla got booted from House Democrats’ leadership last year, after Democrats did poorly down ballot in the 2020 election. Sturla lost his chairmanship of the Democratic Policy Committee, which he led for 12 years, to Erie County Rep. Ryan Bizzarro. Bizzarro said he was chosen to take over the committee, as it moved in a younger, new direction. He is now the minority chair on the House urban affairs committee.

Like Smith-Wade-El, Sturla had his start in politics in 1987 as a member of Lancaster’s city council. A small business owner at the time, he won his first term in the state House in 1990 and has represented the district ever since. The heavily Democratic district includes Lancaster city and several nearby neighborhoods in Manheim and Lancaster townships. He’s spent much of his career on school funding inequities, and championed the fair funding formula the state uses today to allocate new money equitably.

Sturla did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, but told LNP | LancasterOnline last month he did not plan to retire. He said he still has more policy ideas he wants to advocate for, including one that would allow counties to collect a one-cent sales tax and divide the revenue among municipalities based on the number of tax-exempt properties each has. 

“I won’t stay there 10 more years, but there are some things I can at least get in place,” Sturla said last month.

“I’m not ready to just say, ‘I’m ready to retire’ because there’s a rumor that people want me to retire,” he added. “I think people think I should retire because they could have a free pass at running for my office. If you think you could do a better job than me, then go ahead.”

Smith-Wade-El said he spoke with Sturla about his plan to challenge him, and said Sturla offered his “acknowledgement.”

The 96th District has an overwhelming Democratic voter-registration advantage, and the winner of the Democratic primary would be heavily favored if he faced a challenger in the general election.

In Smith-Wade-El’s first term on city council, he focused on attaining historic affordable housing investments for city residents. But he wants to step into a higher office to be able to make state-level policy changes to allow the city to govern itself.

“We’ve been able to make real material changes, and city council is an avenue for me to do that,” he said. “If by running for state representative I can deliver more, I want to try… We’re going to take every avenue that we can to deliver for the families that live here.”

What to Read Next