Lancaster County will send two Democrats to the state House of Representatives for the first time in decades, a historic result on an otherwise Republican-friendly night nationally.
Izzy Smith-Wade-El, who resigned his position as president of Lancaster’s city council on Monday, is the first African American and LGBTQ person elected to Harrisburg from the county. With all precincts and mail-in ballots counted, he led Republican Anne Rivers by 3,800 votes in the 49th District. Smith-Wade-El took 64% of the vote to Rivers' 36%.
State Rep. Mike Sturla, meanwhile, overcame a strong challenge from Republican April Weaver to win a 17th term in the 96th District race. Sturla led Weaver by about 3,200 votes, winning 57% of the vote to Weaver's 43%.
Sturla hasn’t shared the House floor with a local member of his party since his first term in 1991, when Lebanon County Democrat Ed Arnold represented the 102nd District, which then included Manheim Borough and Penn Township.
Republicans continue to dominate the county’s delegation in Harrisburg, holding all three senate seats that cover parts of the county and seven of nine House seats.
At a post-election celebration Tuesday night at Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse in Lancaster, Sturla said his win and Smith-Wade-El’s show the party is gaining a stronger presence in the county. With a drink in hand, he expressed excitement for the opportunity to work with another Lancaster Democrat in the state House.
“I’ve been waiting for 30 years for this,” Sturla said. “So many people thought my first win was a fluke… The Democratic Party is not a fluke.”
Smith-Wade-El expressed similar sentiments at Zoetropolis, noting he and Sturla are “already having conversations” about how to improve Lancaster.
Set to become the first Black state representative from Lancaster, Smith-Wade-El referenced generations of his family who influenced his life and career. He noted the progression from his “illiterate, sharecropper” grandmother to his mother, Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El, a respected educator who has a Lancaster city school named after her, to his own historic win.
“I feel like my family is living the American dream,” Smith-Wade-El said.
Weaver and Rivers did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
From rivals to colleagues
While the two Democrats will work together in the Legislature, they were briefly on track to face off in the May primary.
Smith-Wade-El, 32, declared he was challenging Sturla, 66, in the 96th, but had to change after the once-a-decade redistricting process put his residence in the 49th District. Instead of Sturla, Smith-Wade-El ran against fellow city councilmember Janet Diaz in the primary.
In the 96th, Sturla defeated a primary challenge from Dana Hamp Gulick of Manheim Township, who twice ran for state House in a previous district.
Smith-Wade-El was the heavy favorite to win the 49th, with Democrats making up 55% of registered voters. But the 96th District was seen as more competitive after parts of Manheim Township and East Petersburg were added to the district. Democrats hold a smaller advantage in the 96th, comprising 47% of registered voters compared to 35% registered Republicans.
Weaver, a member of the Manheim Township school board and a clinical social worker by training, garnered strong Republican support throughout her campaign, shown by big donations from party heavyweights. In the final week of the campaign, the state House Republican campaign committee gave Weaver’s campaign nearly $25,000.
Sturla and Smith-Wade-El ran on a platform of protecting abortion access and raising the minimum wage.
Smith-Wade-El has emphasized his intentions to continue work to expand access to affordable housing, a cause he pursued on city council. Sturla said he plans to work to ease traffic congestion in the suburban parts of his district.
Weaver and Rivers, meanwhile, spoke little about abortion on the campaign trail, a fact that the Democrats picked up on, running ads on social media and sending mailers to voters highlighting Weaver’s reluctance to state definitively her stance on abortion.
Both Republican candidates stuck to bread-and-butter issues, voicing their concerns about record-high inflation and noting their commitment to cutting government regulations.
Promising night for Dems
Lancaster County Democratic Committee Chairman Tom O’Brien, who was also at Zoetropolis on Tuesday night, said the results spoke well about the Democrats’ prospects.
“I think that future is actually even going to start featuring in things like our county commissioner races. The turnout has been good. I think when the mail-in numbers come in, we're going to find that the results are striking and good for us, almost across the board,” O’Brien said. ”I think the party is growing, I think independents are shifting our way, and we're right on the issues. So I think the future is very bright.”
O’Brien said issues such as abortion rights, social issues, sensible gun control and health care reform are issues that will help the Democrats, along with infrastructure spending.
“I think when that infrastructure money starts going out, we see things, it’s going to help control inflation. So I think we're actually right in terms of the economy as well,” he said. “And I think people are going to see that and I really believe we're going to do very well next year and I think will do very well in 2024.”
Staff writer Dan Nephin contributed reporting