Lancaster city council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El on Tuesday officially announced his candidacy for the Pennsylvania House seat that includes the city and is currently held by fellow Democrat Mike Sturla.

In making his bid official, Smith-Wade-El revealed endorsements from 14 local Democratic officials, including four of his fellow council members, six members of the Lancaster school board, and the top aide to Mayor Danene Sorace.

Speaking just before sunset to a crowd of approximately 50 people at Reservoir Park in eastern Lancaster city, Smith-Wade-El said he’s challenging Sturla because he would better represent the city’s residents.

“Lancaster deserves someone who works as hard as its families do,” Smith-Wade-El said. “You deserve a representative who is as creative, as passionate and dedicated as you are. You deserve a representative that shows up in your community to ask what it is you need.”

Smith-Wade-El’s interest in the 96th House District seat has long been rumored among city Democrats, and Smith-Wade-El previously told LNP|LancasterOnline he wanted to run for it for at least two years. It wasn’t until the national racial reckoning that took place in the summer of 2020 -- and Sturla’s failure to play a significant role in supporting the city’s residents in those protests -- that Smith-Wade-El said he decided he would run in 2022.

Sturla, who has represented the city in the Legislature since 1991, faces his first primary challenge since he was elected 31 years ago. The winner of the 2022 primary is the assumed winner of the general election given the city’s overwhelming Democratic voter registration advantage.

In response to Smith-Wade-El’s announcement, Sturla touted his achievements in the Legislature as a reason why voters should stick with him, such as his work on the Fair Funding Formula that is now used to allocate new education dollars to school districts around the state. The formula, passed in 2016, assesses a district’s poverty level, among other qualifications, in order to more equitably split state appropriations.

“Someone has described [politicians] that some are workhorses or show horses,” Sturla said. “I’ve always been the workhorse.”

The primary challenge to Sturla comes less than a year after the veteran lawmaker lost his leadership position in the House Democratic Caucus following the party’s unexpected losses in the 2020 general election. Sturla’s colleagues removed him from the chairmanship of the Democratic Policy Committee; he now serves as the minority chair of the House urban affairs committee.

Key support

One of the most notable endorsements announced by Smith-Wade-El is that of Jess King, the chief of staff to Mayor Sorace and the party’s 2018 nominee against Rep. Lloyd Smucker. 

King garnered national attention in the race as Democrats tried to flip a congressional seat that’s traditionally been in the GOP column. King lost that race by 17 points, but the attention and energy she drew to Democrats that year gives her an ongoing outsize voice in local Democratic politics.

“More than 30 years is a really long career,” King said of Sturla after Smith-Wade-El’s announcement. “Our state Legislature needs to look more like our city -- more like our commonwealth straight up -- in terms of race, age, gender and representation. That really matters in a community that is a majority of color and is young. I think Izzy sees that, reflects that and is in touch with that in a way that feels very important for the basic representation.”

Smith-Wade-El said he will focus his campaign on removing barriers, like those that prevent Third Class cities like Lancaster from raising their own revenue, or ones that block tenants from housing opportunities due to prior evictions.

“We are going to fight for affordable housing, we are going to fight to raise the minimum wage, we are going to fight for tenant protections,” Smith-Wade-El said during his campaign announcement. “Some of those fights they told you we can’t win. We are going to win some of those fights. And the truth is, we are going to lose some of those fights. But every single time, they’re going to know that we were there.”

Sturla, in an interview with LNP|LancasterOnline before Smith-Wade-El’s announcement, said his challenger has an unrealistic view of how things get done in the Legislature. Policymaking requires working across the aisle and finding common ground to deliver for his constituents, he added.

“What you’ll hear from my opponent [at the announcement] will be long on rhetoric and short on substance,” Sturla said. “I believe [Smith-Wade-El] was a drama major in college, so I understand where the rhetoric is his forte. I was an architecture major in college, my forte is in  building things and making them work and function.”

High price primary

Smith-Wade-El has raised more than $38,000 for his Forge Ahead Lancaster political action committee, his campaign said Tuesday. Most of that warchest – $28,000 – was raised before Oct. 18, three weeks before he announced his House campaign, according to county campaign finance filings.  

Sturla last had to file a campaign finance report in December 2020. At that time, he had about $5,000 on hand. He said he expects to raise $50,000 by the end of the year.

In 2020, Sturla raised $64,000, but sent most of that money to committees working to elect Democrats to the Legislature.

What to Read Next