Janet Diaz

FILE PHOTO: Janet Diaz, Democratic nomination for the 13th Senatorial District race, poses in the 100 block of East Frederick Street in Lancaster city Thursday, June 11, 2020. Diaz won the nomination in the state senatorial race, without the local party’s endorsement and support from local elected Democrats.

Lancaster city Councilwoman Janet Diaz will announce next week she is running to represent the southern part of Lancaster city and all of Lancaster Township in the state House of Representatives.

Diaz, who confirmed her plans on Wednesday, will become the second candidate to announce a campaign for the proposed 50th House District, and her entry sets up a Democratic primary race between two sitting city councilmembers. 

Under the preliminary legislative redistricting proposal, Lancaster city would be split north-south along King Street, creating a second safe Democratic seat in the county for the first time. 

The new 50th District, if given final approval, is partially the result of a larger effort to create more Latino-majority districts. There are only five Latinos in the state House, a disproportionately low number given Latinos make up a fast-growing portion of Pennsylvania’s population: More than 1 million Latinos live in Pennsylvania, a 46% increase from 2010. Lancaster city’s population is 40% Latino, according to the 2020 Census.

“With all the phone calls I’ve received in the Latino community asking if I would entertain running, because they know I would continue working as hard as I do on city council and I would take that same energy to Harrisburg,” Diaz said of her decision to run. 

Diaz, 55, said she was encouraged to run by state lawmakers, as well as the state Democrats’ Latino Caucus. State Rep. Mike Sturla and state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, are both listed as speakers for her online campaign announcement on Jan. 7.

“I’m a Latina, I’m a woman, I’m a person of color, I’m an all-in-one package,” Diaz said. “For me, I would be honored, because I speak both languages. Right off the bat, I’m able to assist my community… no matter the political arena, they feel more comfortable coming to me… they feel safe speaking openly to me. They know I will do the job for them.”

City Council President Ismail “Izzy” Smith-Wade-El said on Dec. 17 that he’ll run in the newly drawn 50th District. Smith-Wade-El first launched a primary challenge against Sturla, but had to change plans when the proposed legislative redistricting maps were released and he lives in the southern part of the city. Sturla lives in the northeast part of the city, and is expected to run in the newly created 96th District that includes the northern half of Lancaster city and all of Manheim Township.

Smith-Wade-El said he welcomed Diaz to the race.

“I’m really excited that we’ve done enough organizing in this community to earn two Democratic districts in Lancaster County, and I look forward to engaging with the voters on issues that matter to them,” he said. “We got here by organizing, and that’s how we’re going to win this election.”

Democrat state Rep. Mike Sturla has represented the city for the last 31 years and is expected to run in the proposed 96th District, which would include the northern part of the city and Manheim Township. 

Quick rise

Diaz is, in some ways, an outsider within Lancaster County’s Democratic politics. She has never been endorsed by the county Democrats, but holds a seat on the state Democratic Party committee. She also received the single-most votes of any city councilmember in the November election.

“She’s obviously a top vote getter,” Sturla said. “She’s been a councilwoman and is a very hard worker. People underestimate her ability to turn people out, and to campaign hard.”

It also won’t be her first primary race for a seat in the Legislature. She ran against Lancaster Democrats’ endorsed candidate, Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman, in the 2020 primary to take on GOP state Sen. Scott Martin. In the general election, she outraised Martin but came up far short of winning in a year when Lancaster County’s Republican voters were highly motivated to vote for President Donald Trump.

Now in the matchup against Smith-Wade-El, Diaz is a more established politician. She enters the race with $84,000 in her campaign fund, she said, and she’ll be announcing her candidacy alongside Street, the vice chair of the state Democratic party.

Smith-Wade-El, meanwhile, comes to the plate with strong support from local Democratic committee members, and he’s raised more than $72,000 as of Dec. 29, his campaign said Wednesday. 

He’s captured 16 local endorsements, including from four of his six city council colleagues as well as from Jess King, the Democrats’ 2018 nominee for Lancaster’s congressional district and the current chief of staff to Mayor Danene Sorace. Smith-Wade-El was also endorsed by progressive activist organization Lancaster Stands Up this month.

Smith-Wade-El and Diaz both said their state House contest will not impact their work on city council.

“I show up to city council with the best interest of my constituents in mind, and I think that that’s also true of (Diaz), so that’s how I expect city council to continue before the race, during the race and after,” Smith-Wade-El said.

Diaz said she would continue to advocate for the same top issues she held during her 2020 Senate campaign: health care, education, wages and housing. 

Final maps still to come

The preliminary legislative redistricting plan released on Dec. 16, which includes the new 50th District, is not final. GOP leaders in the Legislature criticized the proposal, saying it unfairly pits many Republican incumbents against each other, especially in more rural parts of the state. 

The maps were drafted by the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission, whose members are the Legislature’s four caucus leaders and a chairman appointed by the state Supreme Court. The changes are required after each U.S. Census, with districts drawn to reflect the state’s population changes.

The commission has until Jan. 16 to update its proposal, after which public input will be considered. Ultimately, the final district maps could be decided by the state Supreme Court, which has sole jurisdiction over legal challenges to the commission’s work. 

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