White vs. Darragh shaping up as the city's big race

Republican Rep. Martina White and Democratic nominee Matt Darragh are in a real fight in Northeast Philadelphia's 170th District House race.

The political race is contentious. The candidates are airing plenty of television commercials and mailing lots of literature. Immigration is a hot topic.

No, this isn't the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential election. It also isn't the Pat Toomey vs. Katie McGinty bout for the U.S. Senate.

Instead, this battle rages in far Northeast Philadelphia's 170th District of the state House, where Republican state Rep. Martina White's bid for a new term is challenged by Democratic nominee Matt Darragh.

White, 28, was a financial adviser when she won a January 2015 special election, filling a vacancy created when Brendan Boyle left to take a seat in the U.S. House.

She has sponsored some headline-grabbing legislation as a rookie legislator.

One bill, which would withhold state funding from so-called Sanctuary Cities such as Philadelphia, stalled at the last minute as the House adjourned on Thursday.

Another bill, which would prevent public officials from immediately releasing the names of police officers involved in shootings, was approved in bipartisan votes by the House and Senate. Gov. Wolf is now reviewing that bill, a spokesman said.

White was credited with running a smart campaign in 2015. She also benefited from Democratic infighting in her district about which candidate should face her for Boyle's seat, among other disputes.

Her win was a big pickup for the Republican Party in Philadelphia, which had not sent a new state representative from the city to Harrisburg in 25 years.

The Democratic leaders in the district have made peace - for now. They want to take back the seat.

"I think there's no question the Democratic machine in Northeast Philadelphia is coming for my seat," White said. "I'm sure I'm one of the top seats that they're gunning for, in terms of the state Democratic Party."

Democrats in Philadelphia hold a 7-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans. But the split is much smaller among the 170th District's 38,474 voters - 58 percent are Democrats, 30 percent are Republicans and 12 percent are independents or members of smaller political parties.

White said she won with support from Democrats and independents last year and expects to do the same in the Nov. 8 general election.

One seat won't sway the balance of power in Harrisburg, where the Republicans control a comfortable majority in the House.

White is pitching her part in that majority as a reason for reelection. A Democrat, she said, in the minority would be less effective in the seat.

"It is very important that Republicans represent Philadelphia in that majority," she said. "I have the ability to get things done in Harrisburg."

Darragh, like White, emphasizes his ability to attract voters beyond his party. He said the district has plenty of "old-school variety" Republicans who get on board with "commonsense" approaches to problems.

Darragh, 31, got his start in local politics through a college internship with then-state Sen. Mike Stack III, who is now lieutenant governor. That led to a committeeman's post. He now works for the state Auditor General's Office, running a crew that audits state-run liquor stores.

He graduated Widener University's law school in 2013 but has not yet passed the bar exam.

Darragh calls White's Sanctuary City law "pretty brazen for a freshman representative" and appears eager to link her to Trump's candidacy.

Sanctuary Cities refuse to comply with "ICE detainers" issued by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to keep in custody people in the country illegally once their jail sentences end.

Mayor Kenney's policy requires a warrant to be issued for that detention.

Kenney knocked White's bill as "incredibly dangerous," suggesting it would make people in the country illegally less likely to report crimes and strain relationships with the police.

"I really think this is Rep. White playing on people's fears and capitalizing on the Donald Trump movement to scare people into voting for her," Darragh said. "Ultimately it is the federal government's responsibility to reform the immigration system, which is obviously broken."

White agrees that immigration is a federal issue. That's why she contends the city has no right to make policy about it.

"They're breaking the federal law by having this policy in place," she said. "We're trying to make sure other municipalities across Pennsylvania don't follow in those footsteps."

And while White says she prefers policy to politics, she acknowledges that a first-term legislator going toe-to-toe with the mayor of Philadelphia makes for a high-profile platform for reelection.

All that combines to make the 170th District the most interesting local race on a ballot dominated by the presidential election. The candidates have split the union support that traditionally leans more toward the Democrats.

White is endorsed by the city's police and fire unions, along with Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and several other building trades unions.

Darragh has the AFL-CIO, SEIU, the laborers and the unions representing liquor stores in the state and local carpenters.

"She's a single, childless woman supported by police and firefighters," Darragh said. "I'm a single, childless man supported by teachers and nurses. I'll be honest with you. It's a weird year in politics."

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973

@ByChrisBrennan