While razor-thin voting margins characterized so much of the electoral landscape this month, state Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-194, cruised to an easy reelection victory for her sixth term in Harrisburg, racking up more than 74% of her district’s almost 37,000 votes.
I talked to her last week over the phone, and she laughed when she told me that “a voter I met asked me if I had to work hard for this win. I told her I work hard every day.” And she does.
A self-described “moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-road” politician, she bristles when anyone suggests these traits show a lack of strength, or lack of an opinion. Clearly she has opinions. But she listens very hard to her constituents, and works to represent those interests in the capitol. “I take the input of constituents very seriously,” she offered, “because when citizens are informed about the process, they make better decisions.”
The COVID pandemic colors everything these days, including politics. “Here we are sitting and talking with 4,700 new cases only yesterday,” she said, pausing to confirm the number. “Yes, 4,711, higher than the highest high in the spring, and the legislature has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to correct the governor’s supposedly erroneous behavior. In an emergency like this, you need to be nimble, and putting the pandemic in the hands of the legislature is just not effective. As long as you have gerrymandering in place, you’ll have a skewed perspective on COVID.”
As an example, the state is currently sitting on a pot of $1 billion given to Harrisburg by Congress from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act with overwhelming bipartisan support back in March. “Our CARES money could have been 100% appropriated by the governor,” she told me, “but as an olive branch he gave authority to the legislature to spend it. So there’s still about a billion dollars to be spent that the legislature has not been inclined to deal with.” (They were waiting to possibly use it for deficit relief.) “And many sectors of the community – child care comes to mind – are acutely aware that this money has not been spent.”
Given that she is now a veteran of a full decade of service, she is in line for serving as a minority chair on one of the committees she belongs to. “I’m looking forward to that,” she said. Even though she will be minority chair, “if you do it well, do it right, and do it strategically, you could have some influence.”
When asked about her legislative priorities, she did not hesitate: “redistricting reform, because 2021 is a redistricting year. There is a transparency piece I am interested in, to direct the reapportionment commission to be more accountable by requiring public hearings and allowing public comments. I actually pushed for redistricting reform at one of my first town halls back when I was first elected, and people said, ‘Pam, that’s 10 years away!’ And here we are suddenly at the other end of that decade. But neither party seems very interested in this,” she added wistfully.
“I also see and hear a lot about equity and poverty. Our city’s poverty rate is 26%,” her voice rising. Philadelphia is often described as the poorest large city, not a badge of honor by any stretch. “Poverty stands in the way of our citizens breaking into the middle class.” For her, poverty becomes a lens through which she can examine other bills before her: “is this bill going to help or exacerbate the situation?” She noted that, “ I’ve spent some time understanding the social determinants of health, like the impact of housing, transportation, and food insecurity on health.” These play into poverty as well.
Pam easily connects education to the issue, and reminded me that an education commission made recommendations in 2015 to change the formula the state uses to distribute money for school districts. Of the 500 school districts in the state, almost 200 are underfunded, according to the state’s own math. The new allocation formula, she said, “takes into consideration things that have never been considered before, like poverty level, and there’s even a factor in the equation for deep poverty.” But Harrisburg got stuck on whether the new formula goes into effect automatically or steps down over time, and she signaled she would like to champion stepping down, a gradual drop over time to more equitable levels.
When asked about Pennsylvania being in the national crosshairs over our election’s integrity, she said, “Out of the blue this fall, there came an effort (in the legislature) to create a select committee on election integrity. The way the language was written – it was so poorly drafted – it would have given subpoena power to the majority Speaker. The pushback, no, the blowback,” she said, her voice rising on blowback, “was tremendous, and that was shelved.”
About the fraud allegations, she says “nobody has shared one scintilla of evidence. Oh,” she remembered, “one person from one polling place called me with a complaint, and I need to track that down. But that’s it.”
She would like to see election reform. “I’d like to memorialize the drop boxes– there was unbelievable voter engagement this year because of mail-in votes. Many many states have mail-in voting, so it’s not new, it’s just new in Pennsylvania. Interestingly, it eliminates straight-ticket voting, which is no problem for me. But this engagement may just be what many legislators want to avoid – they actually don’t want engaged voters.” She also supports mail-in votes that can be opened and prepped early, so they can be counted on Election Day, avoiding this year’s multi-day wait.
She’s not a big fan of legislation crafted “for the sake of the base. I’ve never played to a base; I haven’t done that and will not do that, and that’s how I ended up with a robust percentage of the vote in a divisive election. Voters tell me, ‘I know she listens to me.’ That’s what most voters want, to be heard.”
By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director