Pennsylvania state Rep. Pam DeLissio, who has represented a part of Northwest Philadelphia for the last 12 years, found herself in an unusual spot heading into Election Day this week.
Her challenger in the Democratic primary for the 194th legislative district, Tarik Khan, had amassed a fortune in campaign funds in just six months, including nearly $50,000 in donations from two national political organizations.
Khan, in fact, had nearly 10 times as much money as the six-term incumbent DeLissio. His $284,000 in campaign donations raised since November was highly unusual for two reasons: candidates running for the state House rarely raise that kind of cash, and incumbents are rarely so outmatched.
DeLissio ended her fundraising with just $28,000 on hand ahead of the May 17 election.
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The result wasn’t even close. With 95% of ballots counted as of May 20, Khan took 59% of the vote to beat DeLissio, drawing 7,058 votes to her 4,838 in the district that encompasses Philadelphia’s East Falls, Manayunk, Roxborough, Chestnut Hill and Andorra neighborhoods. Barring a successful write-in campaign by an opponent, Khan will run unopposed in the general election.
Another Democratic state representative who has known DeLissio her entire career in the state House called her “the voice of reason” in Harrisburg and said he was surprised that she didn’t receive local support from city Democratic officials or interest groups like the city teacher’s union. He was not surprised, however, that such a well-funded challenger would beat an incumbent.
“The reality of politics is money matters. It makes a difference,” said Rep. Greg Vitali, a Democrat who has represented part of Delaware County since 1992. Vitali called DeLissio a friend and said “it’s really unfortunate she was defeated.”
DeLissio did not respond to NBC10’s requests for an interview.
Khan, in an interview Thursday, acknowledged the role that outraising and outspending his opponent played in the race, saying the money helped him get his message out to reach voters in person, through the mail and via digital platforms.
“Any campaign, in order to be viable, you have to raise money. It’s not something that comes natural to people. It doesn’t come natural for me. My father is an immigrant from Pakistan, he never wanted me to ask for money,” Khan said.
Khan said he swallowed his pride and spent three days a week calling friends, family, anyone who could donate.
Most of his funds came from local unions and individual donors. Khan emphasized over 1,000 contributions from about 700 individuals. Another chunk came from political action committees, or PACs.
The biggest donor was the 314 Action Victory Fund, a PAC dedicated to electing candidates who work in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The PAC donated $27,500 to Khan’s campaign in the form of two separate contributions toward the beginning and end of April.
Khan emphasized that he didn’t take money from “corporate” PACs but from those that act as “advocacy organizations.”
For the 2022 election cycle, 314 Action has donated to almost 200 candidates running for municipal and state office, President Shaughnessy Naughton said. The PAC donates only to Democrats or Independents who caucus with Democrats, she added.
“While we raise a lot of money, it is a grassroots-powered entity with literally hundreds of thousands of small-dollar donors across the country,” Naughton said.
During both the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, 99.4% of contributions to the group were $250 or less, with the average being $31, said Ted Bordelon, the organization’s spokesperson.
Khan also got the endorsements of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee and local wards in the 194th District. The local Democratic party did not respond to a request for comment as to why it endorsed Khan over a longtime incumbent.
But that was only part of the formula. To get people’s votes, he did the legwork, literally. For almost every day since October of last year, Khan said he knocked on more than 10,000 doors and visited with constituents to introduce himself and learn about their concerns.
“I went door to door to connect with as many people, as many neighbors as possible,” Khan said. The door-knocking – done in between his job as a nurse – allowed Khan to build personal relationships with the people whom he would ultimately represent, he said.
He said his work as a nurse is what inspired his run for office, introducing him to patients from different walks of life with a diversity of needs.
During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Khan said he experienced not only the widespread shortages of personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses but also saw firsthand the way some people were “left behind.”
“The pandemic really laid bare the inequities in our communities,” he said.
To ameliorate some of those inequities, he got to work.
He volunteered at nursing homes to do testing. When vaccines were in short supply, he would take leftover doses and drive around to homebound people who wanted to be immunized to deliver shots before the doses expired.
His 72-year-old mom, Patricia, a fellow nurse who in a phone call with NBC10 said she still keeps her license current to help people out, also got to work administering vaccines.
Ultimately, though, Khan said he grew frustrated “that as a nurse I was limited to what I could do for my patients in a clinic alone.” Instead, he wanted to address “systemic” problems, leading to his run for office.
During his campaign, Khan ran as an unabashed progressive.
He supports a Medicare-for-All model that would provide every person with health insurance, wants a statewide “Green New Deal” that would move Pennsylvania away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, and vows to vote down any legislation that would reduce access to abortions.
“The progressive movement is about people,” Khan said. “It’s about uplifting people and our communities and making sure that things are better.” And, he said, there is “absolutely” an appetite for other progressive lawmakers.
Naughton, the president of the 314 Action Victory Fund, agreed.
Asked why her organization contributed so much money for a local campaign, Naughton said it’s part of a broader plan to get more people who believe in science and are in the STEM field elected to municipal and statewide office.
“A lot of the things we care most about, whether it’s protecting our environment, education, it’s controlled at the municipal and state level,” she said.
Though she acknowledged there is legitimate criticism about PACs and the role they play in the electoral process, she said the campaign finance system needs to be changed “from the inside” by making sure “the right people” get elected.
But it all starts from the bottom, she said.
“An additional reason why its import to pay attention to municipal and state office, it’s not only are they testing grounds for legislation that may reach the state and federal level, but they’re also testing grounds for candidates who may run statewide or federally in the future,” Naughton said.
Correction (Saturday, May 21, 2022 at 12:55 p.m.): This story has been updated to reflect that Tarik Khan's campaign raised $284,000 for his run in the 194th district primary.