The two democratic candidates for Lancaster’s House of Representatives, Izzy Smith-Wade-El (left) and Janet Diaz (right), presented a debate at the Lombardo Welcome Center. / Photo Courtesy of Andrew Geer / MU College Democrats
Millersville University served as the venue for a congressional debate this past week, featuring Democratic candidates Janet Diaz and Ismail “Izzy” Smith-Wade-El as prospective representatives for congress.
The debate, which took place in the Lombardo Welcome Center on Friday, April 29, at 6 p.m., was hosted by the Millersville College Democrats and moderated by the campus organization’s outgoing president, Andrew Geer. This event gave both candidates the opportunity to present their platforms and advocate for issues and policies on their agenda, as well as to demonstrate why they would be the ideal choice to represent the 49th House of Representatives District, which covers all of Lancaster County and southern York County.
Members of both the university and local community attended the debate, which covered a wide variety of topics, including healthcare, voting rights and partisanship, relieving tax burdens for residents, and raising the minimum wage.
Diaz, an active member of the Lancaster City Council, holds nearly two decades of work experience in the healthcare industry. Her platform primarily focuses on advocating for disability rights, as well as supporting families and workers. In addition, she noted her extensive volunteer experience in the community, having served at funeral homes and soup kitchens.
Smith-Wade-El currently serves as president of the Lancaster City Council. His platform primarily focuses on supporting working-class families and ensuring quality affordable housing for all residents. In addition, he is the son of the late Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El, a beloved former psychology professor at Millersville University.
The formal portion of the debate began with the question of property taxes and relieving tax burdens for residents of Lancaster and York. With the district currently supporting a substantial number of large businesses and religious organizations, roughly 40 percent of all of Lancaster and southern York’s properties are tax-exempt.
“Property taxes are beneficial to our community because they fund our boroughs and schools,” says Smith-Wade-El. “But they can also be harmful to working class residents who struggle to pay them. Implementing property tax reform by holding larger luxury businesses such as hotels accountable for paying their fair share can relieve the burden for residents, while also allowing funds to keep coming in.”
In response, Diaz also suggested tax reforms not only for luxury businesses, but also on gun sales. In addition, she suggested utilizing truck weight stations to acquire revenue to relieve tax burdens.
In Lancaster county, healthcare expenses increased by 9.7 percent. Both candidates were asked how they plan to handle this problem and improve the local healthcare industry.
As a worker in the field for 19 years, Diaz used her experience to her advantage, claiming her work in counseling and health insurance to ensure her ability to understand and work with various aspects of the industry. She expressed intention to advocate for affordable healthcare, emphasizing the dire need for mental health support.
In response, Smith-Wade-El suggested redirecting corporate subsidizing to decreasing medical, drug, and education costs, while also increasing funding for mental healthcare and special education, which remain stagnant. Supporting workers and patients alike through initiatives such as the Patient Safety Act, he believes, will also relieve underemployment and high costs.
“We have to invest in the people that make it happen,” says Smith-Wade-El. “Relieving student debt and increasing wages for our workers will help those who keep us safe and healthy.”
The parties then discussed partisanship. In the aftermath of the Trump administration and the January 6 attack on the Capitol, citizens across the country are increasingly divided in terms of beliefs, views, and rights. Pennsylvania had one of the largest numbers of arrested protestors, numbering around 60, highlighting the area as a space of concern for discrimination and disparity.
“Our democracy is under attack. But that problem lies in good faith, rather than partisanship,” says Smith-Wade-El. “Our views may divide us, but in the end, we all want a better world for ourselves and each other. I want to work across party lines so we can reach common goals together. My mission is to not divide us, but find what we can do to unite our diverse communities.”
In addition to supporting voting rights and working across party lines, both candidates also strongly support increasing the minimum wage.
“I have had to work multiple jobs to support myself and my family, so I empathize with and seek to help those who have struggled in the same way,” says Diaz. “And as a woman of color, I can see that those like myself may find it even harder to make ends meet. Black and brown women make roughly 50 to 60 cents for every dollar a white man makes. I want to decrease the wage gap and make earnings fairer for those who are doing the same work.”
Once the formal portion of the debate concluded, moderator Geer opened the floor for audience questions submitted through handwritten notes. Topics addressed by the audience included online gambling, federal funding for post-secondary education, and the legalization of recreational marijuana.
Both Smith-Wade-El and Diaz supported the legalization of recreational marijuana, as well as increased support and funding for college students. However, they were somewhat divided on Act 42, a 2017 law that legalized online gambling in Pennsylvania. Regarding this issue, Smith discussed disapproval of the new law, noting that the gambling industry especially harms the working class, while Diaz remained divided on the issue due to potential revenue for industry workers.
One particular question asked by an audience member was if and how they plan to protect the rights and safety of sex workers as members of congress.
“As a former sexual assault counselor, I have worked with countless survivors, many of whom were employed in sex work to support themselves,” says Diaz. “They are just like us, and as someone who has worked with them first-hand, I will push to support all citizens, regardless of their line of work.”
“Nobody should be shamed for what they do for work,” says Smith-Wade-El. “Regardless of where our income comes from, we are all people deserving of safety and protection, and as your representative, I plan to ensure rights and protection for all of my constituents.”
To conclude the debate, moderator Geer asked the candidates questions not about their policy, but about their character and identity. They were asked about how they felt working as people of color in politics, which they saw as an opportunity to represent the underrepresented. In addition, they were asked what they liked about the opposing candidate.
“I admire Ismail because he is confident and speaks very eloquently,” says Diaz. “Spanish is my first language, so I am always learning something new, and to see someone express themselves in a way I wish to inspire me to do better.”
“I think that Diaz is an incredible fighter for her constituents,” says Smith-Wade-El. “She seeks to have individuals and their needs seen and heard.”
The candidates concluded the debate with their closing remarks, Diaz speaking first:
“COVID has taken a toll on our mental health, even though it has not yet ended. We need to heal and work together. We need a plan to persevere and move forward, one step at a time. I am a pragmatic democrat,” Diaz says. “I worked three jobs before, and I had to pay my school loans. I have a history of working. I will help to create more union jobs, and support our infrastructure and family values. With 19 years in the healthcare industry, I will continue to push for affordable healthcare for residents, push for funding for our schools, and affordable housing, and protect the rights of women and LGBTQ individuals. I will always be a phone call away, working to make a better Pennsylvania. Lancaster is worth fighting for, and you are worth fighting for.”
Smith-Wade-El follows:“I just wanted to thank the College Democrats for the opportunity to have this debate. This is what politics is supposed to be about … we should be engaged in a contest of ideas,” Smith-Wade-El says. “I’m very proud to have built a coalition of local school board, township, and city council members, and to be trusted to advocate for our schools and environment. All of that pales in comparison that I get to wake up every day and represent you. I strive to support our workers and homeless, improve trust and accountability in our police force, and create a vision of public safety. I hope that you will vote Izzy on or before May 17.”
Regardless of the election results, Diaz and Smith-Wade-El will be a first for the district – not only could either of them be the first person of color to represent Lancaster, but they would also be the first woman or the first queer person, respectively, to serve as House representative for Lancaster, if elected. The winning candidate of the Democratic primary will run against Republican incumbent Lloyd Smucker in November.
Even though a Democrat has not represented the district since World War II, there is still hope for supporters of the party. Regardless of the turnout, local Democrats and members of the Millersville Democrats are excited about this opportunity to give the candidates a platform and educate local voters on campus.
“Every year that an election is happening, all these candidates and campaigns are eager to get their name out there,” says Andrew Geer, who moderated and helped to organize the debate as outgoing president of Millersville Democrats. “We were able to get in touch with both [Smith Wade-El and Diaz], meet with them and introduce them to the club, and set up for the debate. It’s a great opportunity to get the word out there about who’s running and educate people on campus.”
As a closed primary state, residents of the 49th district must be registered Democrats to vote in the primary. Those eligible may vote at their local polling center on May 17, or by requesting a mail-in ballot online. Mail-in ballots can be requested by clicking here and must be postmarked by election day in order to be counted. Those wishing to vote in person may look up polling place information on the Pennsylvania Voter Services website.