When candidates running in Pennsylvania’s 175th house district race were asked whether they supported safe injection sites at a Virtual Meet the Candidates event Wednesday night, all of them answered in the affirmative. In fact, one candidate took the concept a bit farther.
“I’ve called for safe injection sites for female users only,” said Jeff Dempsey, who’s one of three primary challengers to the district’s Democratic incumbent, Mary Isaacson, in the June 2 primary. “[For] female users who depend upon their intimate partner to inject for them, their intimate partner can use that as a means of control, which sort of exacerbates the messy violence situations.”
This results, Dempsey said, in higher rates of sexual violence.
While Isaacson cautioned that the community should be consulted before instituting a safe injection site, she nevertheless supported the idea.
“As we saw in South Philadelphia, when you don’t talk to the people who have to live [near the site], then you’re really going to have a lot of pushback,” she said. “All we’re really trying to do is help people who are in the throes of addiction.”
Challenger Vanessa McGrath supports the sites because “all the research shows that safe injection sites are safe and they are accepted by the communities once they’re installed,” she said. “I view them as both the morally right thing to do because they save lives, and I also see it as a very pragmatic situation to a difficult problem.”
McGrath likened the pragmatism of the solution to the decision to begin a needle exchange program in the ‘90s, which, she claimed, saved the city money in street sweeping costs.
Andre Del Valle said his support for safe injection sites was contingent upon them being located “in a clinic or a medical facility.”
There are no Republican challengers in the 175th district race.
For a brief roughly 24-hour period in late February, it looked like Philadelphia was set to become the first city in the nation to roll out a safe injection site. The site would be located inside the Constitution Health Plaza in South Philly and operated by Safehouse. The day after the announcement, however, outrage from the community ensued, the building’s owner changed his mind about leasing the space to Safehouse, and the plans were scrapped. While there’s no hard data on the split between supporters and opponents of safe injection sites in the River Wards, anti-safe injection site rhetoric from elected officials and residents has dominated civic meetings in the past – at least in the more conservative areas of the region, like Port Richmond and Harrowgate.
State Sen. Larry Farnese (D-1st dist.) and primary challenger Nikil Saval are on record in support of the concept. There are no Republican challengers in this race either.
Democratic incumbent Joe Hohenstein, who’s running in the 177th Legislative District, is opposed to safe injection sites, however, he’s running unopposed in the primary.
The position of Angel Cruz (D-180th dist.) has changed over the years. According to spokesperson Michel Lee, Cruz is officially “against safe injection sites,” despite having supported them in the past as late as 2017.
“When safe injection sites were first introduced as a concept, he supported them,” Lee wrote in an email to the Star. “However, upon seeing how they were going to be implemented, he has since been against them.”
In the same Virtual Meet the Candidates forum, which was put on by the Queen Village Neighbors Association and the Bella Vista Neighbors Association, the candidates were asked about their top policy issues. Only Del Valle put the opioid epidemic in his top three. His other two were education and access to healthcare/workers’ rights. Isaacson’s top three were education, the environment and access to healthcare/women’s reproductive rights. McGrath’s were healthcare, the economy and education. Dempsey’s were combating gun violence, the Green New Deal and “taking down barriers to vote.”
While candidates agreed on the need for safe injection sites in Philly, they fought over a considerably more contentious subject brought up toward the end of the online event.
“Which Philly mascot is your favorite and why?” asked the Committee of Seventy’s policy director, Patrick Christmas, who moderated the forum.
Del Valle went with the Eagles’ Swoop. Both Isaacson and McGrath opted for the Phillie Phanatic. Only Dempsey chose Gritty.
“What can warm the heart better than seeing that orange mug?” Dempsey quipped.
The 175th Legislative District includes parts of Queen Village, Eastern Center City, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond. The primary is Tuesday, June 2.