Two LGBTQ candidates competing for state house seat in Philadelphia’s ‘gayborhood’
Transgender community activist Deja Alvarez and LGBTQ rights and economic development advocate Jonathan Lovitz, both of whom have been involved in LGBTQ rights issues for many years, are running against each other and against two LGBTQ supportive straight men for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Philadelphia’s center city area.
Alvarez, Lovitz, public affairs consultant Ben Waxman, and café owner and community activist Will Gross are running in the May 17 Democratic primary in the 182nd District, which includes Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood” and is believed to have more LGBTQ residents than any other legislative district in the state.
The seat has been held since 2013 by out gay Rep. Brian Sims, who is giving up the seat this year to run for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor. Sims, a close friend and current housemate of Alvarez, has endorsed her to succeed him as representative of the 182nd District.
Lovitz supporters have expressed concern that Sims may have orchestrated a lobbying campaign that persuaded and possibly pressured the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the national group that raises money to help elect out LGBTQ candidates for public office, to endorse Alvarez. Lovitz backers have argued that the Victory Fund should have endorsed him, remained neutral, or made a dual endorsement of Alvarez and Lovitz as it has in other races where LGBTQ candidates have run against each other.
Lovitz backers also point out that Lovitz has raised far more campaign funds than Alvarez and the other two candidates, making him a more viable candidate than Alvarez and the one with the best chance of being elected as another LGBTQ person to the 182nd District seat.
Elliot Imse, the Victory Fund’s vice president for communications who was just named executive director of the sister organization Victory Institute, told the Washington Blade about 11 LGBTQ elected officials from across the country sent the Victory Fund a letter encouraging the group to endorse Alvarez. He said it was a “polite and respectful” letter.”
He said the Victory Fund welcomes input from the community and from supporters of all LGBTQ candidates on which candidates to endorse. According to Imse, it was the group’s 150-member Campaign Board, which consists of politically engaged activists from throughout the country, that voted to endorse Alvarez after analyzing a wide range of factors in the race. But some critics familiar with the Victory Fund, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the lobbying by Sims’s supporters of board members was irregular and drew the ire of Victory Fund leadership.
Although it decided to endorse Alvarez, the Victory Fund considers Lovitz to be a highly qualified candidate who would be an excellent state legislator representing the interests of LGBTQ people in Pennsylvania, Imse said. But he said the group determined that Alvarez’s background and status as a Latina trans candidate make her the right candidate for the job at this time.
“Deja is a candidate with extremely strong name recognition in her district,” Imse said. “She’s worked in the district for decades,” he said, “from founding organizations to help LGBTQ people who are homeless to help trans people through recovery programs, to providing COVID relief to immigrants and undocumented people,” he said.
“Deja is a Latinx trans woman and would be the first in the entire nation elected to a state legislature,” he said, as well as the first trans person elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature.
Alvarez currently serves as director of community engagement for World Healthcare Infrastructures, a Philadelphia-based group that provides HIV/AIDS related services and other community healthcare and social services. She also serves as the LGBTQ Care Coordinator for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and, among other posts, was appointed to a task force to create an LGBTQ Advisory Board for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
Lovitz supporters point to what they call his long, highly distinguished record as an advocate for LGBTQ rights and public policy and economic development related issues that have resulted in endorsements from both organized labor and groups representing small community-based businesses.
Lovitz has served as senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce from 2016 until he announced his candidacy for the state house seat last year. He joined the LGBT Chamber in 2015 as vice president for external affairs and as director of the group’s New York subsidiary.
He has been credited with helping to write and pass more than 25 state and local laws, including in Pennsylvania, extending economic opportunity to LGBTQ-owned businesses around the country, including millions of dollars in small business grants to local and minority-owned businesses. In 2020, Lovitz co-founded PhillyVoting.org, an initiative to register and turn out the vote in the Black and LGBTQ communities, which, among other things, resulted in the registration of more than 300 new voters in the program’s first month.
The most recent campaign finance reports filed with the state’s campaign finance office show that as of January of this year the Lovitz campaign had raised $252,355. The reports show that Waxman had raised $45,276, Alvarez raised $35,941, and Gross raised $22,134 as of the January filing period. The next round of finance reports was scheduled to be released on May 6.
Some critics of Alvarez have pointed out that she had not been living in the 182nd District for a number of years and only recently moved back to run for the state house seat. Imse called such claims unfair and misleading, saying Alvarez at some point in the recent past was forced to find an apartment in another area outside the district because of the excessively high cost of living in the Center City area due to gentrification.
Imse said Alvarez continued to work in the district and retained her “decades long” ties to the district before she moved back to the district and became housemates with Sims to enable her and Sims to share the living costs in a high-priced neighborhood.
Alvarez told the Blade she and her supporters believe rumors circulating that she was unqualified for the state house seat because she had not been living in the district and just moved back were being orchestrated by Lovitz and his campaign to discredit her.
She said she has been living in Philadelphia since the late 1990s and has been living and working in the district most of the time for more than 20 years.
“The fact of the matter is my opponent has been in Philadelphia for like three years,” she said. “As a woman of color, as a trans person and, yes, like many Philadelphians, there was a time I had to move out of this district because I could not afford to live here any longer,” Alvarez said.
“But there’s not a single person out there and in this race that has both worked in this district, socialized in this district and then come back and done all the work that I’ve done in this district, which I have been part of for more than half of my life,” she said.
When asked to respond to Alvarez’s remarks, Lovitz said in an email that he has had a “lifelong connection to Philadelphia that no one can dispute” and that he moved to the 182nd District in 2017.
“What matters to me, and to voters, isn’t how long you live somewhere, but how much you’ve done to make their lives better in the time you’ve been there,” he said. “Since the day I returned home to Philly I’ve helped register over 1,000 voters through the PhillyVoting project; protected women’s rights by volunteering as a Planned Parenthood escort in my neighborhood; raised millions for charity through the boards I serve on and the events I’ve had the honor of emceeing; and so much more because I love my city.”
Additional information about each of the four candidates running in the Democratic primary can be accessed on their campaign websites, which show that each received endorsements from various advocacy or political organizations, with Alvarez, Lovitz, and Waxman receiving endorsements by local and state elected officials: lovitzforpa.com, dejaforpa.com, votewaxman.com, WillforPA.com.