Hohenstein, Nungesser on the issues

John Nungesser, Republican candidate in the 177th Legislative District

With less than a week left until an election that will decide the next leader of the country, voters will also head to the polls for a high-stakes contest on the homefront.

The 177th Legislative District seat is up for grabs, an office that represents a rather diverse swath of the city, spanning from Port Richmond to Holme Circle.

While record numbers of individuals have decided to cast their votes via mail-in ballots, this year, there’s still time to get to the polls for those who didn’t.

To help readers see where state Rep. Joe Hohenstein and challenger John Nungesser stand on each side of the fence, the Times proposed questions to them.

Topics ranged from the COVID pandemic to drag racing.

And, most importantly, no matter who you choose, get out and exercise your constitutional right to vote.

NET: How do you think the state has handled the coronavirus pandemic in terms of businesses, schools and other areas of life?

Hohenstein: My first concern is public health. Controlling the spread of COVID-19 has to be the top priority. We cannot pretend we are safe from a virus that is spreading uncontained when no vaccine exists and we don’t know the long-term health impacts for those who survive.

An emergency on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic requires fast and decisive action by an executive. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf’s baseline policy of doing as much as possible to control spread has been effective, and it stands in stark contrast to the lack of clear leadership on a national level. That being said, there are some areas with room for improvement — the governor should have kept the legislature better informed, provided more transparency on essential business designations and implemented stronger policies earlier to protect residents and workers in long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

Of course, there are negative impacts of such measures that prioritize public health, especially on small businesses and schools. However, the economy and businesses cannot function without healthy workers, and our children cannot be educated if their schools pose a risk to their health and become vectors for spread to their parents and grandparents.

Unfortunately, many of my colleagues in the legislature fail to take the health risks seriously, and legislation continues to be pushed through Harrisburg along partisan lines in an attempt to address the issues of the economy and education as if the public health impacts did not exist. I have been advocating for worker protection and improving access to the Unemployment Compensation system that is the lifeline for our working families. My bills for PPE stockpiles, paid sick leave and hazard pay never went anywhere; and there is a refusal to acknowledge that the delays and errors in the Unemployment come from reducing staffing and budgets for that agency. Our elected officials simply need to work together and coordinate better to soften the blow by supporting small business relief measures and a stronger, more accessible UC system.

Finally, we have to let our kids know that the key to getting through this is to admit that it’s not easy, but that it will end. It starts with taking the basic measures to control spread, such as hand washing, social distance and mask wearing.

My parents were children during WWII and they learned the lessons of resiliency from my grandparents – victory gardens, scrap metal drives and recognizing the value of self-sacrifice for the greater good. I believe in those lessons and I have confidence that the people in the 177th do as well.

State Rep. Joe Hohenstein.

NET: Before taking office in December 2018, Rep.-elect Hohenstein’s staff promised a district office in the Mayfair area. A taxpayer-funded mailing earlier this year said such an office would be opening, but it has not. Will the 177th Legislative District have an office in the northern part of the district during the 2021-22 session?

Hohenstein: Unfortunately, the COVID epidemic ended our plans to open an office in Mayfair. Since the onset of the outbreak, we have kept our Bridesburg office closed to in-person traffic and transitioned to mostly remote services. This meant that we did not need the Mayfair office.

The state budget difficulties that include a projected $5B deficit may reduce our district office budget for the upcoming year. If the resources are available, we will open our own office. If we cannot do that, we have discussed how to provide combined services in coordination with other state representatives in the area. Three reps have portions of Mayfair and we will make sure the neighborhood continues to receive services.

NET: What, in your opinion, is the biggest issue faced by the residents of the 177th Legislative District? How do you plan to address it?

Hohenstein: The COVID 19 pandemic is currently the biggest issue, because it has amplified all the other issues: schools, food security, jobs and community safety. As I have said above, we have to find ways to have a top-to-bottom coordination if we are to get through it together.

I still believe that the most important long-term issue is the need to have a safe, secure and clean neighborhood. I believe that starts with two things – education and economic security. Communities with strong schools become safer and more secure. Well-educated kids go on to become productive and contributing members of society. The key is to do it for everyone – not just people ‘lucky’ enough to win a charter school lottery or have enough money to pay a private school tuition. That is why I have supported public education and investing in schools. Building new schools and upgrading old environmentally hazardous buildings is an investment in infrastructure. The jobs created provide the economic security that is the second main element of safe and secure neighborhoods.

In my first term I have been involved in the Fund Our Facilities coalition of state and city officials, community organizations and union labor that has pushed the School District of Philadelphia for a plan to provide a good school for each child. In the 177th, we have plans to build a new K-8 school in Mayfair and a new building and renovations/remediation at Richmond School. I will continue to support those types of projects because they tackle the two most important parts of the problem — education and jobs.

NET: What was your single most significant accomplishment during your first term in office?

Hohenstein: The COVID-19 pandemic has been a life-altering event. I feel that the way that my office rose to the occasion to provide services, even with the office physically closed, is the most significant achievement – and it is one I share with my staff. In March, we recognized that we had to help people with food security, so we helped recruit volunteers for the Bridesburg Food Pantry and helped deliver meals until the worst of the first wave had passed. In September, we answered over 700 calls and provided close to 950 services to constituents. Since March, my staff has answered and helped resolve hundreds of Unemployment Compensation claims, providing a financial lifeline for people to make rent payments and keep food on the table. They have been an important human connection to a system that has been understaffed and unresponsive at the state level. I am blessed with fantastic people doing the work of service to the community with me: my chief of staff Dan Martino: my senior constituent service rep Tara Gontek; staffers Janet Bernstein and John Hanssens; and intern Courtney Cross. They are neighborhood people who are dedicated to making people’s lives better.

In Harrisburg, I responded to the COVID-19 crisis by being a voice for the workers who were putting themselves on the line. Almost none of the legislation that came through the House of Representatives had a primary focus of protecting workers, and I often found myself reminding my colleagues again and again not to forget the nurses, doctors, firefighters, police, EMTs, grocery workers, farmworkers, transit workers, sanitation workers and other frontline workers who needed PPE and the numerous other workers who were left out of work and needed an unemployment system that was more responsive.

NET: Safe injection sites – one was almost placed in South Philly, but plans were pulled after residents and local elected officials voiced concerns. There’s a push to place one in the Kensington/Harrowgate section – where do you stand on safe injection sites? Do you support them?

Hohenstein: I remain opposed to placing SIFs (supervised injection facilities) in the neighborhoods affected by opioids. We can engage in harm reduction, but we have to recognize that the safety of the entire community has to remain a priority. However, it is clear that the current system is not working. It is my hope that with the increased resources being put into opioid treatment, we will find the way to provide real, effective treatment – not just 15 or 28 days and release back onto the streets. Real treatment can take months, even years. We need to invest in more residential treatment centers and get insurance to pay for the longer stays and in-depth treatment models (models that also include the family members affected by their loved one’s addiction). One thing many people don’t realize is the number of people who die of overdose deaths at home — not on the street. Those deaths have a traumatic impact on entire families. We need to acknowledge the needs of the family (and the community) when we set up an individual person’s treatment regimen.

There is an opportunity right now to reset the accepted models with the recent development regarding Purdue, one of the largest of the greedy pharmaceutical companies peddling pain pills, finally coming to the table to pay billions of dollars to fix the problem they created.

More money will be available, but we must spend it wisely. I sit on a task force relating to warm handoff procedures in Harrisburg, where we are investigating the best ways to get people off the street and into treatment while keeping our communities safe in the process. I will continue to advocate on behalf of our neighbors who have lived through the pain of addiction — either individually or with a family member — to achieve sustained recovery from the scourge of addiction.

NET: It’s no secret we’re a nation divided when it comes to the role of police in the public realm. There are both calls for defunding the police/police reform and calls to back the blue. Where do you stand on the issue?

Hohenstein: I believe there is a way to support police as individuals and respect the risks they take while also advocating for changes to our government and law enforcement institutions. Systemic bias has created a different relationship with the police for our neighbors of color than what many us grew up with, myself included. The simple truth is that police make some people feel more safe – and others feel unsafe.

We should focus on two things: training and education for police and others engaged in public safety; and re-defining how public safety tasks need to be handled. On the first issue, six months in the academy is not enough training to prepare an officer for work on the street. Training should be longer, focus more on conflict de-escalation, and better address how communication works in different communities and cultures. An example of a situation that would have changed with more complete training and preparation is the September 2019 shooting of Darin Lee. None of the officers on the scene had tasers – nor had they been trained in their use – so when Mr. Lee behaved erratically and had a box cutter, an officer shot him. The issue is not simply about training and providing officers with less forceful ways to restrain someone, it is also about having different people on the scene. Mental health and drug specialists can respond to these incidents together with uniformed officers or separately. They can provide alternative options to resolve the conflicts.

I believe the key to resolving the divide on this issue is for each side to recognize that the other side has a piece of the truth, and that there is an even greater segment of the population who don’t have a strong opinion but simply want neighborhoods that are safe and secure. In the end, that is all any of us want and we should be able to get there together.

NET: Talk about the bill you are most proud of sponsoring during your time in office.

Hohenstein: HB2785 would establish an Inclusive Curriculum bill for K-12 schools that would both include disabled students and also teach all students about the contributions of disabled people in our society. I am proud of this bill because it is personal — I have a moderate hearing loss that affected my learning in school — and it is something that people in the neighborhood directly advocated and lobbied me to support. I believe that everyone has something to teach, and we all have a responsibility to see people who have often been viewed as ‘less-than’ human and value their contributions. We become a better society when we lift up people who do not have our advantages, and they can show us aspects of the human experience that make our lives better. If this bill becomes law, it will be a step towards full equality for disabled people.

NET: Drag racing has been an ongoing issue in Bridesburg and Port Richmond since state Rep. John Taylor’s time in office. Recently, both you and your opponent have cleaned up impacted Lewis Street. What are your plans short-term and long-term to address the issue?

Hohenstein: In the short term, I have already helped arrange additional state police support to the Philadelphia Police. I am also investigating how state-owned traffic cameras can be made fully available to assist in enforcing all aspects of the issue: noise, illegal vehicles and unsafe driving and racing. Cameras could also help in enforcing problems of illegal dumping throughout the neighborhood in Port Richmond, especially between Richmond Street and Delaware Avenue. I meet regularly with the police and community groups. We have also supported groups like Riverfront North; Stars & Stripes, Bars & Pipes; Port Richmond Community Cleanups; and Friends of Campbell Square that do cleanups.

Some long-term possibilities are: getting funding for drone cameras to help enforcement but avoid high-speed chases; having commercial cameras from the Port Richmond Corridor Association and PhilaPort coordinated to cover the entire area; and traffic-calming devices like humps/bumps and rumble strips – although those have problems, in that we cannot place them on some state roads and arterials. Finally, some folks have suggested creating a park area where these vehicles can operate legally and more safely. Initial talks would put that park close to the airport. This is an issue that has been around since the 1960s, and I am open to finding the best ways to fix it.

NET: The Northeast Times in August published a piece about residents circulating a petition for Northeast Philly to secede from the city and become its own county. The 177th covers parts of these neighborhoods. What are your thoughts on the idea and petition?

Hohenstein: When I think about an area that is not getting the representation it deserves, I think about the entire city of Philadelphia and the suburban region in Southeast PA. Our city and suburbs send more in taxes than we receive back from the rest of the state. An example is that 50% of the fees and fines from red light and speed cameras on Roosevelt Blvd. go to the state. That is money that does not come back into Philadelphia and it would not come to a newly formed County of Northeast Philadelphia, either. The inequity in state funding would still hurt Northeast Philly if it was separate from the rest of the city.

I understand people’s disagreement with some city policies, like the beverage tax. I disagree with many of those policies as well, just as I disagree with some of the laws passed at the state level. Secession is not a viable solution to that disagreement. Engagement is the solution.

NET: How do you think the state has handled the coronavirus pandemic in terms of businesses, schools and other areas of life?

Nungesser: I believe that Gov. Wolf has failed to properly handle the pandemic. Instead of working with Republican lawmakers in the state House and state Senate, he pushed through with executive orders that have severely hurt Pennsylvania’s businesses and economy.

NET: Should you be elected, where do you plan to open an office? Will you open more than one in the 177th Legislative District?

Nungesser: I plan to have an office in every neighborhood I represent, including reopening the Port Richmond office at Thompson and Cambria streets that still bears John Taylor’s name on it.

NET: What, in your opinion, is the biggest issue faced by the residents of the 177th Legislative District? How do you plan to address it?

Nungesser: The biggest issue in our district at the moment is the decline in quality of life. We have streets that have become dumping grounds for trash, and weekend nights our neighborhoods are overtaken by loud music and drag racers. I plan to work with city agencies to place speed bumps along the roads where the drag racers frequent and I plan to work with Philadelphia Police to add more officers to work to curb this issue.

NET: What is your single most significant goal you hope to accomplish should you be elected?

Nungesser: I hope to create a fully rounded trade school for our district. This trade school would create a pathway to a well-paying career for those who do not wish to go to a traditional four-year college, and it would create more trades jobs to combat the national labor shortage we are currently facing.

NET: Safe injection sites – one was almost placed in South Philly, but plans were pulled after residents and local elected officials voiced concerns. There’s a push to place one in the Kensington/Harrowgate section – where do you stand on safe injection sites? Do you support them?

Nungesser: I stand completely against the safe injection sites. That name itself is an oxymoron, there is absolutely nothing safe about injecting heroin. All these sites would do is normalize drug abuse, and we should be focused on treatment and rehabilitation rather than enabling.

NET: It’s no secret we’re a nation divided when it comes to the role of police in the public realm. There are both calls for defunding the police/police reform and calls to back the blue. Where do you stand on the issue?

Nungesser: I stand unequivocally in support of our law enforcement officers. I grew up with several police officers in my family, and I know that the perception of police in this country is wrong. They are hard-working individuals who want to best serve their community. In a year where we’ve had more murders in our city than we’ve had in over a decade, I do not understand how anyone can reasonably call for defunding our police. We need them now more than ever.

NET: Talk about how/why you will open a trade school in the district.

Nungesser: As I stated previously, a trade school would create a path to a well-paying career for those in the district who do not wish to pursue a typical college experience. I plan to work with state and city officials to fund the school and feel it is an opportunity for our district to create the next generation of hard-working, blue-collar workers.

NET: Drag racing has been an ongoing issue in Bridesburg and Port Richmond since state Rep. John Taylor’s time in office. Recently, both you and your opponent have cleaned up impacted Lewis Street. What are your plans short-term and long-term to address the issue?

Nungesser: My team and I cleaned up on Lewis Street back in July, only for the street to be littered again the following weekend. Once we had cleaned up once and the problem continued to persist, we went to the 24th Police District to ask what we should do to combat the issue. Repeatedly cleaning the site is only enabling the drag racers and partiers to return. We need a plan to chase them out of our communities once and for all. That’s why I am proposing speed bumps along roads that the drag racers frequent. If we can stop the drag racers from congregating and racing, the partiers will be sure to follow.

NET: The Northeast Times in August published a piece about residents circulating a petition for Northeast Philly to secede from the city and become its own county. The 177th covers parts of these neighborhoods. What are your thoughts on the idea and petition?

Nungesser: I believe we as a city must come together to combat the string of lawlessness we are seeing. Our local leadership in Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner have created an environment where the criminal element is emboldened because they feel there are no consequences for breaking the law. All you have to do is remember that in the wake of the riots we had in early June, anyone who was arrested was pardoned and let go. The only way to show the local leadership that we will stand up for our city is to unite as one, not come apart.