When last we saw Jared Solomon, the 37-year-old Northeast Philly native who, two years ago, set up a campaign office in his mom’s basement and came within 158 votes of upsetting incumbent State Rep. Mark Cohen, he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. No, through his Take Back Your Neighborhood community group, Solomon, a lawyer by day, responded to his heartbreaking loss by continuing to serve his neighborhood, performing the type of constituent services normally done by elected officials. If a constituent wanted a stop sign somewhere, they could call Solomon…and his team would help get it done. Though a private citizen, he enlisted the help of local corporations like Wawa to refurbish public playgrounds, such as the Max Myers Recreation Center.
It was a foregone conclusion that Solomon would be back to challenge Cohen in next month’s Democratic primary, in yet another classic matchup between old guard and reformer. Cohen, who has been in the legislature for more than 40 years, has long been the face of local political entitlement. One year, he hit up taxpayers for $39,000 in per diem expenses, often for days when the legislature wasn’t even in session. Over one two-year period, he billed taxpayers for $28,000 in book purchases.
As John Baer recently outlined in The Daily News, Cohen is representative of an out-of-control culture that rips off the taxpayers as a matter of course. Last year, the 203-member House paid out more than $2.1 million in per diems—$185 per day for food and lodging, with no receipts required. House members’ base pay is $85,339, and that’s before their annual raises or world class benefits or tax-free per diems are figured in. All for a legislature that can’t even pass a budget. Yet there Cohen was last year, racking up over $20,000 in per diems. For his part, Cohen has long maintained that his exorbitant expense account filings only prove that he’s the hardest working man in Harrisburg.
Solomon has challenged the incumbent to a series of five debates in every part of the District. Cohen hasn’t taken the bait. “We can hold the debates in Mark’s house and his wife can moderate,” Solomon says. “People in our district deserve a debate.”
Now, with the election six weeks out, Solomon is gaining momentum, having put together a broad coalition of unions, business leaders and political insiders. Councilman Bobby Henon and Controller Alan Butkovitz have endorsed him, as have the plumbers union, the firefighters and the FOP—a coup in the cop-heavy Northeast. The Chamber of Commerce has also gotten on board. Meantime, the race has gotten nasty, with Cohen alleging that Solomon volunteers slashed his tires. “Most of my volunteers are 70 and 80 year old women,” Solomon says. “They’re just concerned about their neighborhood.”
Cohen has challenged Solomon’s roughly 1,100 petition signatures. (About 300 are needed to secure a place on the ballot). “Mark’s getting desperate and showing a lack of willingness to look at his own record and be accountable for it,” Solomon says. “We should be engaging in a discussion of quality of life issues.”
To that end, Solomon has challenged the incumbent to a series of five debates in every part of the District. Cohen hasn’t taken the bait. “We can hold the debates in Mark’s house and his wife can moderate,” Solomon says. “People in our district deserve a debate.”
Solomon is running on a constituent service platform the likes of which, he says, this region hasn’t seen. It won’t be a stretch, because it’s what he’s been doing with Take Back Your Neighborhood. When the region got pummeled by a snowstorm, for example, it was Solomon and his band of volunteers who knocked on doors and shoveled the driveways of some 60 seniors and disabled people. “My office will be open seven days a week and we’ll have evening hours,” he says. “Every one will have my cell phone number. Most have it now.”
Solomon’s constituent service plan isn’t just reactive. He says he’ll enlist the help of urban studies students to walk the district and identify L&I violations and potholes and cracked sidewalks. “They’ll be my eyes and ears.”
Every day, knocking on doors, Solomon hears the same quality of life complaints: Boarded up homes. Abandoned cars. Poorly lit, trash-strewn streets. Crumbling sidewalks.
Last year, Cohen racked up over $20,000 in tax-free per diems. He has long maintained that his exorbitant expense account filings only prove that he’s the hardest working man in Harrisburg.
But there are some things that cry out for legislative fixes, like the Northeast’s worsening poverty and crime. Poverty in the Northeast went up 62 percent between 1999 and 2010 and crime is an ever-present fact of life weighing on the minds of Solomon’s neighbors. Legislatively, he wants to reform Section 8 housing. “We need to change HUD’s computer modeling,” he says. “They should space out HUD tenants throughout the District, instead of concentrating Section 8 tenants.” Most critical, Solomon says, landlords who accept Section 8 subsidies should either own a home or rent a property themselves in the same neighborhood. “We have landlords with 40 Section 8 properties who don’t live here,” he says. “HUD cuts them their check every month and they just take and take and take from us.”
Kind of like Cohen, to hear Solomon tell it. And that’s where he comes in. Solomon says Cohen and Section 8 landlords both prey on the people of the Northeast…so the cure is obvious: A man of the people. The race is close and likely will come down to the wire, as it did two years ago. I didn’t have the heart to ask Solomon what comes next for him if he comes up short again. Then again, don’t we know the answer? He’ll lick his wounds, and then be back on the streets with his flock, working to make their neighborhood better one block at a time.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said State Rep. Brian Sims endorsed Solomon.
Header Photo: Courtesy of Jared Solomon