Joe Hohenstein — Candidate for State Rep of the 177th


Questionnaire Responses By Joe Hohenstein — Candidate for State Rep of the 177th.

1. What do you value most about the 177th district and why do you want
to represent it in the state legislature?

To pick a single thing as having the most value is simply impossible. The 177th is my home, and it has been my home for all of my life. My family has roots that go back to the 1850’s in the neighborhoods of the River Wards and the lower Northeast. It is a prideful region of the city. It has wonderful history (I recommend the documentary The Kings Highway). It has painful history (I recommend an article, The Angry Ones, by Eileen DeFranco in 2016, that explains the hard times that have hit with so many jobs fleeing the city). I believe that people in the 177th can hear and follow a message of economic
and social justice, but it needs a messenger who is one of their own. If I am pressed to say one thing about why I value the 177th it is the fact that it is my
home and always has been. I have seen parts of the district that are still tight knit and have a strong sense of community, but I have also seen parts of the 177th that are struggling economically and socially in recent years. I want to restore and improve the quality of life across the 177th, which is the reason I want to represent it in Harrisburg. I firmly believe that our struggles to make the world a better place must be engaged locally. Two years ago, I was fighting an establishment that had handed this district to a legislator who served individuals well in the neighborhoods, but who served other masters in Harrisburg. My goal then remains my goal today: to serve people with their everyday issues and concerns first where they live and then in the State Legislature, but also make my constituents my priority when evaluating legislation in Harrisburg, not special interests or powerful groups.

2. How do you plan to incorporate grassroots movements into your campaign, and long-term community organizing and participation into your governance if elected?
I know that grassroots organizations like Neighborhood Networks and PA215 and the predecessor of Reclaim had operations that supported my 2016 campaign and played a significant role in galvanizing community support. For that I am grateful. Current law prohibits direct coordination on campaigns. However, they are essential to the electoral process and I will do everything I can to encourage continued participation. On the separate question of involving grassroots movements in long term organizing and governance, I will absolutely reach out and strive to have advisory boards and forums on a regular basis that will provide the types of spaces not currently available in an environment dominated by civic associations and other less flexible
institutions. I will also actively seek community input on key legislative initiatives.

3. If you have served as an elected official before, what services have you
delivered to residents across your district? If you have never served as an
elected official, what services do you want to deliver and how will you do so?

The current office holder has three legislative service offices, essentially giving him the power of a small non-profit referral agency. I will try to match those services within the budget constraints for a first term minority party legislator. One model I have seen used effectively is to create weekend ‘mobile offices’ in places where constituents normally gather or where they live (like senior centers). The types of services I will seek to provide will be those that are currently provided — advocacy with local City and State government
and quasi-governmental agencies (like utilities and public transit). Many people quality and could benefit from government programs that are available to them but they may not be aware of. My office would work to connect people with those programs and navigate the bureaucracy so that constituents may be better served. If elected, I would take a proactive approach and conduct outreach to constituents about the resources available
to them through my office. Providing these services will provide people with a sense of connection to their government and also, quite simply, improve their lives. I would also make my offices places where those with complaints of discrimination and other mistreatment could come for referral to the State and City Human Relations Commissions. The creation of safe spaces is important.

4. In recent years, Pennsylvania has had enormous trouble passing a budget. What are your budgetary priorities, what revenue sources would you seek, and how will you move these measures through the Republican-dominated legislature?
Fair funding for education is the most essential budget item. We need to
pass legislation that recognizes the Constitutional mandate to provide
education to the commonwealth’s children. For the kids in my district,
and for all of Philadelphia’s children, the state has failed horribly.
A second priority on the funding side is infrastructure. Studies show
numerous bridges and roads in dangerous states of disrepair. Appropriate
infrastructure investment can also be a source of jobs. A final funding side priority of concern are public pensions. I am committed to making certain that Pennsylvania keeps its contracts and promises to state employees, many of whom gave up higher compensation in the private sector because of the existence of pensions. None of these funding priorities can be reached without increasing revenue.

The single most glaring failure is that Pennsylvania still does not have an appropriate fee/tax structure on the natural gas and fossil fuel industry. I am dismayed that recent efforts to have those taxes and fees enacted also included unacceptable de-regulation and weakening of environmental protection. I would work to have strong tax and fee structures on these industries without giving up protection.

I would also look into other revenue streams, possibly tying infrastructure
improvements to raising fees on the PA turnpike. This would necessitate keeping the Turnpike under state control and not handing it over to private entities.Working with Republicans in Harrisburg to advance these items is difficult but it is not impossible. As a member of the minority party, I recognize I will need to work with at least some of their legislators. I will work with Republicans to find common ground so that we could advance legislation together. Most Republicans would agree that passing a budget on time and fixing infrastructure (especially in their districts) should be priorities.

5. Philadelphia remains the most impoverished major city and about 75% of our residents lack bachelor’s degrees. What policies would you implement to ensure that decent, high-paying jobs created here are accessible to the majority of our population, not just the relatively well-educated and already well off?
We have to begin in investing in education in the trades. We have too long devalued the work done with a person’s hands. Infrastructure initiatives can increase the number of good, high-paying jobs. I also believe there is much to be gained to looking into investment into alternative energy sources and the manufacturing and infrastructure that can be created in that sector. In my district in particular, there is significant area where old factories or other industry once stood that can become productive again. The only reason we are ignoring different types of opportunities is a fear of the unknown.

6. Pennsylvania has the highest average student loan debt of any state, at
$35,185. Would you support legislation to make the PASSHE system and
Commonwealth colleges tuition and fee free and provide cost of living stipends to low-income students?

Yes I would support this and other legislation that would make free not only higher education but also any continuing education available in trades on the same footing.

7. What policies would you promote to reduce or eliminate Pennsylvania
residents’ student loan debt burden?
I would look at federal programs that have worked, particularly those that allow for debt forgiveness for work in the public sector. I also think looking to create incentives for lenders to provide longer repayment terms or greater forgiveness, especially for interest rates that may become out of step with rates in the market.

8. Philadelphia’s school district has been under partial state control since 2001. Do you support maintaining the School Reform Commission? Why or why not?
I have been consistent in saying that the SRC needs to be dissolved and,
thankfully, that appears to be happening. The challenge will be to create an
appropriately responsive and professional model for governance that avoids the fiascos of conflicts of interests that have characterized past administrations. I favor a model that includes a 9 member panel that has both appointed and elected members with provisions to prevent conflicts of interest and self-dealing.

9. Approximately 33% of Philadelphia students are enrolled in charter schools. What is your position on the expansion of charter schools? Should they be given public money via vouchers or similar programs (like ESAs)? What role do you think public schools play in our city?
In a district like mine it is difficult not to acknowledge the utility and value of charter schools. With the closing of so many of our local public and parochial schools, charters have taken in many of our community’s children. The problem is that the have done so at the expense of the regular public system and they have done so without proper accountability for either academic quality or fiscal responsibility. If elected I would support legislation that makes charters more accountable and establishes separate funding streams for public and charter schools. Vouchers are not an answer. I believe we need to provide proper funding for public schools, especially for early childhood and elementary education. Our children deserve high-quality and accessible, local education without having to rely on charter lotteries or long commutes to other neighborhoods.

10. What policies would you advocate to expand and strengthen the labor movement in Pennsylvania? How would you fortify existing unions in the event of a state or nationwide right-to-work law? How would you expand worker representation and power in sectors with low union density?
This question is complicated by the lack of unity within the union movement itself. In my previous election I found many unions to be attached to maintaining a status quo they perceived to be “all they could get” in the current system. I would support union movements that foster transparency and democratization within the unions. I also believe that organizing in currently weak sectors will require unions demonstrating that they are willing to listen to and understand the basic struggle today’s workers face — a struggle characterized more by uncertainty and insecurity than traditional issues like wages and benefits. Unions have to communicate a message that they can increase security along with wages and benefits.

With all that said, I support all of the traditional union legislative efforts, especially fighting so-called ‘right to work’ laws and protecting public union pensions. I come from a family with a strong union background. I know that our country was at its most prosperous — with the strongest middle class during the heyday of unions from 1947–1980. Workers’ right to organize and strike provide additional positive economic impacts. This traditional vision of the union movement should be supported, both on economic and humanistic levels.

11. Will you commit to fighting for funding to expand Medically-Assisted
Treatment, mental health, and community-based programs to support people struggling with addictions and their families in Philadelphia? How will you hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for its role in the spread of the opioid crisis?

I will absolutely do all that I can to provide funding to treatment-based options to this latest controlled substance crisis. With the unique feature that this crisis involves the abuse and over-prescription of commercial drugs, I would absolutely take steps to require producers and distributors of those drugs to be accountable. I would support making the penalties for over-production and over-prescription include loss of licensing and payment of fines. The fines would be kept within the funding stream for treatment.
At the same time, I have seen open air deals while door knocking in my neighborhoods and I know that residents are scared and many feel trapped in their homes. We need to find ways to provide treatment and assure surrounding communities of their security. It will be difficult to strike a balance between individual rights to human treatment and the community’s security, which has to include perceptions of security because security includes the lack of personal fear. At this time, I am not certain of the exact policies that will get us to that space as a society. I am intrigued by the use of safe spaces for use that are also connected to getting treatment towards recovery, but I recognize that valid concerns exist relating to community safety.

12. Philadelphia’s immigrant and minority communities are threatened by increased ICE deportation efforts, police brutality and misconduct, and discriminatory treatment by our criminal justice system. At the same time, crime has been a significant problem in some parts of the district. What will you do to ensure that Philadelphia is safe and welcoming for all, from all types of violence?
I support the current Welcoming City Policy of the City of Philadelphia. I
believe the strongest policy rationales are that immigrants are part of the fabric of our neighborhoods. We are all more secure if immigrants, as a community, feel their own safety and security is increased by being able to fully access the police and other law enforcement for their (and the community’s) protection.

As with the use of certain policies in the opioid crisis, the difficulty in these
policies is in the communication and understanding of the nature of the
problems that the policy is addressing. I also feel that these issues are best addressed by going to public meetings (like the regular PSAs that are held in all parts of the City) and listening to the worries, fears and concerns of the people. Law enforcement that start with community involvement has the best chance at creating a successful approach in which the community feels engaged and involved. At PSA meetings I have attended it is the perceived lack of attention to crime — at whatever level it is experienced — that is the greatest complaint. In many cases, listening will reveal a possible solution that “makes sense” on many levels, but might not have been pursued without the community being involved. An example is the use of bicycle patrols in certain neighborhoods that may be more enclosed or cut off from main part of the city (in my district, Bridesburg is one such neighborhood).

13. Do you agree or disagree that “tough on crime” policies have
overcrowded our prisons, and if so, what steps would you take to reduce our prison population?

I agree. I also believe that finding an appropriate focus on rehabilitation as
opposed to punishment will reduce both initial sentences and recidivism. I
support the use of diversionary and treatment programs especially like ARD
for first time nonviolent offenders. As a state legislator I would review the criminal code and focus on our system of default punishment and classification of crimes. I would then make recommendations as to which types of crimes can be re-classified and propose development of a better system of punishment with a focus on rehabilitation.

14. The statewide average annual cost for childcare services is $10,640, while the median assisted living facility and nursing home cost $43,200 and $116,800 per year, respectively. Would you support or oppose legislation to provide universal child and elder care for Pennsylvanians?
Yes. I would also support the payment of living wages in those fields. A
minimum wage of $15 is only a beginning.

15. Would you support legislation for universal single-payer healthcare with no co-pays that covers all individuals regardless of documentation status?
Yes. Health care should be consider a human right on a par with First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion. Without access to adequate healthcare our political rights become hollow. Also, in terms of an impact on the economy as a whole, controlling costs with a strong baseline of health care through a single payer will reduce the amount of our GDP that is unnecessarily spent on health care premiums. As a small employer, my costs for covering 100% of my employees’ healthcare premium is close to 20% of those employees’ salaries.

16. Do you support the Keystone Opportunity Zone program? Would you
introduce legislation to eliminate it, or to limit the number of times a parcel’s KOZ designation can be renewed or extended? More generally, do you support tax breaks to lure or retain businesses?

I will have to study the KOZ program more completely. As an initial matter, I am concerned with the impact on state revenue of tax abatement programs like this one. However, in comparison with the property tax abatement in Philadelphia, this program at least appears to be connected to the production of economic activity including manufacturing. I will have to study this further.

17. What is your opinion on privatized infrastructure or public-private
partnerships for development or maintenance of public infrastructure like roads or water works?

I believe the move to privatize government services is misguided. The privatization of certain areas of environmental regulation and permitting has actually led to conflicts with the industries applying for permits being the same ones handling the permitting inspection and recommendations. Privatization of public services usually results in the most lucrative services being handled by the private industry while the less lucrative elements get ignored or neglected. The education of Philadelphia school children is an example, with charters cherry picking certain special education students that can be mainstreamed, taking advantage of the same funding that a regular public school gets for educating children that require more direct resources, like one on one physical care.

18. What, in your view, are the causes, threats, and opportunities of climate change? How would you address climate change as a Pennsylvania state representative?
In all honesty, this question requires a dissertation. I respectfully refer you to read The Great Transition by Lester Brown to get an understanding of how I would approach these issues. As background, I have one brother who is an engineer for the PA DEP Southeastern Region in charge of dams and waterways and another brother who is the Program Director for the Dept of Agriculture Office of Chief Economist Climate Change Program. I have discussed climate change policies with them in detail and I have specific ideas for how to begin to implement an appropriate energy production/harvesting/transportation/use system that provides our environment a fighting chance. I will be happy to discuss these issues in detail.

19. The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce advocates converting Philadelphia into an “energy hub” for oil and natural gas, or the “Houston of the East Coast.” Do you agree or disagree with this vision? If you or your employer are a member of the Chamber, have you used your influence to advocate in any way on this proposal?
My vision for Philadelphia is that it has an opportunity to become an energy hub for alternative energy and the manufacturing that goes along with it. Natural gas has some value as a transition fuel from oil to renewables/sustainables but it is not an energy source to which we should peg any long term development. I am not a member of the Chamber. I recommend that you read The Great Transition by Lester Brown to get a sense of where I stand on these issues.

20. Do you regard basic needs of Pennsylvanians, including food, housing, healthcare, and education, as human rights or as commodities most efficiently distributed by economic markets?
These are human rights. I believe that my previous answers have articulated my views on these subjects.

21. How do you define democracy, and does Pennsylvania meet your definition? Why or why not? What actions if any would you take to alter who makes the most important decisions in our state and society, and whose needs are prioritized?
I define democracy as a system of representation in which the will of the people governs the policies, rules and laws by which the society as a whole are
governed. We live in a representative democracy that defines the will of the
people as a simple majority. In my religious community, The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) we operate under concepts that seek to find unity or the full “sense of the meeting.” Occasionally, this is also expressed as consensus.
Pennsylvania does not function in a way that I can feel comfortable calling a true democracy. The problem is twofold — one is a disengagement by the people and the other is the usurpation of their voice by special interests because the political system in pace has led to inequity in representation. The current challenge in court to the 2012 gerrymandered redistricting plan (of which the 177th is an egregious example) is a start to changing that system. However, other elements of our political system, such as the unlimited personal contribution limits in political campaigns and the impacts of PACs in
our post-Public Citizen world will remain even if districts are made more fair.
If I am elected I would take legislative action to support appropriate redistricting (seeking to avoid an overcompensation and the temptation to swing the pendulum back too far), to make Election Day a holiday to encourage voter participation, and to limit contributions in campaigns. I will also support organizations and efforts to increase voting engagement and participation in the political process. Coming full circle to an earlier question above, that will involve support for grassroots organizations and community groups that get people caring more directly about what happens past their front stoop and into the city, state and world beyond. It may be an unattainable vision, but it is my hope that as a legislator I can be an example of civic engagement and public service that will encourage others to do the same.

Thank you for this opportunity to present myself and my campaign to Reclaim. I hope I earn your endorsement and support in the upcoming primary battle where I will be facing candidates who come from traditional power centers within our political establishment. I will need your help now and as I move forward in my work in public service.