Lozada v. Celin, the showdown in District 7
After 14 years of the same face on City Council, Philly’s District 7 will elect its new leader for the next four years.
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Digital Editor Nigel Thompson and AL DÍA Political reporters Carlos Nogueras and Alan Nuñez contributed to this story.
Fourteen years is a long time. That’s how long María Quiñones Sánchez led Philadelphia’s District 7 on City Council. For the district’s residents — where people 30 and under make up 40-50% of the population in some zip codes — that tenure of leadership is all, if not most of their lives.
Quiñones Sánchez was an era, and while it officially ended in 2022 as she went for Mayor — replaced by current Councilmember Quetcy Lozada for the last year — the 2023 municipal elections represent a chance for voters in the district to chart a new path for the next four.
It’s a microcosm of the decision the whole of the city will also make on May 16, 2023, but instead of eight Democratic candidates there are two.
A tale of two candidates
One is Lozada, Quiñones Sánchez’s hand-picked successor who was her chief of staff for 13 years. Everything she knows about politics at a district and city level came from her predecessor and mentor.
“I learned that the district needed to have a voice,” Lozada said of Quiñones Sánchez as she was anointed the Democratic Party’s candidate in the special election last year to replace the longtime councilmember in District 7. “I learned that she did what she thought was best at the time for the residents of the District.”
The other Democratic challenger is Andrés Celin, not a new face in the district as an educator, youth leader and mentor for the last decade, but someone who strikes a very different tone when talking about its future.
“I'm tired of leaders pretending like everything is okay. Pretending like it's not their responsibility, what's happening here in the community, or believing that they have all the answers and not knowing that the answers are here in the community already,” he said to the crowd at his launch party on Jan. 31, 2023 at Càphê Roasters.
The hand-picked successor
Lozada is a lifetime resident of District 7, born one of five to Puerto Rican parents in Norris Square. While not a story of bouncing around in public housing in North Philadelphia like her predecessor, Lozada’s family also came upon economic hardship when her dad lost his job as the factory he worked at unexpectedly closed.
With three daughters (including Lozada) in Catholic school with tuition that needed to be paid, her dad sought out public assistance.
Eventually, her mom also finished a stint at school and got a trade job to help Quetcy and her sisters through their own education.
After high school, Lozada initially avoided college for a job at the Gallery and then landed a gig at Concilio, where she first met Quiñones Sánchez — then the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. At Concilio, Lozada worked on Latino voter outreach, registration and finding Spanish-speaking poll workers.
When Quiñones Sánchez became the first Latina elected to City Council in 2007, she met with Lozada to offer her a job. After accepting, she dove headfirst into constituent services and office management to craft and carry out the councilmember’s vision.
Lozada called Quiñones Sánchez a visionary who “has always been able to see far beyond today.”
“She consistently fought for people, she fought her way through government. And she has always found the support of the people,” she continued.
That fight was often and sometimes very public with the Democratic Party establishment. Lozada has taken a much more conciliatory approach to the Party and not only scored its appointment in the special election, but also stands with its support in 2023.
The progressive outsider
That makes Celin the outsider — politically and in life experience when it comes to District 7.
He was born in South Carolina to Colombian parents who moved back to his mom’s hometown of Cali, Colombia when he was five. It was there he grew up, attending the private school where his mother taught for 22 years.
While not leading the wealthy lifestyle of many of his fellow classmates, Celin said the school brought him and his brother “an enormous amount of opportunities in terms of education.”
In school, he took part in a study abroad program in his junior year that took him to Hong Kong with other international students, which eventually led him to apply and be accepted into Haverford College on Philly’s Main Line for his post-high school studies.
Haverford was Celin’s first experience in a suburb, and it led him to seek out the nearby city of Philadelphia. He first discovered North Philadelphia teaching music classes and running after school programs at various schools.
Upon graduation, spurred by becoming a young father and a desire to best utilize his skill of Spanish, Celin was drawn to work in the city’s Latino community, which first brought him to District 7 at Edison High School. There, he ran a mentoring program for youth for a couple years.
After budget cuts, Celin took work as a case manager at Congreso before getting into youth organizing in the neighborhood.
That organizing saw him and a group of students and teachers defend a school from closing in Kensington, which also introduced Celin to Helen Gym for the first time.
He would later work for Gym’s office as a policy fellow, getting an inside view of how the machine of city government worked, and what change was possible at that level from an organizing perspective.
“Having someone in counsel that is being an ally to you — not just let me give you things, but let me give you intel so you can organize better — is like having the cheat codes to the video game,” he said.
That’s a major reason behind his run against Lozada in 2023.
“No one put me up to run,” said Celin. “This has to be part of a larger vision that's built here, for folks here, by people who are from the community and they put blood, sweat and tears into working here.”
Priorities 1 and 1: Safety and opioids
On the issues, both Lozada and Celin stress finding solutions to the district’s crises of opioids and gun violence as the top priority.
Lozada will lean on law enforcement for her solution.
“Using narcotics openly is a criminal act. You’re breaking the law,” she told AL DÍA back in January. “As an administration, as leaders, we need to find ways, or we should have found ways to be able to address the law that is being broken.”
Lozada was also keen to point out that residents don’t want over policing or police brutality, but do “want the law to be upheld in their community.”
“I don't believe in over-policing, but I do believe in policing,” she said at a later event alongside Celin hosted by Riverwards Area Democrats “But I also believe very strongly that police can’t work unless they are in partnership with community residents. They can't do the work on their own.”
The message is similar to that of mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker, who has struck a tone of getting more police out “on the beat” in communities like Kensington while also not having any tolerance for any “misuse or abuse” by those same officers. Lozada recently endorsed Parker for Mayor alongside other Latino political leaders from the district and recently embarked on a “Coffee with a Cop” tour to get deputies direct facetime with communities. She’s also proposed a “Marshall Plan” for Kensington to bring leaders together and find solutions.
She is also adamantly against safe injection sites entering the district, and protested outside the U.S. Attorney’s Office earlier this year when it looked like a secret settlement was struck without input from local officials. Lozada said she would flex the muscle of her office to prevent the construction of one.
It’s a stance where her and Celin see eye-to-eye when it comes to considering the overwhelming negative community feedback. That’s in spite of seeing data where they worked to get people into treatment.
“My understanding is that those places where they worked do not have the kinds of conditions and challenges and lack of investments and resources that Kensington has,” he said.
On what his campaign calls community safety, Celin sees law enforcement as one leg of the table when it comes to addressing the problem. His platform starts with the budget and pushes for more housing and addiction treatment options, evidence-based violence prevention programs and more non-police mobile crisis units — a policy pushed for and piloted by Gym during her time in City Council.
Endorsements and other support
When it comes to endorsements, Lozada has the entire establishment, including the Democratic Party, labor unions, the big wards and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
She’s also a beneficiary of independent expenditures by billionaire Jeff Yass in favor of her campaign. Lozada has since told AL DÍA that she does not know who Yass is and has not coordinated with him in any way.
Celin’s docket of endorsements, while not having the name recognition of Lozada’s, is made up primarily of the city’s growing but still young, progressive bloc. It includes groups like Make the Road Action (who also endorsed Gym for Mayor), Amistad Movement Power and the Democratic Socialists of America, to name a few.
Those endorsements and support can go a long way, but it’s the residents who will ultimately decide the winner on May 16.