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Manny Guzman Jr. is the newest member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from District 127.  Photo courtesy of: the Office of PA Rep. Manny Guzman
Manny Guzman Jr. is the newest member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from District 127.  Photo courtesy of: the Office of PA Rep. Manny Guzman

Inside PA Rep. Manny Guzman's journey from the basement to the State House

Manny Guzman’s journey to Harrisburg is one of Latinos realizing their true political and economic power.

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There are countless stories of leaders that start at the bottom, but Pennsylvania Rep. Manny Guzman’s journey to political stardom started literally in a basement.

“We call it the basement meeting,” said Guzman in a recent interview with AL DÍA.

At the fabled meetup, which happened in 2018 in the basement of now Reading, Pennsylvania Mayor Eddie Moran’s house, was Moran, Guzman, and three of his high school friends, Juan Zabala, Nate Rivera, and Tim Rivera.

It so happened that all five were budding leaders in the predominantly Latino city of 88,000, an hour north of Philadelphia.

Their discussion centered on Reading’s political and economic future over the next five years.

Moran, then the vice president of the city’s school board, had ambitions to become Reading’s first Latino mayor, and Guzman was pegged to challenge longtime State Representative Thomas Caltagirone in 2018’s Democratic primary.

Zabala, a burgeoning real estate leader in the area, and the Riveras, would play supporting roles as the first two saw their political campaigns gather strength.

“We mapped out what the strategy was,” said Guzman. “We mapped out where we wanted to be and the things we needed to do to get there.”

“We mapped out what the strategy was,” said Guzman. “We mapped out where we wanted to be and the things we needed to do to get there.”

It’s a discussion Guzman had – many times before – with the Zabala and the Riveras a decade earlier as a student at Reading High School.

Manny Guzman took office on Jan. 5, 2021. At age 32, this young Hispanic becomes the first Latino representative from Reading, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of: The Office of PA Rep. Manny Guzman
Being the change from an early age

At the time, their city was in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. 

Reading was designated “the most impoverished city in America” and every national outlet used the label at will when referencing stories of struggle in the area. 

Even then, around the lunch table, Guzman and his friends spoke with the same eye to the future regarding their home as they did in Moran’s basement years later.

“Where is the city, and if we stayed in the city, where do we want it to go?” he said. “We came upon ourselves to be the change we wanted to see within our community.”

But for Guzman, Reading had to grow on him as his home –  after he moved there from Brooklyn, New York City when he was 11.

Guzman was born and raised in the Brooklyn projects by a single mother with five kids. She raised her children in the same neighborhood she had migrated to from Puerto Rico to live with her mother, who was a – garment worker.

“She was superwoman,” he said. “My mother was caught up in a system that kept people like her, women like her specifically, under a cycle of poverty.”

Still, she did her best to raise her kids before his father came back into the family’s life and moved them all into their first real home in Reading.

Guzman’s father is Dominican and immigrated to the U.S. across the Mexico border at Tijuana. He was in California for a number of years before ending up in New York City.

In Reading, he still works for the RM Palmer Candy Factory, where he’s been for 25 years. 

“Now, a generation later, he sees his son take the oath of office and be a legislator in the statehouse,” said Guzman.

But much like his state representative ambitions, Guzman’s political flame was also sparked in an unconventional way — through young love.

Manny Guzman alongside Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Photo courtesy of: The Office of PA Rep. Manny Guzman.
An unexpected love

As a student at Kutztown University at the end of the 2000s, the now-young state rep admits he wasn’t at all interested in politics.

That would change when a crush invited him to a meeting on campus of an organization that would capture his heart.

“It just so happens that that meeting was for then Senator, now President Barack Obama and they were launching his ‘Kutztown for Barack Obama’ chapter,” said Guzman.

“It just so happens that that meeting was for then Senator, now President Barack Obama and they were launching his ‘Kutztown for Barack Obama’ chapter,” said Guzman.

Unfortunately, the relationship with the girl never blossomed, but that first introduction to politics via Obama was love at first sight.

“It was like a magnet. I couldn’t help myself,” said Guzman. “The reason why is for the first time, I saw somebody who looked like me, who talked like me, who came from a similar background that I came from, talking about how we needed to be the change that we needed in our community.”

Guzman went on to be an organizer for Obama’s historic 2008 presidential campaign and would return to Reading with the same message.

He put that energy into a successful run for a spot on the city’s school board. 

Rep. Manny Guzman alongside Reading's first Latino Mayor, Eddie Moran. Photo courtesy of: The Office of PA Rep. Manny Guzman.
The “basement meeting” and failure

There, he worked with Moran and the seeds of the “basement meeting” were planted.

Moran was elected the first Latino in Reading’s history in 2019.

“After that, we were going to help Manny,” said Guzman.

Not long after the basement meeting, he ran for the first time against Caltagirone.

“I remember that Election Day like it was yesterday,” he said. 

A tornado warning marked the middle of the day, and throughout the campaign, Guzman dealt with a severely-infected wisdom tooth he couldn’t afford to get medical attention for on account of pouring 10 months of his life into the effort without a paycheck.

“I was so broke and so poor that I couldn’t go to the dentist, and so I resorted to buying antibiotics at the bodegas to keep the infection at bay,” he said.

To top the experience off, he lost the primary election to Caltagirone by a little more than 100 votes.

In his own words, the outcome sent him into a “deep depression.”

An opportunity at the worst of times

But out of dark times often come the best opportunities and glimpses of hope for the future. Guzman’s story is no different.

In challenging Caltagirone, Guzman was one of the first Democrats to do so in a long time. The veteran state rep from Reading was first elected to his District 127 seat in 1977.

“He was all I knew as a state rep,” he said. “I was the first one in 30 years with the ‘cojones’ to run against him.”

The effort did not go unnoticed, and soon after his loss, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party came calling for him as an organizer.

The same year he lost in the primaries, he would also help see to the reelections of Governor Tom Wolf and Senator Bob Casey in the general election.

Guzman would also learn how to better prepare for his next crack at District 127 in 2020. 

“I learned I was a flawed candidate that needed to build more connections across the state,” he said.

Two of them would be Wolf and Casey along with PA State Rep. Danilo Burgos and a number of other elected officials from across the Commonwealth.

His chances in 2020 took a further jump when Caltagirone announced the term he won in 2018 would be his last in Harrisburg.

Rep. Manny Guzman alongside the first Hispanic City Councilmember in Reading history, Angel Figueroa. Photo courtesy of: The Office of PA Rep. Manny Guzman.
Making history in 2020

When the same primary rolled around two years later, Guzman rode his star-studded endorsements to a big win in a crowded field of five candidates. He then went on to beat Republican challenger Vincent Gagliardo Jr. in the general election on Nov. 3 by garnering more than 70% of the vote.

With the victory, Guzman made history as the first Latino to ever rep Reading in Harrisburg. 

But he knows as much as his constituents that the real work begins now, and that it’s an uphill battle as a Democrat in Harrisburg.

Goals for office

On the campaign trail, Guzman ran on an agenda that drew from his upbringing with his single mother. His two biggest issues were fixing the gender wage gap and raising the minimum wage.

In Brooklyn, Guzman’s mother made due for her five kids on a $5.25 minimum wage.

“How the hell she made that work, I still don’t know to this day,” he said.

When he thinks about boosting the minimum wage or bridging the wage to help families in his district and across the Commonwealth, he thinks of his mother.

“I see my mother everywhere,” said Guzman

 In Pennsylvania, the minimum wage was set at $7.25 in 2009 through a federal mandate. In 2021, it is still the same.

“Nowhere in my district and nowhere across the Commonwealth can you even afford to pay for a two-bedroom apartment on $7.25,” he said.

“Nowhere in my district and nowhere across the Commonwealth can you even afford to pay for a two-bedroom apartment on $7.25,” he said.

In a perfect world, he said he’d make it $15, but as a member of the minority party in Harrisburg, Guzman pitches himself as a “pragmatic” progressive.

Rather than $15, he’s confident he knows enough Republican colleagues who would go for $12.

Beyond improving Pennsylvanians ’ wages, Guzman is also adamant about reforming the state’s criminal justice processes and infrastructure. His main target there is eliminating cash bail, where he hopes to codify the reform efforts of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner on the state level.

And with COVID-19, another major concern is combating the eviction crisis that has come as a result of an economic crisis equally as dire as that brought on by the 2008 housing bubble burst.

In Reading and municipalities across the Commonwealth, evictions are being carried out daily and the warned-of tsunami of them is growing at an alarming clip.

To combat the growing wave, Guzman is in favor of extending the state’s eviction moratorium for renters and providing more relief for homeowners and property owners.

“At the end of the day, COVID has given poor and middle-class folks the short end of the stick,” he said.

Making Reading a model

In Reading, those poor and middle-class folks are predominantly Latino. It’s been that way in the city for at least the last 25 years, according to Guzman.

“But we never could get over that hump,” he said, referring to the population’s ability to flex its political muscle.

Guzman’s success represents one of the first instances of its real power, but even he still admits that he “stands on the shoulders of giants.”

Whether they be Angel Figueroa, the Latino city council member in Reading, or the father of fellow Reading visionary, Juan Zabala, who was the first Latino to run for Mayor, they all took Guzman and others under their wings to show them the way.

Now, Guzman wants Reading to be a model for Latino communities across the state, and for him to also become a role model for young Latinos dreaming of running for office.  

All he needs them to do is reach out.

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