A rainy 2018 yielded soggy fall harvest, Philly growers say

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

2018 has been one of the wettest years on record for Philadelphia.

So far, the city has been under more than 50 inches of precipitation. That’s 14 more than the average.

For local growers, the wet, humid conditions mean a flood of pests and diseases.

“Every year we have these challenges,” said Phil Forsyth, executive director of Philadelphia Orchard Project, a nonprofit community agriculture initiative. “But the more rain and humidity, the worse they are.”

Phil Forsyth takes visitors on a tour of the orchard surrounding Woodford Mansion, where apple, peach, persimmon and other fruit bearing trees can be found. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

The 61 community orchards supported by Forsyth’s group have seen their harvests suffer under the wet weight of bad weather.

“In our orchards, we’ve had very poor apple production this year,” he said. “Lost a lot of cherries and peaches to brown rot and other diseases.”

Brown rot is a fungus that thrives in moist conditions and feeds on stone fruits. The rot thrived this year, one of many indicators of an increasingly unpredictable local climate.

Over the last decade, Philadelphia has experienced some of its most extreme weather including five of its warmest years, and two of its wettest.

Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability says its a sign of climate change and predicts more unusual conditions moving forward.

“This summer, we’ve had one of the rainiest summers on record in Philadelphia,” said Christine Knapp, director of sustainability for the city. “And we’re just projected to continue over many decades.”

Fruit hangs from a persimmon tree in an orchard at Woodford Mansion in Fairmount Park. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

The rainy conditions may have caused frustration for local farmers, but Forsyth sees potential in the future. He says his organization has been experimenting with warm weather crops such as olives and guava.

“There’s some things to figure out about what climate change is going to mean for us,” he said.

Forsyth says he expects an official report of this year’s harvest production in January 2019.


Living in Philly without English

Guests: Orlando Almonte, Nelson Flores, Alicia Fernandez 

The United States doesn’t have an official language, but navigating daily life without speaking English is still tough in America. According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey, 10 percent of Philadelphians don’t speak fluent English. We’ll take a look at how the city government and public schools serve this population with ORLANDO ALMONTE, Language Access Program Manager for the Office of Immigrant Affairs, and NELSON FLORES, Associate Professor of Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Then, we’ll turn to physician ALICIA FERNANDEZ, who specializes in healthcare disparities and language barriers. She says that, even though there’s a federal mandate hospitals provide interpreters for their non-English speaking patients, access to proper translation can be patchwork.


State House members look ahead to leadership elections

Though most Pennsylvania politicians up for reelection have their sights set on Nov. 6, some state House lawmakers are already thinking about the weeks that’ll come after.

Two top Democrats and a top Republican are leaving the House – and that means their seats are fair game for representatives who want to take on more control.

In the Democratic Caucus, Minority Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek of Allegheny County and Minority Whip Mike Hanna of Centre County are stepping down.

Both have held their leadership roles since 2011 — as has fellow Western Pennsylvanian Frank Dermody, the minority leader from Allegheny County.

In that time, the commonwealth’s Democratic stronghold has continued shifting steadily southeast, to Philadelphia and its suburbs. Mary Jo Daley, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice-chair of the Southeast Delegation, said she thinks it’s time for leadership to reflect that — and other — changes.

“We have a lot of talented reps, and I’d like to see some of us in leadership,” she said.”I also think we need more women in leadership.”

A number of women have served as secretaries and chairs of the Republican and Democratic caucuses over the years, but virtually none have risen to leadership positions beyond that. There are only two exceptions: Republican Jane Orie, who served as Senate Majority Whip from 2001 to 2011 — and spent two-and-a-half years in prison for campaign corruption — and Democrat Mary Varallo, who was House Minority Whip from 1959 to 1960.

Daley noted, it’s early for talk of leadership elections. But she has made no secret of her interest in a higher position — and neither have a number of her colleagues in Philadelphia and the suburbs.

Both the upcoming election, and the leadership contest, is ultimately about the fate of the House Democrats, she said. The caucus has been stuck as a shrinking minority since 2011 — and it’ll almost certainly take years of concentrated effort to retake control of the chamber.

“This is not a one-election kind of thing,” she said. “I think we need, probably the next two elections.”

Meanwhile in the GOP, Majority Leader Dave Reed’s departure has created an opening most members say is likely to be filled by Bryan Cutler — the Lancaster County Majority Whip.

Cutler has been public about his plans to seek the position. And though Reed hasn’t formally endorsed him, he did tell the LNP Cutler would be a “natural fit” for the job.

Leadership elections are carried out every two years by the newly elected members in each of the legislature’s four caucuses. Leaders must win by a simple majority.

The House leadership election is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 13.


Wolf administration rejects Trump ACA option

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the state’s insurance commission have opted not to follow Trump administration guidance allowing insurers to sell individual health policies that would not be regulated through the Affordable Care Act.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the “State Relief and Empowerment Waivers” guidance Monday. The department, run by former drug company executive and President Donald Trump appointee Alex Azar, summarizes the waiver option as a way for states to address state-specific problems, increase coverage options and develop strategies to cut health care spending.

“One of the administration’s priorities is to empower states by providing tools to address the serious problems that have surfaced in state individual health insurance markets with the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” the DHHS document states.

The federal guidance comes as mid-term elections loom, and as discussions around the ACA and pre-existing conditions heat up among political candidates. It also comes less than two weeks before 2019 ACA insurance open enrollment begins.

Pennsylvania will not apply for waivers because the plans would put consumers at risk, said Ron Ruman, Pennsylvania Insurance Commission spokesman.

“People may think that they’re buying something that’s going to give them that coverage only to find out, unfortunately, when they have a large medical bill, that they’re not covered,” Ruman said.

In Pennsylvania, Plans on the ACA marketplace must meet strict coverage requirements signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010. Ruman said adopting the waiver system would allow insurers to sell coverage that didn’t meet those requirements.

Health insurers in the Commonwealth aren’t lobbying for off-exchange individual coverage, said Sam Marshall, president and CEO of the Pennylvania Insurance Federation, which represents insurance companies.

Marshall said insurers initially scrambled to adopt the Affordable Care Act but have since adjusted to it, with some companies invested in its success.

“The real challenge is that the ACA ultimately only works if everybody buys in,” Marshall said.


U.S. intercepts ‘suspicious packages’ addressed to Clinton and Obama; CNN evacuated

Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET

The Secret Service says it has intercepted two suspicious packages that were addressed to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Westchester County, N.Y., and former President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.

“The packages were immediately identified during routine mail screening procedures as potential explosive devices and were appropriately handled as such,” the Secret Service said in a statement Wednesday. “The protectees did not receive the packages nor were they at risk of receiving them.”

The package to Clinton was intercepted late Tuesday, and the package to Obama was intercepted early Wednesday morning.

CNN also reported that its New York City office was evacuated Wednesday morning due to a suspicious package containing a suspected explosive device. CNN anchor Jim Sciutto reported that the police bomb squad was on the scene, and the New York Police Department was advising people to avoid the Columbus Circle area, where the office is located.

With regard to the Clinton and Obama packages, the Secret Service says it is investigating the incidents, using “all available federal, state, and local resources to determine the source of the packages and identify those responsible.”

The FBI’s New York field office said in a tweet that it is “aware of a suspicious package found in the vicinity of the Clinton residence in Chappaqua, NY.”

Local law enforcement told NPR that “this morning the New Castle Police Department assisted the FBI, Secret Service, and the Westchester County Police with the investigation of a suspicious package,” and added that “the matter is currently under federal investigation.”

Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, bought a house in Chappaqua, N.Y., in 1999; two years ago, they bought a second house — the one next door.

When the Obama family left the White House, they rented a house in D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood that they purchased months later. The couple have said they want to remain in Washington, D.C., until their youngest daughter, Sasha, finishes high school.

In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, “We condemn the attempted violent attacks recently made against President Obama, President Clinton, Secretary Clinton, and other public figures.” She added, “These terrorizing acts are despicable, and anyone responsible will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

The report comes a day after an explosive device was found at the home of billionaire George Soros — a frequent contributor to Democratic and progressive causes — on Monday afternoon. Like the Clintons, Soros lives in Westchester County, N.Y.

Soros has donated money to the Open Society Foundation, which has been a financial supporter of NPR.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Delaware Shakespeare’s community tour explores nature of prejudice

Delaware Shakespeare explores the nature of prejudice Wednesday night as it opens its third annual Community Tour with a production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Ministry of Caring/Sacred Heart Village in Wilmington.

“The Merchant of Venice” is Shakespeare’s most controversial play, giving us as it does the portrait of the bloodthirsty and greedy Shylock, whose lust for revenge on the merchant Antonio springs from the very fact that he is Jewish — a despised outsider in the Christian community in which he lives.

That is exactly why the company’s producing artistic director David Stradley chose it for this year’s tour. “We were traveling around in October and November during the 2016 presidential campaign,” he said. “Incidents of hate speech were skyrocketing and we were traveling to a lot of places with people that may have been targeted by that kind of rhetoric. It hit us that “The Merchant of Venice” is the kind of play that would allow us to have a conversation with the community about that very issue.”

Four hundred years later, scholars still debate the play’s message: is “Merchant” an anti-Semitic play or a play about anti-Semitism? Was Shakespeare himself anti-Semitic?

There is certainly some shockingly hateful speech in the play, so much so that Stradley said some of his cast requested it be edited out of their performance. That, he said, would have been counterproductive to his purpose. “We’re not editing anything out to make it more palatable,” he said. “We’re looking at it full face-on asking where do these impulses come from for people to say things like that.”

Shakespeare himself would have been hard-pressed to have had any first-hand interactions with Jews, given that they were expelled from England in 1290 by an edict which remained in force for the rest of the Middle Ages. But he would have known the anti-Semitic leanings of Elizabethan England.

“All he had was what people said about Jews and that’s why we thought [doing this play] was so useful because the policies being made on high in this country are being made by people who don’t know the people being impacted, like the Muslims,” said Rabbi Michael Beals of Wilmington’s Temple Beth Shalom Congregation.

And while there were many virulently anti-Semitic works being produced during Shakespeare’s time, scholars contend that “The Merchant of Venice” is not one of them. Shylock, they argue, is a complex character whose lust for revenge does not necessarily stem from the stereotype of him being Jewish.

“Shylock is not a typical Jew,” said Jay Halio, Ph.D., professor emeritus of English at the University of Delaware. “He starts out really wanting to be friends with Antonio, offering an extraordinary loan at no interest. It is after his daughter elopes with a Christian taking much of his treasure with her and his discovery that Antonio may not be able to repay the loan that he begins seriously to take his revenge. No true Jew would violate the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ as Shylock prepares to do until Portia — like the angel in the biblical account of the binding of Isaac does — stops him.”

Moreover, Halio notes that there is nothing in Shakespeare’s voluminous output that reveals an anti-Semitic attitude. “I have checked all his works, especially his very personal sonnets, and there is nothing to indicate that he was [anti-Semitic]. The Merchant is filled with anti-Semitism but the play itself is not.”

Stradley adds that Shakespeare often used his work to comment sub rosa on Elizabethan society. “Shakespeare was really good at sneaking in critiques of society without just coming right out and saying it, because if he did, his plays would have been shut down,” he said.

Stradley has taken the liberty of casting an African-American actor in the role of Shylock, hardly a groundbreaking step but one that enhances the message he seeks to deliver. “Part of the reason he was chosen is because the conversation we’re hoping to start about xenophobia as a whole and other groups of people who are treated differently because of who they are,” he said. “But as a pure characterization, our goal is by the end of the play to have everyone in the audience very definitely on the side of believing that Shylock has been treated very badly.”

Delaware Shakespeare’s Community Tour 2018: The Merchant of Venice, runs October 24 through November 18 at various locations throughout New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties. Performances are free and open to the public (except for those in the prisons). Seating for the public is limited and reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Seats for public performances can be reserved by emailing info@delshakes.org.

There will be two paid admission performances at OperaDelaware Studios, 4 S. Poplar Street, Wilmington, Del., on Saturday, November 17 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 18 at 2 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.delshakes.org.


Health care by zip code? Some Philly neighborhoods are ‘primary care deserts’

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

It was a busy morning at Health Center 10 on Cottman Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia. The seating area was full of families waiting to be called in by a doctor, and a line to see the receptionist snaked throughout the clinic.

If the place had the feeling of bursting at the seams, it’s because it is — Health Center 10 is by far the busiest of the seven primary care health centers run by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. It sees 67,000 patient visits a year, and new patients add their names to a long waiting list for appointments. City clinics treat patients regardless of insurance status — making them the only option for many families. On Tuesday, the sound of a construction crew hammering away in the basement reverberated through the building — an effort to expand the number of exam rooms spaces.

Health Center 10 is the only Health Center operated by the city in the Northeast, and according to a report released on Tuesday by Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, that scarcity has a cost. Areas of the Northeast, along with Southwest Philadelphia, have much lower access to primary care providers than elsewhere in the city. Primary care, while often overlooked, can be critical in keeping people healthy.

“When people think of our health system, they mainly think of hospitals where you go when you get really sick,” said Farley. “But a primary care clinics are where doctors and nurses prevent people from getting really sick in the first place.”

Not only does primary care help with better health outcomes, it lowers costs. Health care for people who rely on emergency departments is more expensive than for people who see primary care doctors regularly for check-ups.

The report released by the city on Tuesday in partnership with the Leonard David Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania focused on several shortage areas in primary care access for Philadelphians.

The first is supply. While the city as a whole offers fairly good access — just over 1,200 residents per provider — some areas like the Northeast have more than 3,500 residents per primary care doctor, which qualifies them as primary care deserts.

The second shortage is insurance. The percentage of uninsured Philadelphians has decreased since the Affordable Care Act went into effect and Pennsylvania expanded Medicaid in 2015 — there are now only about 12 percent of adults in Philadelphia who don’t have insurance, down from 20 before the state’s Medicaid expansion. But the proportion of providers that accept Medicaid has actually gone down — traditionally, reimbursement rates are lower for Medicaid than for private insurance and Medicare.

“It does no good to give a person insurance and then not have a provider that can take their insurance,” said Dr. Raynard Washington, Chief Epidemiologist at the Philadelphia Health Department. Washington also pointed out that the small group of uninsured, which is disproportionately black and Latino, overlaps substantially with the geographic areas that have a shortage of primary care providers.

Health Center 10 offers a picture of both the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s primary care offerings. Many patients use the clinic as their regular primary care provider.

One of those people is Anthony Smith, 62, who lives nearby and said he has been visiting Health Center 10 roughly every three months for the past 15 years for regular check-ups. He has private insurance but said he wouldn’t consider going anywhere else, because the quality is good at the clinic. He said he doesn’t mind the wait times and imagines they’d be just as long anyplace else.

Orlando Garcia, 72, is originally from Colombia but has lived in the neighborhood for many years. As he waited for his wife to finish up her appointment, and said he loved going there for the consistent quality of the doctors, nurses and Spanish interpreters.

“Not just a few of them, but every single one,” he said in Spanish.

He didn’t want to say whether or not he had insurance but made it clear he was grateful he and his family had never been turned away.

Still, this facility is just one clinic.

Health Commissioner Farley said he knows that a few more exam rooms in the basement aren’t going to solve the shortage crisis. He is working with City Councilman Bobby Henon to secure a facility to build a new health center in the area, which, he said, the city does have some funding set aside for.

Ultimately though, Farley said it’s up to the private sector to respond to the results of the study and offer quality primary care where it’s needed most.

“This is a city that has some of the best medical centers in the country,” he said.

“Now we are calling on other health systems and Federally Qualified Health Centers to do their part as well.”


U.S. health chief says overdose deaths beginning to level off

The number of U.S. drug overdose deaths has begun to level off after years of relentless increases driven by the opioid epidemic, health secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday, cautioning it’s too soon to declare victory.

“We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning,” Azar said at a health care event sponsored by the Milken Institute think tank.

Confronting the opioid epidemic has been the rare issue uniting Republicans and Democrats in a politically divided nation. A bill providing major funding for treatment was passed under former President Barack Obama. More money followed earlier this year under President Donald Trump. And tomorrow Trump is expected to sign bipartisan legislation passed this month that increases access to treatment, among other steps.

More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, according to preliminary numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer— a 10 percent increase from 2016. Health and Human Services — the department Azar heads — is playing a central role in the government’s response.

In his speech Azar suggested that multi-pronged efforts to bring the epidemic under control are paying off. He ticked off statistics showing an increase in treatment with medications such as buprenorphine and naltrexone. There’s solid evidence backing medication-assisted treatment, when used alongside counseling and ongoing support. He also noted much broader access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and a documented decline in the number of people misusing prescription opioids as doctors take greater care in prescribing.

Azar said that toward the end of last year and through the beginning of this year, the number of deaths “has begun to plateau.” Azar was not indicating that deaths are going down, but noting that they appear to be rising at a slower rate than previously seen.

Earlier this month, the CDC released figures — also preliminary — that appear to show a slowdown in overdose deaths in late 2017 and the first three months of this year. From December to March, those figures show that the pace of the increase over the previous 12 months has slowed from 10 percent to 3 percent, according to the preliminary CDC figures.

Despite the slowdown, the nation is still in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. Opioids were involved in most of the deaths, killing nearly 48,000 people last year.

While prescription opioid and heroin deaths appear to be leveling off, deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines are on the rise. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid much more powerful than heroin, used as an additive in street drugs.

Advocates for people struggling with addiction said they don’t believe the crisis will be quickly or easily resolved. “Even if we are beginning to make a dent in opioid deaths, we still have a really significant problem in this country with addiction, and with the hopelessness and despair so many communities feel,” said Chuck Ingoglia, senior vice president at the National Council for Behavioral Health.

In President Barack Obama’s last year in office, his administration secured a commitment to expand treatment and Congress provided $1 billion in grants to states. Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency. Two major funding bills have passed under his watch. While Trump got headlines with his call for using the death penalty against major drug dealers, his administration has built on the treatment approach that Obama favored.

The Medicaid expansion in Obama’s Affordable Care Act has also played a critical role, paying for low-income adults to go into treatment. A recent Associated Press analysis showed that states that expanded Medicaid are spending their new opioid grant money from Congress more judiciously, going beyond basics like treatment for people in crisis. Trump tried to repeal the Medicaid expansion, but failed.

Advocates for treatment say that they’re pleased that more and more addiction is considered a disease and not a sign of moral weakness. But they say the U.S. has a long way to go build what they call an “infrastructure of care,” a system that incorporates prevention, treatment and recovery.

In an interview with The Associated Press this summer, a CDC expert said the overdose death numbers appear to be shifting for the better, but it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions.

Month-to-month data show a leveling off in the number of deaths, said Bob Anderson, a senior statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics. However, those numbers are considered preliminary, since death investigations have not been completed in all cases.

“It appears at this point that we may have reached a peak and we may start to see a decline,” said Anderson. “This reminds me of what we saw with HIV in the ’90s.”

Final numbers for 2018 won’t be available until the end of next year and things could also get worse, not better.

AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson reported from Seattle.


Philly candy shop explores the history of death and sweets

Historic funeral rituals from the Victorian era will be performed this weekend in a Philadelphia candy store.

Shane’s Confectionery in Old City, America’s oldest continuously-operated candy store, anticipates Halloween this year by demonstrating how sweets were once used in the mourning process.

Funeral biscuits used to be a thing. The baked treats were molded into the shapes of cherubs or skulls that were served during a viewing, offered on a tray placed on the chest of the deceased. Mourners were expected to reach into the coffin to grab a cookie.

Funeral biscuits evolved from the somewhat less appetizing “corpse cakes,” sweet breads leavened on the bodies of loved ones.

“There was a history of a closer intimacy with the body, especially in the 19th century,” said Laurel Burmeister, historical outreach director at Shane’ Confectionery.

“A lot of people had wakes in their own homes,” said her colleague, Pavia Burroughs, creative director of the historic candy shop. “The dead would be sitting in the center of your house before the burial. There was a stronger intimacy in the past with death and the corpse.”

Laurel Burmeister (left) and Pavia Burroughs, of Shane Confectionery, created and perform in the “Sweet Hereafter” historic funeral rites tour in the century-old candy shop. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Burroughs and Burmeister created “Sweet Hereafter,” a theatrical tour through Shane’s Confectionery on Market Street, led by a Victorian-era funeral director and a spirit fairy. Traditionally, it was believed fairies were able to commune with the dead.

“Fairies have the power to go from our world to their world. We cannot go into the fairy world, unless we are tricked,” said Burrough, adding a warning: “Never take food from a fairy.”

In the Victorian era, mourners were known to consult with beehives about the death of a loved one, and weave jewelry out of the hair of the deceased. Grieving often involved immediate contact with the remains.

“There is a sterility to our modern mourning practices,” said Burroughs. “You don’t touch the body. You don’t dress your loved ones. You don’t sew your own death shrouds. People look to the past to find a more tactile experience to maybe heal the pain that comes with death.”

The Sweet Hereafter tours are theatrical and supernatural, featuring a staged funeral and séance. Burroughs does not want to give away some of the surprise, but we can tell you that on each tour someone will die, and there will be chocolate.


High stakes brawl in Bucks congressional race

The battle for control of the House of Representatives this year will come down to a relative handful of congressional seats around the country.

None are more hotly-contested or closely-watched than the race for the 1st Congressional District in Bucks County, where incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick faces a challenge from Democrat Scott Wallace.

Both candidates in the race are pretty accomplished people.

Both went to law school. Fitzpatrick spent 18 years in the FBI before going to Congress. Wallace was a staffer in the Senate, then spent two decades running his family foundation.

But the campaign has become a high-stakes brawl, with more than $18 million spent so far, much of it on attack ads which paint the candidates as misguided, dishonest, or dangerously radical.

Like most political ads, they traffic in cherry-picked facts and exaggerated or out-of-context claims.

One ad from each side has been condemned by fact-checkers – a Wallace ad on Fitzpatrick’s record on health care, and a National Republican Congressional Committee spot attributing population control views to Wallace he’s never expressed.

This week, TV stations yanked an ad from a national Republican group called Defending Main Street because its claims about Wallace were such a stretch.

Addressing the issues

When the candidates met face to face Friday on a stage at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, the exchanges were sharp, but substantive.

Wallace criticized Fitzpatrick’s vote last December for the Trump tax package.

“I think it was utterly irresponsible to vote for the tax bill which exploded our debt by $2 trillion,” Wallace said. “I say make the rich pay their fair share.”

Fitzpatrick argued that only economic growth will generate revenue to meet critical needs and reduce the deficit, and that the tax cuts are working already.

“We have a 3.7 percent unemployment rate,” he said. “Walk down Mill Street in Bristol Borough [where there are] 58 storefronts or so. There are three vacancies, help wanted signs in every other store. That’s economic growth. That’s what we wanted to do,” said Fitzpatrick.

Both candidates said they want to preserve Social Security, and both claimed to be committed to protecting health coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Wallace said Fitzpatrick’s record shows his true partisan colors.

“Brian Fitzpatrick voted for the tax bill which, as Donald Trump said, cut the heart out of the Affordable Care Act, the repeal of the individual mandate,” Wallace said.

It’s true the tax bill effectively ended the personal mandate, and Wallace cited three procedural votes in which he said Fitzpatrick could have stood up for patients with pre-existing conditions, and didn’t.

A Washington Post analysis of that charge found those votes didn’t carry much weight and that Fitzpatrick’s vote against the repeal of Obamacare was far more important. In that case, Fitzpatrick went against President Trump and his party’s leaders on a close and important vote.

Declaring his independence

The Obamacare vote raises a key Fitzpatrick selling point – his independence, which he said was recognized in a national survey by the nonpartisan Lugar Center.

“You have the number one most independent congressman in the nation, that has managed to get both the AFL-CIO Working Families Endorsement, and the Chamber of Commerce,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick repeatedly cited his membership in the 48-member Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress (24 from each party), which has bi-partisan proposals on gun control, Social Security and other issues.

Wallace said that’s just talk.

“We have someone who says he’s a problem solver, but votes with Donald Trump 84, 85 percent of the time,” Wallace said.

Many Democrats say in this political climate, the single most important thing to consider about Fitzpatrick is his party. A vote for a Republican Speaker in January will ensure Republican control of committee assignments and the flow of legislation, they say, preventing measures of interest to Democrats from ever reaching a vote.

Fitzpatrick said all 48 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus have committed to voting only for a Speaker who’ll sign on to a set of reforms called the “Break the Gridlock” package, intended to democratize the house.

I asked Fitzpatrick what he’ll do if no Republican candidate for Speaker will commit to the package.

“And there’s a centrist Democrat who agrees to it? Yes, that’s a commitment we made as a caucus,” Fitzpatrick said, saying he would vote for a Democrat in those circumstances.

And what if no candidate from either party will commit to the rules?

“Well, we’re going to find someone,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s no point in being in an institution that’s broken. We’ve got to fix the system.”

It’s been an expensive race. Wallace has invested more than $8 million of his family fortune into the campaign.

National Republican groups have spent almost as much helping Fitzpatrick, generating some of the harshest personal attacks of the campaign.

Polls show the race is close in a district that two years ago elected Fitzpatrick, the Republican, but also narrowly went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.


Delaware lawmaker Keeley gets newly created $95,000-a-year lottery post

On June 30, the last day of Delaware’s legislative session, outgoing state Rep. Helene Keeley told WHYY she had not accepted a job as director of the Delaware State Lottery.

A tipster had told WHYY days earlier that Keeley, who was not seeking re-election, had been appointed to oversee the state-sponsored gambling operations at racetrack casinos and stores that sell lottery tickets and sports betting cards.

Her denial was a firm no, one seconded by top aides to Gov. John Carney.

What Keeley and administration officials didn’t tell WHYY, however, was that two weeks before a reporter inquired, she had accepted the post of deputy lottery director.

The post, which pays $95,000, was only created last fall and Keeley will be the first person to hold the job, state finance officials said Tuesday in announcing her appointment. No one else was interviewed for the job.

Keeley apologized Tuesday for not being more forthcoming. But she insisted that would have jeopardized her managerial job in the state Department of Labor.

“I had not talked to my boss. I had not talked to my staff. I have projects that I want to complete,” she said., “I had not talked to constituents in my own district. The Republicans can say whatever they want. But if I had accepted that position right then and there the state would have had to have a special election based upon the time.”

Keeley and Carney are fellow Democrats in a state dominated by the party.

Carney spokesman Jonathan Starkey referred questions Tuesday to the state finance office.

Keeley will start her new job Nov. 12, just six days after Election Day. Her successor in the legislature, fellow Democrat Sherry Dorsey Walker, who has no general election foe, will take Keeley’s long held Wilmington-area 3rd District House seat on Nov. 7.

Delaware Lottery director Vernon Kirk appointed Keeley with the consent of Delaware finance secretary Rick Geisenberger, a Carney appointee.

Geisenberger said in a written statement that Keeley’s 22 years as a state lawmaker, during which she served on Delaware and national committees on gaming, made her a perfect fit. She will oversee a number of functions, including finance, human resources, technology and security.

“Helene has been a strong booster of Delaware’s casino and horse racing industries and a great advocate for maintaining a sound regulatory environment that enables gaming to remain an important contributor to our state’s economy and revenues,” Geisenberger said.

“The Delaware Lottery Office will be well served by her industry knowledge and more than 30 years of experience managing and driving improvements in the administration of diverse organizations.”

Lavelle: ‘This has to stop’

Geisenberger had sought the new position by reclassifying another vacant position, spokeswoman Leslie Poland said.

“Given the agency’s size [56 employees], budget [$54 million], total general fund revenues generated [$212 million], and total responsibilities in administering and regulating Delaware’s increasingly complex $4.5 billion gaming industry, the secretary determined that a deputy director’s position was both a critical operating need and an appropriate allocation” of resources.

State Sen. Greg Lavelle, an upstate Republican seeking re-election, criticized Keeley’s appointment as the latest in a long line of plum jobs given to lawmakers by recent Democratic administrations. Dating back to 1992, Carney and the three previous governors — Tom Carper, Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell — have been Democrats.

“This has to stop,” Lavelle said. “For years, Democratic elected officials have used their power to enrich themselves personally, gain more and higher pensions, and otherwise benefit themselves. From former state Sen. Patti Blevins to former state Rep. Mike Barbieri to countless others, we have become a state plagued by insider dealings.

“The media has been making inquiries into this poorly kept secret for months now and, like the taxpayers of Delaware, has been lied to and misled … Sadly the question isn’t when will this stop, but more likely who will be next.”

The news release about her appointment noted that Keeley is vice chair of the House Gaming and Parimutuels Committee and an “active leader” of the National Conference of Legislators from Gaming States, where she was president from 2014 to 2016.

This is Keeley’s second executive branch job in state government. She has been at the Department of Labor for 14 years, where she currently manages daily operations for the Business Services Unit of the Division of Employment and Training. She had previously spent 16 years with Rosenbluth International, which provides travel management services for corporations.

“These positions have provided her with a wealth of experience in policy and procedures, human resources, technology and security issues, as well as with managing multi-million dollar budgets,” the release from Geisenberger’s office said.

Poland said Kirk first suggested Keeley for the post in mid-May — after she had announced she wasn’t seeking re-election to a 12th two-year term.

“For many years, Helene Keeley has been an important partner in helping our agency provide a safe and sound regulatory environment for public gaming in Delaware and indeed the nation,” Kirk said in the news release. “So I’m pleased and excited to have her join the great management team we have here at the State Lottery Office.”


Female Uber passenger says she was assaulted, calls company’s business model ‘dangerous’ for women

A Philadelphia woman called for an Uber one fall afternoon in 2016. The trip quickly took an ugly turn.

The woman, Stephanie Torres-Fountain, 30, of the Glenwood section of North Philadelphia, was asked by the Uber driver to “uncross her legs,” out of “common courtesy” as she sat in the backseat, Torres-Fountain says.

When she refused, the driver, Emmanuel Ameh, allegedly pulled his car over around 15th and Market Streets in Center City, got out of the car, opened the passenger-side door, and “ripped her hooded sweatshirt over her head.” From there, Ameh allegedly pulled her out of the car, throwing her down on her knees, according to Torres-Fountain.

It was around 2:30 in the afternoon and bystanders, she said, got involved and pushed Ameh off of her. He left the scene. Torres-Fountain says she suffered knee injuries that required surgery. In the months since the alleged assault, she says she’s been rattled, struggling with emotional distress and experiencing nightmares.

Ameh had prior arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct and had convictions on traffic-related incidents, court records show.

Still, Uber hired him as a driver.

And now, in a federal lawsuit filed this week alleging negligence, assault and battery, Torres-Fountain is claiming that the attack on her was caused by the ride-hailing company’s lax driver-screening process.

“More rigorous background checks, including fingerprinting, could have prevented incidents” like what allegedly happened to Torres-Fountain, wrote her lawyer, Scott McIntosh, in the civil lawsuit. Uber’s “business model permits potentially dangerous and violent drivers to be alone with female customers,” he wrote in the suit.

Uber does not run drivers’ fingerprints against a national criminal database, nor does the Philadelphia Parking Authority require taxi drivers to be fingerprinted, a PPA spokesman confirmed.

Uber maintains its background screening process conducted by the third-party company Checkr, Inc. is thorough enough, even without checking someone via their fingerprints.

Uber says its review includes, “major driving violations or a recent history of minor driving violations may result in disqualification,” according to the company. A potential driver who has been convicted of violent or sexual offenses will also be banned from driving. That includes pending charges, Uber says.

Arrests that do not result in convictions, like Ameh’s public drunkenness and disorderly conduct charges that were withdrawn, will not disqualify a potential driver, according to Uber’s policies. And traffic-related convictions, as Ameh had on his record, are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Torres-Fountain said she filed complaints over the October 2016 incident with the Philadelphia Police Department, the police officials confirmed, and with Uber. The company would not comment on whether Ameh is still an active driver with the company.

While Uber says complaints from passengers about sexual assault or misconduct are exceedingly rare among its some 20,000 Uber drivers operating in the Philadelphia area, a CNN investigation found that more than 100 Uber drivers in recent years have been accused of assaulting or abusing passengers around the country.

In California, where the technology giant is based, there is a pending class-action suit in court from several women who say they were attacked during Uber trips. According to that federal complaint, Uber has “done everything possible to continue using low-cost, woefully inadequate background checks on drivers,” which the suit claims has made rides unsafe for passengers, especially women, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Amid news stories of Uber drivers committing crimes against passengers, the company has been re-running background checks on some of its thousands of Philadelphia drivers. And that has resulted in some of its drivers getting kicked off the platform for decades-old offenses, like a more than 30-year-old robbery charge that disqualified one man from picking up passengers for Uber.

The California suit suggests that Uber should enact a number of new policies to better protect passengers, including installing tamper-proof video cameras, require Uber to be notified about restraining order and domestic abuse incidents and including on-app panic buttons in case a passenger is attacked.

“Each day and week that passes without change is a guarantee by Uber of harm to untold numbers of women who use its app,” wrote New York-based lawyer Jeanne Christensen, who is the lead attorney on the California case.

Scott McIntoch, the Royersford-based attorney who filed the Philadelphia suit against Uber, declined to comment. Attempts to reach his client, Emmanuel Ameh, were unsuccessful.


The $40,000 cab ride

What would you expect to find in a public school district’s budget – money for books? Basketballs? What about $38 million for taxi cabs? On this episode of The Why, WHYY reporter Avi examines why the school district has absorbed this cost, and what it says about the future of urban education.


Pilot, 85, killed in Shore airport crash

Authorities say a plane crashed at a Jersey Shore airport, killing one person.

State police say the aircraft went down shortly after 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Woodbine Municipal Airport in Cape May County.

Police say the crash killed the only occupant of the single-engine Mooney M20C fixed-wing aircraft.

Authorities identified the occupant as Wayne Rumble, 85, of Marmora, a certified commercial pilot, according to public records.

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 


Hundreds rally to support trans men and women in Philly

Hundreds of people turned out for a “Rally for Trans Existence and Resistance” in Philadelphia’s Love Park on Tuesday evening. The rally was in response to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seeking to legally define sex as “biological and determined by genitals at birth.”

“I am an extremely out and proud transgender woman, activist, advocate, mother, daughter, sister, auntie and friend,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez, of the Mayor’s Commission for LGBT Affairs, as her words echoing off the buildings around her.

“It is very important for me to stress the word ‘proud’ because it took me a long time to be proud of who I am and not only accept but love myself as a transgender individual and I’ll be damned if I allow Trump, his regime, or anyone to ever take that from me,” she said.

Protesters at the Rally for Trans Existence and Resistance held in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Oct 23, 2018. (Angela M Gervasi/for WHYY)

Marie Conte, a self-defined ally, repeatedly started chants to get the crowd going.

“I support equal rights for everyone; LGBT, trans, all of us and I’m concerned with what this administration is doing to threaten people who are already marginalized and have such an impossible road ahead of them,” Conte said.

“We have to make our voices heard because this stuff could go on in the dark, we have to bring light to it,” she said.

Lucy Baber, who identified herself as a mother, said it was important for her to set an example.

“I’m here because I wanted to show my kids that trans lives matter and this is important,” said Baber

“I wanted them to know that we take care of each other and we take care of people regardless of who they are and what they look like,” she said.  

The proposal by the DHHS would specifically affect the protections against gender discrimination in education programs that accept public assistance under Title IX of the Education Amendment Act of 1972. The federal law prevents discrimination “on the basis of sex.” Since 2016, “sex” was interpreted to include gender identity, thus protecting trans people from discrimination in schools.

The proposed legal definition contradicts the American Medical Association’s Resolution 122. The 2014 resolution states “whereas, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) is a serious medical condition recognized as such in both the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the International Classification of Diseases.”

“I will not be erased,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, a trans woman.

“As an American woman, I have the right to equal protection under the law. Trans rights are human rights,” she said.

“No one should be denied healthcare. No one should be denied a job. No one should be denied housing because of who they are and who they love. I only wish we had a president in Washington that believed the same thing,” Levine said.

“To our transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming community — we see you, we love you, and we stand with you,” said Amber Hikes, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. “Our community is strong, and we will continue to resist acts of hatred and discrimination of any kind, especially against those of us who remain the most targeted and marginalized.”

Most of the speakers at the Rally for Trans Resistance had a similar message.

“I know that we as transgender, queer, non-binary people are worried, scared and tired of facing the darkness, but we are the light that pushes back that darkness,” said Deja Alvarez.