This article was originally published by WireTap.
August 18, 2008
Tony Payton was still in high school when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. When she became too sick to work, Tony had to earn enough to support his family. College was no longer an option and after graduating from high school, he started selling life insurance full-time.
Now, almost ten years later, Payton is back in school getting his college degree. Like most adults continuing their education, he’s doing so while working a full-time job. But Payton’s story is a bit different, because his full-time job is holding a political office.
At the age of 27, Payton is the youngest member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He says that his youth, lack of experience and even his lack of a college degree helped him get elected to the state House two years ago.
“I was a student at the time the campaign started, so it made me the everyday person that I am,” he said. “Just like everyone else, I had challenges. It was endearing to a lot of people that I was a student trying to take a leadership position and that I actually had some ideas on how to change things.”
After a long, uphill battle, Payton was elected in 2006 to represent the 179th Legislative District of Philadelphia.
The odds were hardly in Payton’s favor for the 2006 Democratic primaries. Although he was the only candidate on the ballot, he lacked the support of the party. The powerful Philadelphia Democratic Party machine threw its weight behind a write-in candidate, Emilio Vazquez. Vazquez, who was endorsed by several unions and Democratic ward leaders, had been removed from the ballot for failing to properly report his income on election forms.
The election was messy, to say the least. There were allegations of illegal electioneering and voter fraud. The board of commissioners had Payton winning by 19 votes, while an appellate judge had Vazquez winning by 33 votes. Twenty-five-year-old Payton appealed the decision and was ultimately declared the victor.
Payton was working as a housing counselor at United Communities when he got his first taste of politics. He worked directly with low-income families, teaching them how to save money, how to fix poor credit and how to become first-time home buyers. Eventually, he became involved with the advocacy side of affordable housing. After joining the city’s Affordable Housing Coalition, he helped found an affordable housing trust fund for Philadelphia.