This article was originally published by WireTap.

Suemedha Sood

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’s Start

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.

Payton’s desire to do advocacy work didn’t stop there. Criminal justice was always a top issue for the soon-to-be politician, who was raised in Philadelphia. “I had friends who were on the corners — people I grew up with who were in and out of jail,” he said. “It was sort of commonplace. It was something that was real for me.”

So, when Payton read about Seth Williams, who was running for the district attorney’s office on an issue-based platform, he decided to get involved. He quickly went from being a volunteer to the deputy campaign manager.

“[The campaign] was against the establishment,” he remembers. “It was one of the first issue-based campaigns in Philadelphia where it was about the issues and not about who your friends were. It was about prosecuting crime — not just being tough on it, but being smart about how we do it and making sure it was community-based.”

The campaign lost, but it was just the beginning for Payton. With hardly any political experience, and no connections in the Democratic Party, he was looking for all the help he could get.

That’s when Payton was introduced to the Center for Progressive Leadership (CPL), a non-partisan political training organization that recruits progressive leaders from communities with the least access to political power — including people of color, women, and LGBT individuals.

While people had been telling Payton he should think about running for office, he says it was CPL that “took that infant thought and helped channel that into being a candidate.” Says Payton, “It taught me all the mechanics of what to do and how to do it.”

In his work with CPL, Payton acquired the tools that would eventually help him break into the Philadelphia Democratic Party. He learned how politics worked in the city and what the party’s strategy was all about. He learned how to turn his own values into a platform for leadership — and how to do so as an outsider working his way into the party.

CPL National Communications Director Brandon Silverman says that Payton’s career path is exemplary of what the organization strives to accomplish. “Our hope,” Silverman said, “is that we can build more pathways for young leaders to get into progressive politics as a career, and that when they do, they have the tools and resources they need to be successful.”

CPL, Silverman says, works hard to bring leaders into the progressive movement who represent the full diversity of their communities. In other words, the organization hopes to train leaders who can make the overall movement more sustainable.

One of the most important assets the Center provided Payton with was confidence. “I think Tony’s experience in the [CPL] Fellowship was what gave him the confidence to run for state representative,” said Silverman. “The combination of the skills training, coaching, and mentoring over the nine-month program all made him realize that he was as talented and capable as the people who were currently sitting at the table making decisions in his community.” It’s thanks to the other [CPL] Fellows, Silverman says, that Payton “had a network of friends and supporters who [he] knew would be there to help him make it happen.”

A More Democratic Party

But if the Philadelphia Democratic Party is so insular and exclusive, why would Payton want to be a part of it? The young representative has said that he’s a Democrat because the Democratic Party has historically given a voice to marginalized groups, including racial minorities. In Philadelphia, though, the party’s failure to consistently adhere to this agenda is exactly why Payton wanted to run.

According to CPL, the level to which elected Democratic officials truly represent people from underrepresented communities varies a lot from state to state, and from community to community. “In Philadelphia,” Silverman said, “it’s certainly true that the party here ignored minority communities because it had a stranglehold on power for so long.”

Payton agrees. He says the party’s rhetoric about inclusion has not been matched with action and calls this a political failure because, “African Americans and Latinos in Philadelphia have been historically loyal to the Democratic Party.”

What’s interesting, according to CPL, is that the leaders inside the party machine have actually been pretty progressive. Silverman says that’s why voters keep voting for them. “The irony is that the folks who have had a stranglehold on power in Philadelphia have actually been pretty solid on the issues,” he says. “They’re very progressive elected officials… So it’s been tough to make a public issue of it.” What Silverman and CPL are making an issue of is the need for reform of the political process itself. If more people from underrepresented groups become political leaders, their communities will have more political efficacy, Silverman says. “It’s more about the process, the access, and political reform.”

Abe Amoros, communications director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, says the political process already embraces inclusion. “The Pennsylvania Democratic Party is always interested in embracing diversity and making sure that people of different races, ethnic origins, gender and sexual orientation are part of the process,” he said.

“We have some work to do in building more bridges,” he admits, “but we are willing to do so in terms of trainings and providing greater access to resources.” He praised groups like CPL for further widening access by “identifying and training progressive leaders that are true catalysts for change in Pennsylvania.”

Tony Payton is one of those leaders, Amoros said. “He is a young, dynamic and progressive leader who has helped the state party in many ways,” he said. That’s why the Pennsylvania Democratic Party doesn’t seem to mind that he’s not terribly experienced in the political realm.

Payton says his lack of experience and his youthful energy are assets when it comes to change. New blood is exactly what the party needs, he says. “It basically came down to wanting better for the neighborhood that I represent [rather than] more of a continuation of the same stuff that had been happening for the last 20 years.”

To learn more about the Center for Progressive Leadership, or to sign up for their paid training fellowships, visit:

Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributor to WireTap.