It’s a busy time for state Sen. Sharif Street. Not only is the Democratic state senator active in Harrisburg, but he is leading the Pennsylvania Democratic Party at a time when it is already preparing for next year’s presidential election and key congressional races. Street took some time to talk with City & State about the state of Harrisburg, what Democrats need for success at the polls and the prospects of marijuana legalization in the state.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What are your top legislative priorities during this new session – and have they changed due to the new dynamic in Harrisburg?
I don’t know that my priorities have changed, but I think our ability to move things forward has. What’s going to be a Democratic majority in the House, along with the continuation of a Democratic governor and an increased number of Democratic senators – I think our ability to move forward an agenda is only advanced.
I think the priorities around funding education, advancing crime-prevention dollars, making sure that we have health care for all, the people’s basic civil rights – those things remain constants. I anticipate us making some progress on advancing responsible energy policy while protecting the Earth, reducing our carbon footprint – and we’re going to legalize adult recreational use of cannabis.
During a speech at the Pennsylvania Press Club last year, you said that the midterm election results showed that the state was still “solidly purple.” As chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, what do you think Democrats need to do in 2024 to appeal to independent-leaning voters?
We do have a small group of people who are registered Independents, but I think that we have a lot of Democrats and Republicans who will vote for people in the other party if the messaging is consistent with their values. We have a significant number of Republicans and Democrats in Pennsylvania who are clustered in the middle … They didn’t switch parties and then run to the polar extreme of the other party. They’re still sitting somewhere in the middle; we have to be cognizant of that – both parties do – as we advance legislation.
I think our success statewide had a lot to do with the fact that Gov. Josh Shapiro led a slate of candidates that were very conscientious of reflecting the values of the people of Pennsylvania – and we, as a party organization, did the same.While the Republican organization catered to the most extreme elements of its party, it not only alienated Democrats, but it alienated independent voters and a significant portion of the Republican electorate that was much more moderate.
The cautionary tale for Democrats is that just because we’re having success, we shouldn’t forget why we’re having success. If we’re going to continue to have success, we have to replicate some of that. So dealing with bread-and-butter issues like expanding health care, job creation, education, public safety – these are the kinds of things that Democrats have historically done a good job with, and reminding people that we really are the big tent party that represents ordinary folks.
The Republican Party at its highest levels has come to symbolize a party that is denying elections and denying science. It’s embracing bigotry. Certainly, neither party in Pennsylvania will have success if it is unable to successfully manage staying in the middle and sticking with issues that people care about on both sides of the aisle.
Will you be endorsing anyone in the Philadelphia mayoral race?
I’m not going to get out in front of the county organization. I have to see what the Philadelphia County Party and the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee does with respect to any endorsements. Certainly, if the committee is able to satisfy the requirements of its bylaws in such a way that it makes an endorsement, I will respect and support whoever that party is. If the party committee doesn’t make an endorsement, then I’ll have to look at the candidates and talk with folks around me to determine whether it’s in the best interest of the party in the city for me to endorse someone.
You and state Sen. David Argall are sponsoring a proposal to move the state’s presidential primary from April to March. How would that affect the state and its voters?
We’re still working on the particulars as to what day that will be. We have a proposal but there’s a negotiation with other states, the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee around doing this in a way that enhances Pennsylvania’s voice in the selection of the president.
Pennsylvanians have often been frustrated that for as large and important as we are, the primary process is sometimes decided before we get a chance to vote. That hasn’t been the case most recently, but it’s been the case in many instances, and we believe that Pennsylvania being one of America’s most important states means that we should be appropriately represented and thought about in the primary process.
New York and New Jersey have legalized recreational marijuana – what is the likelihood of a legalization bill getting to the governor’s desk in the next few years?
I think it’s fairly likely. It is incredibly significant that New York and New Jersey have already moved toward legalization of recreational use of cannabis.
People in both parties recognize that Pennsylvania is losing revenue even though it’s not permitted under federal law. People are still driving across the state lines. There’s no border patrol between states. We don’t need to lose the revenue. For years, we lost gaming revenue as Pennsylvanians poured into New Jersey for gaming. We shouldn’t let the same thing happen.
The implications are even bigger because this could be helpful to local economies in urban areas as well as farm economies, as there are growing opportunities across the commonwealth.
Attitudes around cannabis suggest that the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians believe it’s time to end the prohibition on adult-use cannabis. I think some recent polls have had as many as 77% of Republicans and over 80% of Democrats supporting legalization of recreational, adult-use cannabis. So I think it will happen. I think it will happen in a bipartisan way. And while we may not be the first to get it done, I think we’ll get it done in the best possible way.