State Rep. Todd Stephens is known as the “water guy” among Montgomery County constituents. And not because he carries water for Republicans.
Whether it’s praising some of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s initiatives, supporting red-flag laws in the wake of school massacres across the country, or criticizing GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano’s ties to right-wing social media platform Gab, Stephens says he has proudly maintained his independence since first being elected to represent the 151st House District.
Peers at Hatboro-Horsham High School voted Stephens the “most outspoken” student in his class. And even his mother recognized from an early age that her son was destined for a career in law.
“My mother knew I was going to be an attorney because I loved to debate and argue and speak my mind,” said Stephens, who spent more than a decade as a state and federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania. “It’s a part of my DNA. I don’t ever remember not having that trait where I was unwilling to speak up and run against the grain. It’s always been a part of who I am.”
Saying he was elected “to do what’s best for the people,” Stephens’ approach has worked so far in a left-leaning district that has supported Democratic presidential candidates, including Joe Biden.
But it also means being denounced as a “RINO” – a Republican In Name Only – by some in his party, even as he seeks a seventh term.
His opponent this November is Democrat Melissa Cerrato, district director for state Rep. Liz Hanbidge (D-Blue Bell). Cerratto bills herself as a “working mom who knows what it means to serve our community.” She could not find time to talk to Delaware Valley Journal.
Stephens knows what happens when a politician falls out of favor with his party. He watched U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest critics and a key figure in the House investigation of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, badly lose her recent primary to fellow Republican Harriet Hageman two years after winning her last one with nearly 75 percent of the vote.
Much the same way, Stephens has not been shy about hitting out against Republicans at the top of the ticket.
He blasted Mastriano for using Gab, a social media site founded by Andrew Torba that is viewed in some circles as a haven for extremists because it has hosted anti-Semitic commentary.
However, Mastriano has since distanced himself from that social media platform and stated his opposition to antisemitism.
“Andrew Torba doesn’t speak for me or my campaign. I reject antisemitism in any form,” Mastriano said. “Recent smears by the Democrats and the media are blatant attempts to distract Pennsylvanians from suffering inflicted by Democrat policies.”
Stephens tweeted that “nothing short of a total rejection” of Torba’s “offensive and dangerous” anti-Jewish rhetoric was required. Torba responded with the “RINO” dig and urged supporters to deliver “harsh pushback” against the state lawmaker.
Stephens understands he might lose the support of some Republican voters. He is banking on the support of moderate Republicans and the middle-of-the-road Democrats to keep him in office.
“They split their tickets because they recognize that I don’t vote based on party,” he said, pointing to endorsements from groups such as anti-gun-violence advocate CeaseFirePA. “I’ll stand up to my party if need be, and I’ll be proud to do it.”
Cerrato did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, but she laid out a multifaceted platform also focused on Pennsylvania’s welfare on her website.
She draws from her experience as a mother of four daughters, a one-time Uber driver, and an elderly caretaker who first entered politics when her “dear friend” Hanbidge asked her to run the district office.
“From helping put millions of dollars in unclaimed funds back into people’s pockets to fighting to end a months-long backlog and getting Pennsylvanians long-awaited unemployment assistance, my job was to get results for our community when no one else could. Now I’m answering the call again,” Cerrato wrote on her campaign site.
“I understand what it means to live paycheck to paycheck,” she said, “but also what it means to work hard to build a life for my family that I can be proud of.”
Though a Republican, Stephens was invited to participate in a White House video conference to discuss his pending extreme risk firearms legislation that would allow a judge to take action when a person is deemed a danger to himself or others.
“It was helpful to hear from legislators in Florida and Maryland about the experiences where ERPOs have been implemented, and also from other states where legislation is pending, to brainstorm on how to help advance extreme risk protection orders in Pennsylvania,” Stephens said.
A former prosecutor for the Montgomery District Attorney’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office, Stephens has pushed legislation to crack down on violent criminals and gun toters. That is in stark contrast to the progressive policies of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Stephens did not directly answer if he supported impeachment efforts against Krasner but made it clear he views the Philly district attorney as lax on violent crime, citing “spillover” into the suburbs from Philadelphia’s surging crime wave, which led to record homicides in 2021.
He sponsored a bill for the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to investigate the prosecutions and sentences for gun offenders.
“Certainly, it affects all of us when the violence is as rampant as it has been in Philadelphia,” Stephens said.
While Stephens’ background is law and order, many district voters know him more for his advocacy against dangerous contaminants, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, found in water sources throughout the state.
One of Stephens’ bills diverted millions of dollars in state taxes for grants to water suppliers to help remediate the issue. A wide-ranging study, led by the Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, is also underway to determine long-term health effects for those exposed to the contaminants.
“I don’t think we can take our eye off the ball,” Stephens said. “It’s still a top priority.”