Today, Pennsylvania Rep. Chris Rabb represents HD-200 in northwest Philly (Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy). A Yale graduate with a masters from the University of Pennsylvania, Rabb is a small business/entrepreneurial expert who taught at Drexel and Temple and wrote Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity. In his first general election for the Pennsylvania state legislature, he beat Republican Latryse McDowell by a wide enough margin-- 34,012 (94.56%) to 1,958 (5.44%)-- so that the GOP never ran anyone against him again. Even the corrupt Philadelphia machine has finally given up running candidates against him. More on that in a moment though. A Berniecrat, Rabb has been an outstanding progressive in the state House, introducing a minimum wage bill, gun safety legislation, criminal justice reform bills, gay equality legislation, a food security initiative, and a bill that would provide for Pennsylvania to join the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.
Asked a few years ago to name one thing of importance he had accomplished in the legislature Rabb noted that a bill he "introduced in the House in July 2017 is now state law. The First Chance Trust is the first program of its kind in the nation that assesses a 1% surcharge on the largest contracts with the PA Department of Corrections, and revenue from this is placed in a restricted fund that’s used to provide educational scholarships and grants for support services for youth from the poorest communities across Pennsylvania."
In the same interview he was asked one thing he would work on the hardest to accomplish if he were reelected. He responded that he wanted to pass a carbon fee and dividend policy that would impose a charge on producers of greenhouse gas emissions toward 1) combating climate change, 2) providing a rebate to every Pennsylvania family, and 3) creating a new recurring revenue stream that could help fund our public schools and/or other state budget priorities."
Many progressives in Pennsylvania are urging Rabb to run for the open U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Pat Toomey. Several Republican-lite conservative Democrats appear to be eager to jump in-- particularly Conor Lamb, Brendan Boyle and failed Blue Dog congressional candidate Eugene DePasquale. I have a meeting with Rabb tomorrow and I expect you'll be reading more about him here at DWT in the coming months. But preparing for the meeting I found a Philadelphia Magazine article from 2016 by Holly Otterbein that is worth reading-- The Incredible Political Insurgency of Chris Rabb.
Otterbein began by noting that "In a city where political machines crush challengers like grapes, the 46-year-old adjunct professor defeated an establishment-backed incumbent in the April primary. Rabb’s opponent in the race for Pennsylvania’s 200th House District seat-- state Rep. Tonyelle Cook-Artis-- was endorsed by Gov. Tom Wolf, former Gov. Ed Rendell and Mayor Jim Kenney. Even more importantly, Cook-Artis is a member of the mighty Northwest Coalition, a group of African-American politicians that has racked up electoral win after electoral win in the last few years."
She asked Rabb how a longshot reform candidate like himself could beat the machine. He said his message resonated with the voters-- "legislators should be elected and not selected. And explicit in that statement is that, for too long, our politicians have been chosen for us at the expense of a true participatory democracy, and for habitual voters like myself, that’s a real indignity-- showing up to vote, regardless of the weather, regardless of the political climate, and seeing only one name to choose from and not knowing how that person got there. Something that I never did when I knocked on doors, which went against a lot of advice from people who have been advising campaigns for years, was ask for people’s vote. I wouldn’t do that to people who didn’t know me because I didn’t think that was fair. I said, 'I would like you to consider me. After you’ve done your research-- you can go to my website, you can go to Facebook, you can Google me-- and if I pass the smell test, if I look like a substantive, authentic person, then I would like your consideration.'"
Otterbein: There have been a few candidates in Philadelphia that, like you, have won without traditional machine support: Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Michael Nutter, Brian Sims. Most of the time, though, anti-establishment candidates are working solo. Should there be a more organized effort to get non-machine candidates elected across the city?
Rabb: The fact that I ran, and ran the type of campaign that I did-- one that was inclusive, grassroots and honest-- and the fact that I won helps the political landscape. That gives people hope, and that also gives people some semblance of a blueprint of how they can replicate my success. So that’s the first part. The second part, though, is exposure-- not of me, but of what happened and the context in which it’s happened. What I like to remind people is, and I’ve been saying for this for well over a decade, whatever your No. 1 issue is-- whether it’s animal rights or LGBT issues or the environment-- your second and third issues must be media democracy and electoral reform, because nobody was covering this race or races like it substantively and consistently.
Secondly, the structure that allowed this process to occur has to be addressed, because it’s not just finding the next great progressive candidate. That is coming up with simple answers to complex questions. You have to look at the structural problems and chip away at the system. And the only way that’s going to happen is people are going to have to know, one, what the system is, how flawed it is, how to beat it, and then how to replicate that success. And that involves an engaged and dutiful press. That involves community groups and other vested interests who also amplify and promote what has happened, what is wrong, what the solutions are...
Otterbein: Toward the end of the primary race, you witnessed something tragic. You saw Alex Cherry, who had just talked to you about working for your campaign, get shot and killed. How would you address gun violence in the state legislature?
Rabb: First of all, any urban Democrat worth their salt is a strong advocate for gun control and related issues. We don’t need to have a personal experience like I did to understand the urgency of passing legislation that makes us safer.
Secondly, I’m the father of two black boys, and this is not something that we have the luxury of not thinking about on a daily basis. No black youth growing up in the city-- or, frankly, in the suburb, because Trayvon Martin was murdered in a suburb-- has the luxury of thinking about this in theoretical terms. And I am dealing not only with my trauma and the trauma of my friends who were with me on the corner that day, but also the trauma inflicted upon my children, who I had to share this story with, and their concern for me as a father, as someone who will be in the public eye. This trauma ripples so incredibly widely, so this definitely informs the … this is difficult … it definitely informs my perspective. But this is something I’ve written about; this is something I’ve spoken about. So it doesn’t change my resolve.
The third thing I would say is, having had the honor of meeting Alex Cherry, a young black man who was interested in the political process, who I brought onto the campaign, I want to honor his humanity by reminding people that I saw the light in his eyes. And it’s because I saw the light in his eyes, and was so overwhelmed by his excitement working with his mother at the polls, that I wanted to bring him into my campaign. I feel fortunate that I had an opportunity to meet him. The travesty of, moments after meeting him, him being murdered, is one that I can never forget. But it validates my point that there are young people out there who do care, who do want to be part of the solution, and who are responsive to people who give them a chance, who honor their humanity, who engage them.