The Incredible Political Insurgency of Chris Rabb

Philly Mag talked to Rabb about how he defeated one of Philly’s most powerful political machines in April’s election.

Photo via Mary B Photography

Chris Rabb | Photo via Mary B Photography

How did Chris Rabb do it?

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.

Philadelphia magazine talked with Rabb about how he overcame the odds, how other political insurgents can do the same, and what he’ll pursue in office if he wins the general election against Republican Latryse McDowell as expected. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You were a long shot. How did you win? I had a great team, a message that resonated with people. And I combined high-touch with high-tech. So I used social media strategically, but not to the exclusion of old-fashioned shoe leather and knocking on doors. And I told people at the very beginning that, at the end of the day, what’s going to matter is the candidate who knocked on the most doors, and that no candidate in the race was going to work harder than me.

What part of your message do you think resonated with people? The message that our 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.”

One thing you said repeatedly during the campaign was that there hadn’t been a competitive primary in the 200th House District in more than 30 years. And, on top of that, all the state representatives elected during that time, including state Rep. Cook-Artis, originally took office through special elections, in which candidates are hand-picked by ward leaders. The 200th legislative district has the most active Democratic voters of all 203 districts across the state. We have virtually 40,000 active Democratic voters. It is a jewel in the commonwealth. Despite that fact, for over 30 years, there’s only been one name to choose from. And whether that person is competent — which has been the case — or not, the choice of one is no choice at all.

Ward leaders made a decision [about who to endorse in the 2016 primary], and the votes were split two-to-one in favor of my opponent. The one who voted for me was Dan Muroff, ward leader of the 9th. And the reason he submitted a vote in my favor was, in the 9th Ward [of which I am a member], we are a voting ward, which means that the committee people run the ward, and the ward leader acts more as a representative of the collective interest of the committee. And he held a meeting where all the presumed candidates for that seat could speak to us, and then after we both spoke, the committee made a choice and they endorsed me 21-to-5. That’s how every ward should be run.

I was not invited to engage in other wards. They knew of my candidacy. I reached out. I met [50th Ward leader] Marian Tasco at the PA Society in December. I have reached out multiple times to the ward leader in the 22nd. I was not given an opportunity to meet with them individually or to address their respective committees. That is machine politics. That is the cost of machine politics. That is fruit from the poison tree. And it meant that it didn’t matter how viable I was, how much money I raised. It didn’t matter what was in my heart. None of that mattered. Structurally, I was pushed out. And the nomination went to someone who had establishment support and the processes that facilitated that were gravely anti-democratic.

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? 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.

You defied the Northwest Coalition and other parts of the establishment by running against Tonyelle Cook-Artis. If you win in November, how do you plan to work with such people in Harrisburg? First off all, I didn’t seek to run against anyone. I seek to run because I believe in the idea of shared prosperity and inclusion, transparency, accountability, and public integrity. I ran because I want the very best for this district. And I want someone who is going to be a bold, progressive voice who listens to all stakeholders, regardless of what affiliation they have. So I was running in the context of machine politics. I didn’t have any bones with the Northwest Coalition.

One of the things that I did consistently during the seven months I was running was introduce myself to every poll worker, the vast majority of whom worked for my opponent. I let the poll workers who worked for my opponent know that the person who’s paying you is my opponent, not my enemy. My main opponent was someone I met at least a half a dozen times, and I appreciated our conversations every time.

And me working in Harrisburg is not going to be a problem. Dwight Evans has gone on to Congress. Cherelle Parker is in City Council, and I hope to be replacing state Rep. Cook-Artis when her term ends in November. So I will not be met with Northwest Coalition people in Harrisburg. But I will be working with everyone who’s interested in solving issues of our day, whether it’s with the Northwest Coalition or anyone else.

You were nominated to run on the website Crowdpac, which tries to make it easier for candidates outside of the establishment to run. The Philly-based group Black Voters Matter also named you as one of its featured candidates. How, if it all, did these groups impact your campaign? Crowdpac made it much easier to jump in when I did. Crowdpac allowed me to test the waters, to actually build the plane while I’m flying it. And I think Black Voters Matter, months later, was a uniquely visible entity that validated me beyond the district. It was really the first entity that acknowledged that I was a substantive candidate worthy of further scrutiny. They served a role in ways that the local media did not.

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? 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.

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