Baer: An outsider's view from inside Pa.'s legislature

Rep. Chris Rabb in front of his Germantown Ave. office. Despite his resumé, he worked "ridiculously hard" to win, he said.

Chris Rabb is something of an outsider, a unicorn in Pennsylvania’s political zoo.

He’s smart, thoughtful, and candid, and carries impressive credentials. Two Ivy League degrees. Worked in the U.S. Senate and for a White House small-business conference. Wrote a book on economics and taught at Temple’s business school.

So, naturally, when he ran as a Democrat for Northwest Philly’s 200th District House seat in last year’s primary, he wasn’t endorsed by party powers.

But his campaign stressed that people's representatives “should be elected, not selected.” And he won.

Right after he took office in January, I did a piece on Rabb, including notable details of his family tree.

Now, after he’s had three months in office, I’m revisiting him (and plan to every three months of his first year) for his “inside” thoughts on the legislative process – which, you may know, is partisan and dysfunctional.

He's so far found two surprises.

First: “So few opportunities for meaningful, substantive exchange. … It’s not set up to encourage cooperation, which is deeply disheartening.”

Second: “The number of highly experienced, knowledgeable, nonpartisan staffers, the same people usually disparaged as incompetent.”

So, the problem is you folks in office?

“The dysfunction is the elected's fault.”

Headed into the budget season, see any signs of bipartisan cooperation?

“I don’t.”

Then what’s the best part of the job so far?

“I get paid to help people and improve someone’s life, either myself or through my staff, and it’s a privilege.”

He tells me of a woman in his district approaching him in a Target parking lot, asking for money for a sick toddler.

“This woman was legit. I’m from Chicago. I can smell a scam.”

This was on a weekend. Rabb called a staffer (Danielle Duckett), who left her own kid and came to meet the woman. The woman had to leave to get ready for work. But since she gave Rabb her information, she was found, got a home visit, and was given details on available child health-care programs to resolve the problem.

A small thing? Not to one family.

And the worst part of the job?

“It’s tough not seeing my kids [two sons, 10 and 13] sometimes for three days.”

That and “ad hominem attacks that my kids can see or hear about,” mostly posted anonymously on social media. Part of politics, he knows.

Rabb says that workwise, he’s “triple-booked” with House sessions, community events, meetings with constituents.

Like most Philly Democrats, he’s liberal-progressive. His first bill seeks to put Pennsylvania in a compact of states as urged by National Popular Vote, an effort since 2006 to elect presidents by skirting the Electoral College.

He’s pushing legislation to repeal the death penalty, make voting easier, make reporting of stolen guns state law, require lawmakers guilty of a felony who resign from office to help pay for their replacement with a $100,000 fine to defray special-election costs.

And he wants to make Pennsylvania “a sanctuary state.”

Our Republican-controlled legislature, let’s just say, isn’t inclined to agree with him.

I ask why he feels it’s important to bother. He’s under no illusions. He’s told me he doesn’t know if anything he does ever sees action. He has noted (and a House official confirms) no House member of color got a piece of legislation passed last session.

So why push rocks up steep hills?

“For a couple reasons: I’m living within my values and what I talked about during my campaign.… And on the `sanctuary’ issue? My district’s only got 6 percent foreign-born residents. So I’m not pandering. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Rabb is already raising reelection funds and says, “Because of how I won, I expect to be challenged” next year.

I write about Rabb not to tout his views but to note some lawmakers don’t fit the mold we’ve come to know and loathe. The question going forward is whether such lawmakers ever break the mold we’ve come to know and loathe -- or just leave?