Halfway through his first legislative year, State Rep. Chris Rabb is experiencing real frustration tempered by some guarded hope.
“If you’re not frustrated, you’re not paying attention,” he says.
Frustration is understandable. He’s a member of a Republican-controlled House, a freshman in the minority party.
But the Northwest Philly Democrat, who represents Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, and parts of West Oak Lane, also says he has found reasons for future optimism.
“There are pockets of new, maverick Republicans who seem open to talking about what we all share in common … and, as a student of history, I take the long view.”
Rabb’s a rarity in Harrisburg and Philly, both for his hope and his profile.
He’s a Chicago native with two Ivy League degrees, an entrepreneur and an author with congressional and White House experience.
In last year’s primary, he beat an incumbent Democrat backed by Mayor Kenney, Gov. Wolf, and former Gov. Ed Rendell. So he’s got an independent streak.
When he first took office, he told me the legislative system “seems set up to fail,” with little bipartisan cooperation or even sharing of resources or data.
This week, we talked again, for this, the second of four planned quarterly reports on Rabb’s freshman year.
What’s been most disappointing?
“Being sent home without passing a budget. That’s enraging. That’s our constitutional responsibility, a responsibility we’re abdicating.”
He joined other Philadelphia Democrats on Tuesday at Independence Hall to call on GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai to get his house in order or, more precisely, order his House back into session.
As you may know, your legislature is nearly three weeks late in doing the one thing it’s supposed do: Pass an annual balanced state budget.
A $32 billion spending plan was enacted (Rabb voted for it because of increases for education, and “it’s the best we could get”), but there’s no agreement among Republican leaders on paying for it.
“They don’t see eye to eye on how to mismanage funds,” quips Rabb. “What kind of gaming? How much liquor? How much should we mortgage our future with borrowing? These are poverty taxes supported by not all but a critical mass of Republicans.”
And, he says, “Democrats [outnumbered, 121-82, in the House] are forced to twiddle our thumbs and wait to see what bad ideas they’ll bring us.”
Rabb, 47, father of two young sons, pushes issues most Republicans oppose: hiking the minimum wage, election reforms, requiring reporting of lost or stolen guns, making Pennsylvania a “sanctuary state.” He knows working these issues is playing long ball.
But meanwhile, he got an amendment into a bill likely to become law that would give taxpayers an option to contribute to pediatric cancer research through a check-off box on state income tax filings. The original bill called for $5. Rabb’s amendment removes the $5 cap so taxpayers can give what they want.
A “small thing,” he says, but one of which he’s proud.
He’s the prime sponsor of House legislation, mirroring a Senate bill with bipartisan backing, to create a trust fund to help children with a parent in prison.
And he’s reaching across the aisle on fiscal issues.
He’s working on a House subcommittee examining tax structure. And he’s part of a new bipartisan “Fiscal Rescue Caucus” seeking, in nonpartisan ways, to address the state’s fiscal woes.
Caucus cofounder, fellow freshman Rep. Frank Ryan (R., Lebanon), is a CPA and a retired Marine colonel. Ryan tells me he and Rabb “are philosophically miles apart, but he’s become a great friend.”
So when I ask Rabb if the promise of possibility through building relationships outweighs the frustration, he pauses and says, “Ask me next year if we’re still here with just 82 Dems, and a Republican governor.”