When I ask freshman Philadelphia State Rep. Chris Rabb what he thinks of the ongoing state budget impasse, he doesn’t exactly hold back.
“I would have to use words I don’t usually use in public,” he says. “It boggles the mind how dysfunctional this process is … I have a master’s degree [from Penn; he also has a degree from Yale] in organizational dynamics. That confers upon me the ability to smell dysfunction a mile away.”
Also, when legislation (HB 1416) was offered earlier this year to force the governor, his budget secretary, and legislative leaders to be sequestered in a room every day past the annual June 30 budget deadline until a resolution is reached, Rabb became a co-sponsor.
The legislation, naturally, went nowhere. But Rabb now says, “I’d put `em in a room without a bathroom.”
(I’d add: and with no salary or expenses until statutorily required duties are met.)
Pennsylvania’s Republican-run legislature and Democratic governor are in month four of failure to enact a full budget.
Rabb is not the only lawmaker, or stakeholder, or taxpayer frustrated by Harrisburg. But I’m following him with quarterly columns during his first year in office.
This is mostly because he’s new, liberal, reform-minded, and from Philadelphia, working in a place known for animus toward all of the above.
And because he’s experienced in government, the private sector, and higher education; his credentials include work in the U.S. Senate, work for the White House, authoring a book on entrepreneurship, and teaching at Temple.
Plus, to get to Harrisburg, he beat an incumbent who was backed by party bigs.
He’s a rarity. And I’m curious about people such as Rabb who rail against the machine with no clout and little power other than what’s inside.
He made a long-shot run on a theme that the peoples’ representatives should be elected by the people, not selected by the party. Now he pushes long-shot legislation to repeal the death penalty, require reporting of stolen guns, and make Pennsylvania a sanctuary state.
“I know whistling in the wind, but you’ve got to work it because things take time,” he says. “When I talk to colleagues about sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, they say, `We’ve got to follow the law.’ Well, my ancestors followed the law. And if laws never change we’d still have Jim Crow and child labor. What’s the point of being a lawmaker if not to make better laws?”
Meanwhile, he goes about the business of representing Democratic northwest Philly neighborhoods in Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, and West Oak Lane.
“Every day we have constituent services and people in need,” he says.
He holds town hall meetings, three last month: “People are thirsty for basic information and access to resources. People like being talked to instead of being talked down to by their elected officials. I love participatory democracy. I love being responsive to constituents. It affirms voices can be heard and inspire action.”
He’s also the new leader of the Democratic Ninth Ward, the highest voter-turnout ward in a city, sadly, not really into high voter turnout.
His first ward meeting was last week. His focus is “the diffusion of power and not the concentration of power.” He wants to open ward business, have public ward meetings; and, he says, on election days, “We won’t be passing out street money.”
The question is, can Rabb or anyone inclined to reforming politics and government last long enough to overcome the long-standing, unproductive status quo?
“Well,” he says, “I have many demoralizing moments … [but] I hope years from now I can laugh and say I remember when people said it was crazy to try to do things that became the norm, whether legalizing cannabis or getting automatic universal voter registration.”
He adds, “I think I’m a fairly tenacious soul. But right now the long view is all I got.”
I hope Rabb shares it. The long view is something that Harrisburg far too often lacks.