by Brendan Sample
State Rep. Chris Rabb took over the district in 2016 when he defeated Tonyelle Artis-Cook in that year’s democratic primary and coasted to election in the heavily democratic district in November of that year.
Since taking office, Rabb, 48, has become leader of Philadelphia’s 9th Ward, in which he has been a committeeperson since 2006.
Before taking office, Rabb worked in the U.S. Senate and as a writer and trainer for the White House Conference on Small Business during the Clinton administration.
He is a graduate of Yale University and holds a master’s degree in organizational dynamics from University of Pennsylvania. He taught at Temple University’s Fox School of Business for four years and was on the faculty at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business.
The Local had the opportunity to speak with Rabb for a wide-ranging interview on his experience and the issues he hopes to champion in a second term should he win.
So now that you’re on the campaign trail again, how has campaigning for reelection been this time around compared to when you were running the first time two years ago, now that you’ve had experience in the position?
It’s different in the sense that more people recognize me, and a fair portion of them have been to my office or to an event in the community. They’ve engaged with the team I’ve hired since being elected and have seen me in action, so that’s very heartening.
What do you make of having another opponent in the Primary this year?
First of all, everyone has the right to run, but no one has the right to win. So when I found out that I had an opponent who had gotten on the ballot, I met her in person and congratulated her on joining the fray. I gave her my cell phone number, which is what I did two years ago with my opponent, and I subsequently told her that if you win, I would be the first to congratulate you.
We have to lead by example. There’s a lack of civility in politics from the city level all the way up to the presidency, and I want to model the behavior I’d like to see in the public servants who I vote for. So I don’t have too much to say about politics as usual. I think that people who are habitual voters know the kind of the lay of the land. But I would say that competition breeds excellence and I’m not a complacent soul, so if anyone feels like they can do a better job, they should run and let the best person win. Let the voice of the people decide what’s best for this district.
After spending about a year and a half as the 200th District representative, how, if at all, has your tenure changed your outlook on the position in general?
It is far busier and more intense than I could possibly have imagined. Balancing being a father, running a district office and being a legislator a hundred miles from my home is a constant juggling act, but I’ve also found it more rewarding than I ever knew to be possible. I get to help people every day, morning, noon and night, weekday and weekend. That’s a pretty amazing gift, and I take that very seriously.
I’m very happy that I’ve expanded my presence and that the office has expanded its presence across the district. It’s the first time that a state rep will have multiple satellite offices. We have three satellite offices now – two in the 50th Ward and one in the 22nd Ward. We have satellite offices in two libraries and one rec center in addition to the district office here in the center of the district. We really sought to focus our attention on those communities within the district who have the greatest need, and often times people forget that there is great need in this district. When many people think that there are no major problems in Northwest Philly, well in fact there’s hunger, there is gun violence, but there is also a lot of beauty and magic in this district, which is why I’m so proud to represent it. It’s the bluest dot in the entire Commonwealth. It has a level of civic engagement and connectedness that is a real thing of joy.
What has your general split been as far as time spent in Harrisburg and time spent down here?
Roughly, we’re in Harrisburg 90 days, and it’s spread out throughout the year. Normally we’re in session Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays with the exception of budget season, where we can be there for extended periods of time. But Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and because I’m a father of two boys, I don’t spend any more time in Harrisburg than I need to.
Getting into some of the specific issues, one area that you’ve focused a lot on has been election reform. What is it about that particular area that made you want to focus on it?
I’m a big fan of justice and fairness, and election reform is about increasing inclusion, transparency, accountability and integrity into the electoral process and the voting process. When I ran two years ago, three people [the Democratic ward leaders of the 200th District] decided who should be on the ballot for the special election on the Democratic side. Three people decided what was best for 45,000 people, and I thought that was anathema to the democratic process.
So beyond partisanship, regardless if it was Democrats or Republicans doing it, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t inclusive and it wasn’t transparent. Most people don’t know the process and they universally responded to how awful that was. I had a motto two years ago: “Our public officials should be elected, not selected,” but here in Philadelphia, that’s a norm and I’d like to change that, not just for my district, not just for my city but for the entire state.
Getting back into some of the issues, for your prospective next term and the rest of this one, do you have any plans to help out schools, specifically in regards to funding?
I’ll be introducing a package of bills that will require full and fair funding of public school districts. Right now, only roughly 6 percent of all state funds that go to public schools go through the equity formula. That means that 94 percent of funds are distributed the old-fashioned and improper way, which makes Pennsylvania the worst state in the entire country in terms of funding equity. So that is legislation I anticipate introducing by June.
Another issue that’s certainly taken up a lot of attention is gun violence. What are your plans to address that on a city and state level in Harrisburg?
There are legislative efforts afoot by many colleagues of mine in Harrisburg. I’ve introduced three separate bills that relate to gun issues. I’ve actually introduced a bill that would prohibit weapons at polling places. Another aspect is that alcoholism and trauma are highly related, and many people who are part of gun violence or who suffer from trauma. We need to address a lot of these issues as public health crises. When you combine alcoholism, when you combined drug use with easy access to guns, bad things happen. There was a shooting where four people were shot across from my district office in January or February of 2017, and it’s highly likely that the shooter was intoxicated.
I got this great idea from a young person in the district who said, “Why don’t we look at the Second Amendment in an entirely different way that focuses specifically on the language in it?” It begins with “a well-regulated militia shall…” but no one’s talking about what a well-regulated militia is. So I’ve proposed a bill that would reestablish the Pennsylvania State Guard, which would be domestically deployed throughout the state to be peacekeepers, to be problem solvers, to know how to deal, to be social workers, to be folks who know how to deescalate violence and to promote public safety without first feeling that you need to draw a firearm.
This actually was established during World War II and it was phased out after the end of the Korean conflict. There was a federal law in 1930 that authorized governors to create a well-regulated militia. Twenty-two states have it, they’re used in whatever fashion the governor deems fit and we’ve had it here before. The current governor could reestablish it and use it to focus on gun violence as a public health crisis and figure out ways to build social connectedness to community engagement as a compliment to law enforcement.
In terms of redistricting, another topic that’s gotten plenty of attention over the past few months, where do you stand on that issue?
I’m a co-sponsor of the leading anti-gerrymandering bill, HB 722, which was recently gutted by Republicans in the state government committee on which I serve. I absolutely believe in a fair redistricting, and this goes back to the earlier point about who decides the fate of voters.
Who decides in this democratic process if it is in fact a democratic process?
Is it an inclusive and transparent and accountable process? Presently, it’s not. Politicians should not choose their voters, it should be the other way around. So just like I was talking about special election reform, the same applies to redistricting. There should be an independent citizens commission that decides the borders for districts on the state level and the congressional level, and I’ve been a strong advocate for that.
I’ve touched on this when I’ve spoken to you before, but now that you’ve had a year-and-a-half of experience in this position, do you still plan to continue on in Harrisburg, or do you now have any plans to aim for any higher positions in the near or far future?
Really the only thing I can say is that I’m interested in earning the support of voters on May 15th so I can serve another term. I love serving in this position. I have a lot to learn. I believe in playing well with others and pushing the envelope in terms of civic innovation, strategic collaborations and principal leadership. Those are the three pillars on which I rest everything that I do, and I want to continue serving in this role. I’m looking forward to the blue wave where I can have more Democrats to work with so that we can continue to represent the people of the Commonwealth in the ways that they deserve.