By Chris Rabb
The 200th Legislative District is one of the most active Democratic strongholds in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, representing more than 62,000 women, men and children in Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill and parts of Cedarbrook, Olney and Oak Lane.
Yet, despite our little corner of the city’s high voter turnout, the local electorate has not had the benefit of a contested Democratic primary since 1983. Our district consists of the top three highest voter turnout wards in the entire city: the 9th Ward, the 22nd Ward and the 50th Ward.
For over 30 years, we’ve had four state representatives who have taken office via special elections, all of whom have later won their respective Democratic primaries and none of whom had viable Democratic challengers – not because we lack qualified women and men to run, but because we’ve been told repeatedly that “you can’t beat the machine!” As a result, good prospective candidates rarely step up to run, and understandably so.
I ran into a professional acquaintance at City Hall a few months ago en route to a school funding rally, and she asked me what I was up to. When I told her I was running for state representative in this district, she replied dismissively, “Oh, don’t do that! They’ve already picked someone for that seat!”
The “they” to whom she was referring was clearly not “We, the people.” It was the devotees to machine politics whose clandestine, back-room rituals have done a great disservice to our electorate and participatory democracy itself.
My strong distaste for machine politics is one of the factors that catalyzed my early bid for this seat.
And last Wednesday evening, my commitment to good government, public integrity and progressive values were affirmed by a resounding majority of my fellow 9th Ward committeepeople who themselves were duly elected by our respective neighbors.
Yet, I am troubled by the fact that still more than 100 other committeepeople in the 22nd and 50th wards were not given the opportunity to convene, engage with and vote for candidates seeking the Democratic nomination.
This process lacks transparency, accountability and basic fairness. As a result, it is likely that far less than 10 percent of voters in our district will come out to vote in an expensive and hastily assembled special election simply because one Republican in Harrisburg (the Speaker of the House) decreed it and two Democrats (Ward leaders) in northwest Philadelphia decided to honor the age-old “benediction of the back room,” to quote one of my disheartened neighbors.
It is machine politics that feeds our collective cynicism as voters when we see how its routine candidate coronations undermine the democratic process. The sad truth is, in a city still heavily influenced by machine politics, a Democratic nominee will soon be chosen by as few as two ward leaders in our district rather than by their fellow committeepeople who elected these ward leaders from their own ranks.
Fortunately, the practice of political anointment is anathema to the 9th Ward Democratic Committee, which represents Chestnut Hill and parts of Mt. Airy, and which convened a special meeting to ensure that candidates who sought an endorsement got an opportunity to speak on their own behalf before the ward leader caucus vote took place the following morning.
While I was not anointed by the Ward caucus composed of the district’s triumvirate of ward leaders last week in order to become their choice for Democratic nominee for the upcoming special election, I know that the ultimate power resides with the voters themselves.
And whatever happens in the special election on March 15, the real test is who wins the Democratic primary on April 26, where voters will have a real choice among Democratic candidates who’ve earned their place on the ballot because they secured signed petitions from Democratic voters in this district versus being bestowed permission from a back-room duo.
Indeed, the real tragedy here is the toll insular, hierarchical and opaque political machinations takes on the tens of thousands of voters from Chestnut Hill to Cedarbrook who – like me – are tired of having unopposed candidates that others coronate on our behalf election after election.
I encourage all independent-minded voters and committeepeople who have been left out of this process to contact your respective Democratic ward leaders and insist on separate or joint candidate forums and official endorsement votes by a quorum of committeepeople in advance of the April 26 Democratic primary. If you’re sick and tired of always having unopposed candidates on the ballot election after election, please speak up today!
After all, a choice of one is no choice at all.
Chris Rabb is the Social Impact Fellow at Temple University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute at the Fox School of Business. A former legislative staffer in the U.S. Senate, he is a graduate of Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. Rabb is running for state representative in the 200th legislative district for the seat vacated by newly elected City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker. He is a father of two sons and lives in Mt. Airy. Contact him at http://www.ChrisRabb.com