Redistricting forces a contentious Democratic primary in Northwest Philly

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Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald (left) and Rep. Chris Rabb (Pa. House)

Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald (left) and Rep. Chris Rabb (Pa. House)

Two Democratic incumbents, pushed into a single district thanks to this year’s legislative reapportionment, are in an intense battle for a Northwest Philadelphia state House seat.

The election is between Rep. Chris Rabb, who has represented the 200th House District since 2017, and Isabella Fitzgerald, who has represented the 203rd District for the same period of time, and is now drawn into the 200th due to redistricting.

Their race for the newly redrawn district — which now encompasses Mt. Airy, most of West Oak Lane, and part of Chestnut Hill — is about a lot of things: which candidate is more progressive, which is a team player, which is part of the city’s Democratic establishment.

But mostly, both candidates say the race is about their records.

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Rabb was a Democratic committeeperson and professor at Temple’s Fox School of Business before running for state House, and is a self-described progressive who has frequently tangled with Philly’s Democratic committee. Most of the city’s longtime elected officials are backing Fitzgerald — which Rabb said isn’t shocking because “I kind of push back on the status quo.”

Fitzgerald, who worked for Congressman Dwight Evans for more than a decade, describes herself simply as “a worker” who wants to build consensus above all else.

“I don’t make a lot of noise, but I do the work,” she said.

Solidarity or stagnation

Fitzgerald spoke from a Monday evening campaign event, hosted by former deputy mayor and 2018 lieutenant governor candidate Nina Ahmad in her sprawling Mt. Airy backyard.

One of the bedrock points of her campaign, she said, is that women need representation in the legislature.

“We have to be at the table,” she said. “I am one of nine African American women in the legislature, and I don’t think that we should lose that.”

Many of the dozen-odd people who arrived to ask Fitzgerald questions were still getting to know her, having previously been in Rabb’s district. But Ahmad said her mind, at least, has been made up for a while. She counts herself among the Democrats who dislike Rabb’s approach to politics. One particular incident from Rabb’s time as a ward leader irritated several of the people at the gathering: when Rabb bucked party norms and made a personal endorsement of a non-Democrat, Working Families Party member Kendra Brooks, for City Council.

Ahmad said she prefers candidates who she sees as more committed to the Democratic party.

“I’m asking for solidarity at a time in our country where we don’t need all these divisions,” Ahmad said. “If Democrats don’t win, everybody — especially the Black and brown people in this space here — is going to suffer.”

Rabb, knocking doors on a sunny weekend afternoon in a nearby section of Mt. Airy, disagreed. He said he thinks Philly Democrats need a wake-up call more than anything.

“The Democratic machine is a paper tiger,” he said. “They get really upset when people win who they don’t want to win, because it exposes that they do not have the power they used to wield. Who has the power? Organized people. We have the power. And that’s why I remain on the outside. And it’s a badge of honor.”

Rabb was knocking doors alongside his 15-year-old son and two men he met during his time in Harrisburg, Kevin Butler and Victor Strong, both of whom served long prison sentences and now advocate for probation and parole reform. Butler was incarcerated in the now-shuttered SCI Graterford when he met Rabb, and says he was impressed because “most state officials don’t come in here.”

“To have somebody on the ground with you is different than having somebody sitting in an office or a desk, and telling you what needs to be done in your community,” Strong added. “He’s in the community. He’s been in the community. That’s why I’m out here to support him.”

Cash comparison

Some of Fitzgerald’s and Rabb’s differences are most apparent in their campaign finance reports.

Fitzgerald topped out at about $125,000 in her last report and spent $100,000 — tens of thousands of which went to printing and distributing lots of mailers — some of them provocative. One batch called Rabb “all talk no action.” Another said that he is “trying to take out a Black woman.”

Rabb’s latest report shows that he brought in a total of $127,000 and spent around $53,000, most of that on graphic design, printing, and a billboard.

Fitzgerald has gotten the bulk of her campaign funds — $57,000 in her latest report — from political action committees, including $16,000 from the politically-connected, Northwest Philly-based Liberty Square PAC, $10,000 from Laborers District Council, and $5,000 from Concerned Citizens of PA, the PAC for which Philly Democratic Committee Chair Bob Brady serves as treasurer. Fitzgerald also gave herself about $30,000.

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Fitzgerald also reported receiving $15,000 from a PAC funded by right-wing billionaire charter school supporter Jeffrey Yass, who has given to a number of Philly Democrats who support charter schools. But Donna Powell, a spokesperson for Fitzgerald, said the donation was “unsolicited” and that once the campaign found out Yass was connected with the PAC, Excellent Schools PA, it quickly returned the funds.

“Yass does not represent what Isabella stands for,” Powell said. “Izzy supports public schools as well as school choice.”

Rabb took to social media to critique Fitzgerald for accepting the donation in the first place. “

If I were to receive a huge check in the mail from a PAC I’ve never heard of, I’d at least google it before cashing it,” he wrote on Twitter. “Even if I didn’t know that a right-wing billionaire was funding it, I wouldn’t have accepted $$$ from an org that seeks to defund our public schools!”

Measuring success

Democrats have been in the minority in both the state House and Senate for more than a decade, making it immensely difficult for Rabb, Fitzgerald, and the rest of their Democratic colleagues to get most of their ideas enacted in law.

Both candidates track their successes carefully.

Rabb points to the breadth of the issues he’s involved in. This session, he’s been the prime sponsor on 24 bills ranging from raising the minimum wage, to banning police from using tear gas, to pitching an interstate compact to end some taxpayer-funded subsidies to big companies.

“You can tell about how hard someone works by how many bills they’ve introduced, and where they show up, not just when the cameras are on,” Rabb said while canvassing in Mt. Airy on a recent Saturday. “I’ve been to seven prisons in my first three years. I’m at farms, kindergartens, you name it…nobody’s going to outwork me.”

Fitzgerald, meanwhile, argues that quantity isn’t everything — and doesn’t surpass negotiating skills. She has been the prime sponsor on eight bills this session, including ones to establish a waiting period for buying semi-automatic rifles, create a bill of rights for homeless people, and require environmental health assessments for new day care facilities.

“In order to get anything done, you have to be unified,” she said. “I don’t think that everybody has to be of the same mind, but you have to be willing to compromise.”

For Fitzgerald, one of the biggest wins was a 2020 bill that ensured enhanced screenings for women at high breast cancer risk. She had sponsored the House’s version of the measure, and the Senate’s ultimately passed — a common practice in Harrisburg. Fitzgerald also points to a bill that would have guaranteed inmates access to menstrual products while in prison and, while it didn’t become law, was adopted as state Department of Corrections policy.

Darisha Parker, a fellow Northwest Philly House member who is supporting Fitzgerald, calls her a “quiet storm.”

Fitzgerald, she said, is “steadfast and knows the issues and is passionate about them. That’s who I want representing me. That’s who I want to have as my colleague.”

Rabb counts among his victories a 2017 bill that created a trust fund for kids at high risk of incarceration — he sponsored the House version; the Senate version passed — a 2017 amendment that removed a cap on income tax donations to pediatric cancer research, and the House version of a successful bill to give grants to farmers who produce hemp and other crops that don’t get federal money.

He also points to a 2019 bill he drafted that has police face penalties for sexually assaulting people in custody, which was added as an amendment to a successful bill the following year, as well as language he wrote in 2017 to give micro-loans to worker cooperatives, which was later added to a successful 2021 bill. He also wrote the bulk of a major 2020 bill that created a statewide database to track police misconduct.

“I want people to know my track record,” he said while door knocking, noting that all his flyers include a QR code that links back to his major bills. “I don’t want them to vote for me because I’m the only person on the ballot or because I’m a Democrat, but because they believe in the services that I provide.”

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