Insurgents win two legislative seats in Pennsylvania’s House

Lizz Fiedler and Chris Rabb were able to beat Democratic organizations

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Former WHYY reporter Elizabeth Fiedler came away with a win in the 184th House District primary race. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Former WHYY reporter Elizabeth Fiedler came away with a win in the 184th House District primary race. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In Philadelphia, state legislative races tend to be won party by organizations. But Tuesday, two candidates bucked their local machines and won impressive victories.

Running for a state House seat in South Philadelphia, first-time candidate and former WHYY reporter Elizabeth Fiedler was up against local Democratic ward leaders and the most politically powerful union in the state, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Though the union put $112,500 into the campaign of T.R. Rowan, a ward leader and one of her opponents, Fiedler won handily in the Democratic primary Tuesday, taking more than 50 percent of the vote in a four-way primary.

How did she do it? Hard work and an agenda that mattered, she says.

“We knocked on hundreds of doors, tens of thousands of doors, starting months ago,” Fiedler said in an interview Wednesday. She picked up volunteers among friends, friends of friends, parent groups, community organizations, and those who answered the door when she knocked.

“This woman, Janet, was watching MSNBC when we knocked on her door,” Fiedler said. “She said she knew she wanted to get more involved. She knew she should pay more attention to local races.”

Soon, Janet was knocking on doors herself, answering phones, helping any way she could.

Fiedler was lucky in that, months after she began her campaign, incumbent Democratic state Rep. William Keller decided not to seek re-election.

It probably also helped that Fiedler launched her grass-roots campaign when progressives’ anger over the election of Donald Trump stirred many to political activism.

Fiedler spent several hours, four days a week, making fundraising calls from a basement office on Tasker Street, once known to South Philly politicos as state Sen. Vince Fumo’s “bunker.”

Why there? It was basement space, so it was cheap, and near two bus lines and the subway, Fiedler said. It’s a coincidence that it happened to be the former lair of Fumo, who went to prison on corruption charges in 2009.

Fiedler ran on a progressive agenda that includes Medicare for all, and she earned the endorsement of Our Revolution, the network spawned by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

There’s no Republican on the ballot in the 184th legislative district, so Fiedler is headed to Harrisburg in January.

An independent holds the line

Miles away in Northwest Philadelphia, state Rep. Chris Rabb pulled off his second win against the vaunted Democratic organization of former city Councilwoman Marian Tasco and current Councilwoman Cherelle Parker.

Rabb, an Ivy League-educated former U.S. Senate staffer, beat an incumbent backed by the organization two years ago, in part by knocking on doors and introducing himself.

The organization came back hard this spring, backing Melissa Scott in an effort to unseat Rabb. It was a race, but he survived, 52 to 48 percent.

Rabb said in a phone interview he did what he’d done before, except that he now had a record to run on, including introducing 21 bills and opening three satellite offices to service constituents.

Is his battle with the organization over now?

“I work with those who are willing to collaborate,” Rabb said. “I have a good relationship with (U.S. Rep.) Dwight Evans and others.”

“I’m not in any political camp,” he said. “I philosophically oppose the existence of any political machine. By its nature, it’s exclusionary.”

Tasco, Democratic leader of the 50th Ward in West Oak Lane, said in a brief interview she wasn’t discouraged that her candidate came up short.

“You’re not always going to win,” Tasco said. “She did well, considering she was a first-time candidate taking on an incumbent, and she only lost by a small amount.”

Changing times?

Political consultant Mustafa Rashed said the victories of Fiedler and Rabb show “there are a lot of independent voters out there,” but he said it’s distressing that voter turnout is so low.

It was tough election for IBEW Local 98, at least by one measure.

The union put more than $500,000 in three races — and lost all three.

The biggest investment  — more than $300,000 — was in 5th District congressional candidate Rich Lazer. The union put $112,500 into Rowan’s state House candidacy in South Philadelphia, and $75,000 into the state House bid of union plasterer Sean Kilkenny in Northeast Philadelphia.

But Local 98 generates plenty of political cash from member contributions, and it isn’t going anywhere.

“I’m not upset about anything that happened,” John Dougherty, Local 98 business manager, said in a phone interview. “There’s nothing we would have done different. We’re involved in practically every race in this city. Some are just more high profile than others.”

Disclosure: IBEW Local 98 represents engineers at WHYY.

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