Chris Rabb calls himself the “dark horse.” This is a way of saying that he wasn’t the establishment candidate last week when he won the Democratic primary for 200th District Pennsylvania House seat, a nomination that practically guarantees him the seat over Republican Latryse McDowell in Dem-heavy Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy come November. His main opponent in the primary, State Rep. Tonyelle Cook-Artis, former chief of staff to Cherelle Parker, became the incumbent in March through a special election, after Parker left her seat to serve on City Council.
His success in the primary was the second time he made the news last week. Two days before the primary, a potential volunteer was killed in a grisly murder. Rabb had just been conversing with the young man, Alex Cherry, minutes before, and an aide of his still was when Cherry was shot. Rabb doesn’t like discussing the incident. (He told the Philadelphia Sun he attended grief counseling afterwards.)
Cook-Artis was also the candidate of choice for the Northwest Alliance, one of city’s most powerful and influential black political factions. So it’s not just that Rabb was taking on the incumbent, he had to run without the support Northwest politicians like Dwight Evans and Marian Tasco.
Rabb, a business professor and the author of Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity, wrote an op-ed in January for the Chestnut Hill Local on how machine politics in the Northwest— and to some extent the city at large—works. The whole thing is worth a read, but here’s a snippet.
“For over 30 years, [the 200th district] 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.”
The op-ed is essentially a piece on what can happen to those who aren’t the “anointed” ones. He had worked as an aide for former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun and was a Democratic Committeeperson, but tells Billy Penn the notches on his CV that “were substantive and potentially impressive to most people did not seem to have any weight.” He amends that: “It did with voters.”
During our interview, his dislike for insiderism is intact. It makes me wonder how easily he’ll make friends in Harrisburg, or if this is just how he speaks now, while he’s still the new kid on the block. But later he mentions that not “play[ing] the game,” was a move he made “for ethical reasons and for strategic reasons. I would become part of the problem if I used the same tactics that I was running against.” He too mentions that he prides himself on being a storyteller. Along the campaign trail, he painted an arc: The district has been one with long incumbencies and a lack of voter options, but the future can bear more than that. The dark horse perspective is his to tell, so he’s going to let the people know.
“I did not anticipate winning by seven points. I did not say, oh I’m going to destroy my opponent,” he shares. “I think there’s an interesting disconnect in Philadelphia. Incumbency has inoculated, or kind of put longstanding incumbents in a cocoon— they haven’t had to catch up with the times because they’re always running unopposed.
“They don’t need to have a website. They don’t need to have a social media presence. They don’t need to engage in ways that most outsiders do and because most [first-time] outsiders, frankly, tend have to have less money, less sophistication. [It’s hard] to have an impact. But when you have someone who is an outsider, someone is who both savvy with social media, who raises money, that’s so rare that it’s going to catch them flat-footed.”
I ask Rabb if he thinks his upset has cracked the top brass’ pull in some way. He thinks it has. Perhaps. He likens the impact of his win to the metaphor of the tree falling in the forest.
“It only matters if people know it about. If people say that I won because of a tragic event, and they say it was just because of that one thing, or if they say it was because I was very active on social media, then that does an injustice to the complexity of the process and the set of choices I had to make with my team over seven months and all the external circumstances that I had no control over,” he explains.
He says that if he had the inside baseball down pat, he would’ve known the influential pastors to reach out to, he would’ve had all the right endorsements. But on the digital side, Rabb was a natural. In the burgeoning days of the black blogosphere, there was Afro-Netizen, a site he founded to focus on African-American civic engagement. (It’s still up, but hasn’t had a new post in several years.) For this campaign, he raised $8,500 through crowdfunding site CrowdPAC (Cook-Artis notably failed to raise funds there), shared updates through NextDoor, a neighborhood social networking site that he began posting on initially just as a personal account: “Before I became a candidate, I would talk about political and cultural issues along with bragging about my kids.” He adds, “And actually bragging about my kids is something I’ve done as a candidate to because I’ve taken them out with me to canvass.”
He was the unknown, so he had a lot of hands to shake. “I began to respond to people whose door I would knock on or political types who’d say, ‘I’ve never heard of you,’ with, ‘Well that’s why I’m introducing myself to you,” he recalls. Meeting new people, he’d pitch them, but keep it loose, he says. “I would look at their body language and say ‘I’m not trying to sell you anything.’ They would either smile or smirk.”
“I was shocked how much I enjoyed it. I did it in the dead of winter. I did it in the spring. It is the most pure way to engage people,” he says of door-to-door canvassing.
Education is one of the issues that Rabb cares about most. With the state’s new fair funding formula enacted, he plans to spend the coming months researching education revenue. Equitable community development is another that he looks forward to addressing. I ask about gun violence, in light of citywide epidemic, but also the shooting he witnessed two days before the primary. Cherry, 21, had met Rabb just before he was killed. Reports say the ambush was gang-related. A friend of Cherry’s, Elijah Frazier, 18, was also killed.
“The reason we were talking to Alex was because he had a light in his eyes. He was respectful. He was kind. He was already engaged in the political process. He was excited to working at the polls with his mother in 48 hours,” says Rabb. “So I said, ‘Go get his name and number. We want him working with us.’
“No one deserves to die in that way. No one. He was someone’s child. He was someone who was excited about being a part of something bigger than himself.”
Gun control would be an obvious issue for a Democrat to back, says Rabb. More specifically though, he’d work to funnel more support to youth engagement. “Advocacy for the type of work that has real dividends,” he says. “The younger we hit them, the more meaningfully we hit them, the more resources we put in [these programs] so they can scale out is something that is doable.”