Chris Rabb on Running a Ward like a Decent Civic Organization


(State Rep. Chris Rabb | Photo: Kentucky Educational Television)

In an interview with Inquirer columnist John Baer, first-term Rep. Chris Rabb (HD-200) discusses how he operates in Harrisburg as someone who got elected without the support the Democratic Party machine, and how he plans to run the 9th ward as a reformer:

He holds town hall meetings, three last month: “People are thirsty for basic information and access to resources. People like being talked to instead of being talked down to by their elected officials. I love participatory democracy. I love being responsive to constituents. It affirms voices can be heard and inspire action.”

He’s also the new leader of the Democratic Ninth Ward, the highest voter-turnout ward in a city, sadly, not really into high voter turnout.

His first ward meeting was last week. His focus is “the diffusion of power and not the concentration of power.” He wants to open ward business, have public ward meetings; and, he says, on election days, “We won’t be passing out street money.”

The 9th Ward, covering West Mt. Airy, has been an open ward* for a long time, so this is probably more continuity than change. Open wards are basically wards that try to function based on small-d democratic principles: elected committeepeople get to vote on endorsements, they get to inspect the ward's finances, and have regular (possibly even public) meetings. In other words, they're run like any halfway decent community organization. 

One question that people considering running in next year's ward elections should keep in mind is, what kinds of neighborhood political organizations do we want to create? What is the ideal relationship between ward organizations and the neighborhoods they represent? How can they be effective advocates for positive change between elections, and how should they relate to the work—if at all—of other neighborhood groups like civic associations, RCOs, or CDCs? Should they primarily aim to help carry out the political and government relations work of other neighborhood institutions, or set their own agenda and advocate for it within those other venues?

Lots of civic associations are squeamish about doing anything that could be remotely construed as political, even harmless stuff like voter registration, or hosting non-partisan candidate nights or petition parties during election season. It seems like there's a clear role for ward organizations to become like a civic-association-but-for-politics that connects neighbors with people running for office during election season. But there are good questions about what they should try to do in the months between elections, and to what extent they should try to do policy advocacy. 

The 9th Ward is an interesting model, and a better model than lots of existing wards have. But it's not the only possible model for an open ward, and we hope to see some more experimentation with how wards are run as the next generation inherits the post-patronage party apparatus.

Interested in ward politics? Take this survey to tell us what you'd like to see in a revamped, a site created to provide more information about Philly ward leaders and committeepeople. 

*'Open ward' is probably the best terminology that anyone's come up so far for this ward leadership style, but it doesn't quite satisfy, so please let us know if you think you have a better term that's worth popularizing. Some people refer to these wards as "good government wards," which just sounds incredibly condescending, the Democratic City Committee leadership jokingly refers to them as "read and write wards," since reading and writing is for lame-o's, obviously. 

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2017-10-03 16:52:45 -0400