PHILADELPHIA—Hillary Clinton is in town this week for the Democratic National Convention, but Chris Rabb may be the more important politician for the city and the state of Pennsylvania.
You don’t know who he is, but you should. Rabb is a tech entrepreneur, college professor, and social justice activist who won the Democratic primary for a state House seat in April.
Clinton will get all the media attention—and rightly so, as the first woman nominated for president by a major party. But Rabb, if he wins, can influence the daily lives of marginalized people in Philadelphia in ways a president never could.
If black people want consequences for cops who kill without justification, Rabb, not Clinton, can help make it happen. He wants statewide licensing of police, so that an officer is fired for abusing the badge in one town can’t wear it in another.
If he wins in November, that’s one of the first pieces of legislation he wants to introduce.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Rabb, 45. “You wouldn’t go to a doctor who isn’t board certified and who doesn’t have the credentials and certifications that are required. You don’t go to a lawyer who didn’t pass the bar.”
Rabb is also against community policing. Putting more cops in communities that already don’t trust them only strains relations; a better solution for police accountability, he said, is punishing bad officers and taking the badges away. Permanently.
Rabb wants to introduce legislation that will protect LGBTQ people from being fired for their sexual orientation. Yes, they can marry whom they choose, but the U.S. Constitution and federal law don’t then protect them from workplace discrimination.
If we want laws passed that favor equality, we best pay more attention to our local politicians than folks who are running for the White House, Rabb told me recently during an interview from the home of a supporter in his district.
“State legislators are the experimental labs for more federal legislation,” he said. “What makes you think the things you care about the most are going to be addressed by the president that structurally does not have the power the state legislatures have? So, if you care about public education, and how it’s funded, that has more to do with influence of your state legislators than who’s in the Oval Office.”
Two more issues he cares about are education and economic empowerment, both of which he sees as matters of public health in struggling communities. Another is gun violence, and Rabb understands the impact of that firsthand.
On the Sunday before the Pennsylvania primary, he was canvassing a neighborhood and speaking to a 21-year-old man named Alex Cherry who told Rabb he wanted to help the campaign. They exchanged information and parted.
Then a gunman walked up behind Cherry and shot him to death.
Two days later, Rabb beat a Democrat who had the backing of Gov. Tom Wolf, former Gov. Ed Rendell, and the mayor of Philadelphia. In the heavily Democratic 200th District, that all but assured Rabb will win the seat.
Three months later, the shooter has not been caught.
Rabb had thought about bringing his two sons, 10 and 13, with him that day. Fortunately, they were out of town with their mother.
When I ask Rabb about that Sunday afternoon, he takes a long pause. The trauma still shakes him, and he goes to counseling to deal with it. It’s important for black men to discuss their vulnerabilities and unpack the stereotypes of masculinity, he believes.
“We can’t grow stronger if we don’t know how to heal,” he told me. It’s something I emphasize with my sons, so they are modeling the type of masculinity and humanity I want them to value.”
Rabb grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He got his first taste of politics in high school when he helped his mother, Madeline, pass out campaign material for Harold Washington, who went on to become Chicago’s first and only black mayor. She was hired as the city’s director of fine arts, with a mandate to make the arts more accessible to the city’s more marginalized communities.
As a teenager, Rabb was politically outspoken. He took that approach to Yale, where he earned a degree in African-American studies. In 1988, he confronted the head of Calhoun College’s residential halls over stained glass windows depicting slavery. His advocacy worked. The images were removed.
Rabb earned a master’s degree in business in 2006 from the University of Pennsylvania. Back in the 1990s, he had started Stono Technologies, a product design firm, with his brother, Maurice. A job offer to run a nationally recognized urban business incubator in West Philadelphia brought him to the city, and he has been here ever since.
He taught at Temple University for nearly three years and is now on the faculty of the Institute for Strategic Leadership at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business.
This tone of this election cycle has been more divisive than any in recent memory. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, wants to build a wall to block immigrants he has called murderers and rapists, and has compiled a record of racism.
Meanwhile, Republican legislatures and governors have passed and signed discriminatory voting laws. Some states have even passed so-called bathroom bills that discriminate against transgender people.
All this, Rabb feels, is best fought locally.
And the Black Lives Matter movement can be a vital partner to politicians to combat it, he said. Police brutality, LGBTQ discrimination, and better schooling are issues Black Lives Matter activists can challenge local officials to act on.
He said he hopes that activists will work to influence elected officials and make policy changes “in ways that the civil rights era did in promoting the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,” Rabb said.
In 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama was running for the Oval Office, police brutality was not a talking point. Toward the end of his second term, he has been forced to strike a balance, honoring the pain of parents whose children’s lives were taken by abusive cops all while paying tribute to the police department's most white Americans trust.
Activists have challenged Obama as well as Clinton their plans to address it. We live in a federalist system, so a U.S. president can’t directly determine how a local government fixes a broken police department.
That is what Rabb wants people in his district and the rest of America to get: If black people want to realize justice in their communities, they need to invest time in researching politicians who are representing them at the city and state levels.
That is where the real power is.
If he wins as expected in November, Rabb hopes it will encourage like-minded folks to run for office and create the change they want to see.
It all starts with investing in who's in your statehouse, not the White House.
“People must have a higher level of civic literacy, so that they don’t think politics is all about who inhabits the Oval Office,” he said. “Real power starts locally.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.