Master of Public Policy Program Asks: Why Should Harrisburg Matter to Philadelphians?
By: Nick Santangelo
Tomorrow is Election Day – don’t forget to get out and vote! Pennsylvanians will vote in a gubernatorial, a senatorial and a number of congressional races. And although many residents may not know as much about them as they should, there are also a number of state legislator races to vote on.
The College of Liberal Arts’ Master of Public Policy (MPP) program wants Philadelphians to better understand what exactly state senators and representatives do in Harrisburg and how it affects Philadelphia. In conjunction with Young Involved Philadelphia and the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia, the program hosted a panel at Temple University Center City moderated by Committee of Seventy President and CEO and Temple MPP Adjunct Professor David Thornburgh in the lead-up to the election.
Temple Director of the Institute for Public Affairs Joe McLaughlin spoke about how the relationship between Philadelphia legislators and their upstate colleagues has not always been smooth over the past few decades. From drawing up congressional districts to debates over Philadelphia’s “soda tax,” the two sides have certainly had their differences.
In fact, Dr. McLaughlin said the legislature’s willingness to assert its authority over the big city was evident as far back as 1792. It was then that Stat Rep. Thomas Scott said: “Philadelphia is in the hands of the legislature as clay in potter’s hands.”
But this cultural and political divide between upstate and the largest city is hardly distinct to Pennsylvania. It exists in almost every state.
Philadelphia is in the hands of the legislature as clay in potter’s hands
Besides, it’s not like the city and the state haven’t been able to work out their differences at times. For example, the panelists spoke about a time in the late 1980s when SEPTA was facing an infrastructure collapse, and the Market-Frankford El had decayed to a point where it might have to be shut down for safety reasons.
In 1991, a policy solution to dedicate a portion of state taxes to mass transit was devised in Philadelphia. It was then successfully pushed through Harrisburg following a mass media campaign and virtually all of Philadelphia’s state senators and representatives – and most of their suburban colleagues – rallying behind the bill.
Similarly, a Philadelphia-based working group of Democratic and Republican officials drafted state-oversight legislation that rescued the city from insolvency without jeopardizing its home rule powers. They then persuaded upstate legislators to support the bill.
Nevertheless, the differences remain. Rep. Donna Bullock (D) spoke about how Philadelphia, like most large cities, has a very progressive constituency. Both houses of state legislature, however, are currently controlled by the Republican Party. But Philadelphia is so overwhelmingly Democratic that when Bullock first got to Harrisburg in 2015 she quipped of Philly’s Republican state legislators, “You guys are not real Republicans.”
“Real” or not, however, there are plenty of Republicans in Pa. state office. Rep. Chris Rabb (D), joining the panel by phone, explained that when he first took office in 2017, there were just 82 Democrats in the House. The number needed for a majority is 102, but the Republican Party controlled 120 seats.
“So Democrats didn’t even need to show up to work,” joked Rabb. “Republicans had all the votes they needed.”
But, Rabb claimed, Harrisburg affords legislators opportunities to work across the aisle. In the midst of a contentious fight about a proposed Republican abortion bill, Rabb heard proposed legislation about another bill that would affect urban centers.
The committee working on the legislation was controlled by Republicans from rural areas who were unfamiliar with urban needs. Rabb was the only one in the room who asked questions about the bill. To his surprise, this prompted the Republican chairman to recommend Rabb add his own amendments to the bill. For a moment, red and blue put aside their differences and worked together on improving a bill that would have an impact on Philadelphians.
Republicans had all the votes they needed
Still, Philadelphia’s delegation wants more power. Their constituents here in the state’s largest city should want the same, as it would create a more Philadelphia-centric slant in state politics. But there’s another problem on top of having fewer progressives that are representative of the city in office. There are also going to be fewer with deep experience in 2019. But Bullock sees opportunity in younger politicians replacing some of the old guard.
“I think we can build on that energy and find alliances,” she said, “and maybe there’s an opportunity to bury old hatchets.”
Younger politicians, explained Bullock, don’t remember or care why certain groups and individuals have historically feuded with each other. There are a number of Philadelphia unions and regions of the city that don’t normally work with or even engage each other. With an influx of new representatives in Harrisburg, she hopes to avoid those old fights and form new alliances as the Philadelphia delegation maneuvers to grab new leadership roles.
To Rabb, though, it’s important to look beyond Philadelphia. He wants to see more Philadelphia and Democratic delegates get out of the city and urban centers and explore the state’s rural and Republican areas.
“If you honor someone else’s reality, they’re going to be far more open to appreciating yours,” said Rabb. “I reach out to folks who have very different views than I do.”
Dr. McLaughlin agreed. In his The Policymaking Process course, a core part of the MPP curriculum, he uses a book by former Pa. legislator (and current U.S. Congressman) Dwight Evans (D) that talks about building coalitions “systematically seeking out members from other parts of the state.” Contrary to the impression voters might have, continued Dr. McLaughlin, most legislation does not break down along party lines, even if the headline-grabbing bills do. Dr. McLaughlin remembers a time when Philadelphia had more Republicans in office, but even then the city’s representatives from both parties voted together on issues of interest to Philadelphians.
I reach out to folks who have very different views than I do
A student asked about the difficulty of getting things down for Philadelphians with House leadership positions currently dominated by representatives from Western Pa. Bullock and Dr. McLaughlin agreed that it’s a real challenge. But Bullock is optimistic that tomorrow’s elections will bring in more youth from Southeastern Pa. and that this will cause a shift in the next leadership elections.
Thornburgh wrapped up the panel by stating that while the future of the Pa. state legislature may look different from its past, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If Philadelphians get out and vote tomorrow, state legislators are more likely to legislate in ways that benefit Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania voters: review the ballot, find your polling place and cast your vote tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov. 6!