Fiedler candidacy a sign of South Philly’s changing demographics
Elizabeth Fiedler is running for office with a three-month-old baby at her side. “Walking” might be a better way to put it. But it’s not a bad way to meet people. Parents of newborns spend lots of time walking, and meeting lots of potential constituents is one of the keys to a successful challenge in a state-rep race.
After quitting her job as a WHYY journalist to study the race for a month, Fiedler formally announced on Tuesday that she will take on incumbent State Rep. Bill Keller (D-S. Phila.) in the 2018 spring primary to represent the 184th District, which runs south from Wharton Street and east from Broad Street in South Philadelphia.
Fiedler’s effort will be viewed by many as a test of how far demographics have changed in this part of South Philly, which has become a magnet for gentrification in recent years. Born in Bloomsburg in North Central Pennsylvania, Fiedler moved to Philadelphia 14 years ago. “I had the good fortune of choosing to live in Philadelphia. I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she said.
Fiedler believes her core passions – education and health care – resonate with longtime residents of East Passyunk and Whitman as well.
“Both my parents are union schoolteachers. I saw first-hand how hard they worked for every penny to put food on our table, how they scrimped and saved for their children,” she recalled. “I also saw how hard parents work in public schools, fighting for everything their children need. So I am running for working families, both long-term and brand-new residents. These are issues we all unite behind.”
Fiedler’s midstate background could prove to be a crucial tool in the State House of Representatives. “I have seen schools out there also struggling,” she said. “Having seen what’s happening in other parts of the state, I know how to relate to them on school issues and understand people with other political views.”
That’s an important claim by a Philadelphia candidate. To begin with, the School District of Philadelphia is controlled by the state-run School Reform Commission – only state legislators can cast effective votes on SRC policies and decisions. And since the General Assembly is firmly controlled by midstate and western Republicans, only Philadelphians who know how to talk with these decision-makers can expect to deliver much for their hometown.
Fiedler wants to go there. “Full funding for schools is feasible,” she insists. “They need it as much as we do.”
Health care is also on Fiedler’s front burner, and not just because she is a mother of two. (In addition to the three-month-old, she also has a toddler.)
“My family receives health care through the Affordable Care Act, so I know how to navigate the health care system,” said Fiedler. But she has found it to be a very frustrating experience. “You try to afford the best care. But if your child falls and breaks their leg, if they get sick and have a fever, then you need total assurance that they will be well cared for, no matter what your income. Health care is a human right. But it’s important to get the funding streams in place.”
Fiedler asserted that she would support a Pennsylvania single-payer system if federal health care reforms come to naught.
Other causes dear to Fiedler’s heart are raising the minimum wage, climate change and affordable housing.
The candidate sees her journalistic background as a strength. “I know how to talk to people and listen to people,” she said. Outgoing by nature, she hangs out in stores, on city streets and in city parks. “I have a pair of sneakers – I’ll go door to door,” she said.
South Philly’s civic groups are a core pool for Fiedler’s efforts to rally backers. She is a member of Dickinson Square West and has networked with East Passyunk Crossing, Passyunk Square and LoMo (Lower Moyamensing).
“There is an appetite for change,” said Fiedler, surveying the wreckage of establishment candidates in the May 2017 Democratic primary. “The people of South Philadelphia want change – and people who are not afraid to challenge the system.”
Fiedler’s husband, Adams Rackes, will support her while she runs for office. He started out as a welder; now he runs a small business retrofitting older buildings for energy efficiency.
The 184th is emerging as a three-way race between different factions of the community.
Incumbent State Rep. Bill Keller (D-S. Phila.) has represented this district since 1992. He has strong union support from the Whitman community and, at 66, is not ready to hang it up. He will be supported by the powerful 1st Ward Democratic Committee, which heels to Johnny Doc’s word.
Nicholas DiDonato, Jr., a former police detective and scion of a South Philadelphia political family, could cut into Keller’s base. He has shown a gut feel for traditional blue-collar South Philly issues such as Broad Street parking and the Mummers Parade.
Fiedler won’t talk about her opponents, allowing only that “It is up to them to talk about their vision, and then it is up to the people.”