Fiedler Tests S. Philly’s Hunger for Change

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MEETING people in parks comes naturally to a new mother, says Elizabeth Fiedler, L, who is running for state representative in South Philadelphia’s 184th District. It’s a key to her retail-politics ambitions.

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 people is the key 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 this 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 educated young newcomers since 2000. 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.

But Fiedler believes her core passions – education and health care – resonate with working-class families of East Passyunk and Whitman who grew up in the district 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. I also saw how hard parents work in public schools, fighting for everything their children need,” said Fiedler. She worked for years in restaurant and fast-food jobs. “So I am running for working families, both long-term and brand-new residents. These are issues we all unite behind,” she asserted.

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 state-rep candidate. To begin with, the School District of Philadelphia is controlled by the state-run School Reform Commission, so 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 the home town.

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 also 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 very frustrating and poorly worked. “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 would support a Pennsylvania single-payer health-insurance 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 and 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 want people who are not afraid to challenge the system.” She hopes to ride on that thrust.

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. Still spry at 66, Keller 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.

The mathematics of a three-way race make state-rep contests hard to predict, and exciting as a result.

Fiedler won’t talk about her opponents. “It is up to them to talk about their vision, and then it is up to the people,” she said.

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