Elizabeth Fiedler may be new to Harrisburg, but she’s well aware of the math equation that powers Pennsylvania’s capital.
In the 253-member General Assembly, Republicans outnumber Democrats 110-91 in the House and 26-21 in the Senate.
That fact makes it hard for any Democrat to get a bill passed without wide bipartisan support — let alone a progressive Democrat like Fiedler, who was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America.
“I can do the math in Harrisburg,” Fiedler said frankly, after a morning spent visiting schools in her South Philadelphia district. “I recognize the mathematical reality, and [that means] I am twice as strong in fighting for what my constituents want me to fight for.”
It’s been three months since Fiedler and two other DSA-backed candidates won election to the state House, all on platforms promising affordable healthcare, environmental protections, and fair labor practices.
Now in office, they say they want to build coalitions for pragmatic policies in the short term, as they prepare to push broader reforms and challenge notions of what’s politically possible in the years to come.
Small steps to a larger goal
Along with Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, both of Pittsburgh, Fiedler’s DSA-backed candidacy for state House last year garnered national attention. All three candidates defeated Democratic incumbents in the spring primary elections and cruised to easy victories in November.
The DSA victories in Pennsylvania came at the same time that progressive and socialist candidates started to enjoy more prominence on the national stage.
Thanks to the presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016, and the meteoric rise of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., progressive policy proposals are now being discussed in the halls of Congress and on cable news.
Observers say that the growing visibility of progressive lawmakers can only help DSA efforts at the local and state levels.
“When you have national figures that are advocating for positions that you share and bringing attention to those positions, it does give a boost to efforts at the state and local level,” said Chris Borick, director of the public polling institute at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “Certainly the number of individuals in Congress that are advocating more of these very progressive positions has helped create an environment where they’re seen as more mainstream.”
Indeed, public support is gradually aligning with progressive policies on issues like health care and climate change — even as Americans say they’re still reluctant to vote for socialist candidates in elections.
A recent Reuters poll found that 52 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats support a Medicare-for-All healthcare system, which would phase out private, employer-based insurance and extend healthcare to all Americans through the government.
Medicare-for-All is gaining popularity among Democratic candidates for office, including presidential contenders.
Another DSA-backed policy, a Green New Deal to create jobs and transition the nation to a clean energy economy, also has broad bipartisan support, according to a Yale/George Mason University Poll.
In separate interviews, Fiedler and Innamorato said they support the sweeping proposals that democratic socialists have pushed at the national level. (Lee did not respond to requests for comment.)
But they also know that replicating similar programs in Pennsylvania would be all but impossible — at least for now.
Innamorato pointed to Medicare-for-All as an example.
While she’s had some success convincing Republicans in her district of its cost-saving potential, she doesn’t it as a viable legislative priority for this term.
“It’s a very visionary policy,” Innamorato said. “Will we get it through this session? Absolutely not. That’s unrealistic.”
That doesn’t mean that she and her colleagues won’t be talking about it, though. Innamorato noted that Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced some form of Medicare-for-All legislation on multiple occasions over the last 10 years.
Those bills didn’t gain traction in Republican-controlled legislatures, but Innamorato knows they were essential to a long-term progressive strategy.
“It will take a lot of conversations … [but] that’s where I think we can move the legislation this year,” Innamorato said. “We can move the conversation and normalize what has often been considered fringe policy.”
According to Muhlenberg’s Borick, that’s sound reasoning.
He said that a policy like Medicare-for-All would have been a non-starter for voters as recently as the 1990s. But the past two decades have seen a “remarkable” change in public perception of progressive policies, he said, including Medicare-for-All.
By advocating for policies that were perceived by many to be unviable, progressive lawmakers “allowed that type of proposal to play a much more prominent role in contemporary debates and probably the next [presidential] election,” Borick said.
The most high-profile democratic socialist policies — Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, minimum wage hikes — stand to reshape entire sectors of the national economy.
But DSA activists say they also have more practical, short-term objectives to advance in state and municipal governments.
“We’re focused on winning concrete, practical gains for working people and building power of working people,” said Scott Alberts, who co-chairs the Delaware County DSA branch and sits on the steering committee of the Philadelphia DSA. “One of our strengths as national organization is that we’re very practically minded in trying to achieve real world results.”
For Harrisburg’s new DSA lawmakers, that means replicating policies that have shown success on the local level, or pushing reforms that can appeal to a wide coalition of voters and lawmakers.
In the first weeks of her freshman term, Fiedler issued memos outlining what she calls “common sense” protections for workers.
In one, she describes plans to replicate Philadelphia’s fair work week bill across all of Pennsylvania, requiring employers to give workers two weeks of advance notice of schedules.
In another, she seeks support for a bill outlawing non-compete clauses, which employers use to prohibit workers from seeking jobs with competing firms.
The way Fiedler sees it, her policies don’t necessarily come from the right or the left of the political spectrum. She thinks they’re viable because they stand to benefit large swaths of working people across the commonwealth — regardless of their politics.
Innamorato, who is a co-sponsor with Fiedler on the non-compete bill, said she is focusing on legislation that could appeal to a wide coalition of voters and lawmakers.
For instance, she sees potential to reform state laws that preempt action by local governments — an issue she thinks could appeal to small-government conservatives.
Along with Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, Innamorato is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow Pittsburgh to enact a property tax relief program to combat rising housing costs. She’s also mulling changes to state permitting procedures that would allow local municipalities to implement solar energy co-ops.
But legislation is only one way Innamorato plans to measure her success as a lawmaker.
“What I view one of my main jobs and priorities is helping people to see what is possible with political will, community engagement, and organizing,” she said. “If you go into Harrisburg and you gauge your success by the amount of bills you pass, you’ll feel disappointed and feel like you’re not doing anything. If you go in with a mindset [to] produce visionary legislation and engage the community, and amending bills or protecting bills from going to the floor, then you’re doing a lot more to change the culture of Harrisburg.”
For members of the DSA, changing the culture of the Capitol this year is part of a long-term plan to change public perceptions of progressive policies. Elections in 2020 are already heating up, and the success of DSA candidates last year could encourage more like-minded candidates to enter state races.
DSA member Alberts said his organization hopes to flip at least one chamber of the General Assembly to a Democratic majority. If they do, the prospects for progressive legislation will have much better odds.
“These are long term fights,” Alberts said. “This isn’t where you vote for someone to get elected and we change the world overnight. It’s tough for any Democrat in Harrisburg, but I’m optimistic we’re making progress.”