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Mailers targeting Philly progressives have curious links to Trump and the city’s Democratic Party

Mailers arriving this week attacking three Democratic state legislators from Philadelphia have sparked questions about who funded the effort and whether the city's Democratic Party played a role.

Three state legislators from Philadelphia, Chris Rabb (left), Elizabeth Fiedler (center) and Rick Krajewski, have been targeted by controversial campaign mailers from a dark-money group.
Three state legislators from Philadelphia, Chris Rabb (left), Elizabeth Fiedler (center) and Rick Krajewski, have been targeted by controversial campaign mailers from a dark-money group.Read moreInquirer file photos

Mailers attacking three progressive Philadelphia state legislators with brutally blunt terms and images are now rupturing the group that sent them — and raising questions about who funded them and whether they are connected to the city’s Democratic Party.

The mailers from a new political action committee arrived in voters’ mailboxes this week.

“Gun violence is tearing our city apart,” they say, illustrating that point with a picture of someone aiming a handgun next to pictures of Chris Rabb of Northwest Philly, Rick Krajewski of West Philly, and Elizabeth Fiedler of South Philly.

Krajewski and Rabb say they suspect a direct connection to the city’s Democratic Party. And the three state representatives see wealthy Republican donors pulling the strings on the mailers.

And then there is the effort’s connection to former President Donald Trump’s failed 2020 effort to throw out all of Pennsylvania’s votes, which helped fuel a social media backlash to the mailers this week.

Half of the board members resigned Tuesday from A Greater Philadelphia, the nonprofit launched in November that used the PAC to send the mailers, saying they did not want to be associated with the effort.

Mark Gleason, A Greater Philadelphia’s founder, said he will not disclose who funded the mailers because the donor or donors want to remain secret. The PAC’s timing and tactics have ensured that it won’t even have to disclose how much money was raised until after the primary.

Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee has endorsed challengers to the three legislators in Tuesday’s primary. That’s not surprising, because the three legislators all ran against the local party when originally winning office: Rabb in 2016, Fiedler in 2018, and Krajewski in 2020.

Ken Smukler, a political consultant as tight as can be with city Democratic Chair Bob Brady, is an adviser to A Greater Philadelphia, which was registered as a nonprofit in November, and Greater Expectations PHL, the affiliated political action committee that sent the mailers.

Smukler declined to comment. Brady said he did not know about or participate in the mailer effort and was not surprised that the legislators all suggested he was connected to it.

“They can drag me all they want,” Brady said. “I could care less about those three.”

Three board members resign

Biographies for three board members who appeared on A Greater Philadelphia’s website Tuesday were deleted Wednesday.

Farah Jimenez, who runs an education nonprofit, said she resigned as a board member for A Greater Philadelphia because it was set up for polling and research to “enrich debate” about the city and she “did not want to be associated with the negative turn the work took.”

Jason Tucker, a real estate development executive, said he had expected the group to be active in 2023 city races, using community surveys and events to discuss policies but resigned because he did not want to be a part of the mailer effort.

Charles Ellison, a WURD-AM radio host, tweeted his resignation Tuesday, saying “the recent campaign material, among other operational & funding issues, does not reflect that vision” of the group he envisioned when it launched.

A Greater Philadelphia added a new board member, intellectual-property attorney George Awad, to the website Wednesday.

Gleason, an occasionally controversial advocate for school choice as the former executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, cast A Greater Philadelphia and its PAC as “politically diverse” while refusing to disclose where the money comes from.

He defended the mailers as a “call to responsibility” on public safety.

“We just don’t feel like the focus is on the issues that matter most to everyday Philadelphians,” Gleason said of this campaign season.

A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows nonprofits to collect money from undisclosed donors and funnel it to “independent expenditure” political action committees as long as the groups don’t coordinate with candidates or campaigns.

‘Grossly irresponsible’

Krajewski knocks the effort as “dirty and fearmongering,” and illogical, because state legislators don’t control funding of the Philadelphia Police Department. The mailers have prompted anger and confusion in his district, he said.

“I think it’s just grossly irresponsible,” Krajewski said.

Rabb chalks it up as a “Trumpalicious smear campaign” that “reeks of desperation” and reflects “the right-wing’s well-founded fear that the progressive movement is making inroads in the state legislature, where Democrats may very well flip the House this November.”

Fiedler’s campaign called the mailers “desperate, last-minute junk mail by anti-labor, anti-public education dark money groups.”'

“This election isn’t going to be decided by Republican millionaires and billionaires who live on the Main Line,” said Sarah Nenadovic, Fiedler’s campaign manager.

Gleason said his group is also using mailers to support one incumbent, State Rep. Amen Brown of West Philly.

The connection to a Trump election challenge

Further fueling the controversy, A Greater Philadelphia’s effort has a surprising link to Trump’s effort to disenfranchise millions of Pennsylvania voters in 2020. And it is not clear if the new PAC has filed the registration necessary to influence elections in the state.

First, the group used Pittsburgh lawyer Ronald Hicks Jr. to register Greater Expectations PHL as a nonprofit with the state last week.

Hicks, secretary for the Republican National Lawyers Association, filed a lawsuit for Trump’s campaign right after the 2020 election in a failed bid to get a federal judge to ban Pennsylvania from certifying the election results.

That association fueled the Twitter fire this week. And Rabb used Hicks in a fund-raising appeal Tuesday that proclaimed “Republican operatives are conspiring” to defeat his bid for another term.

Hicks did not respond to requests for comment. Gleason said he didn’t know anything about Hicks’ “other clients,” saying he hired him because Hicks came well-recommended.

Greater Philadelphia PHL has reported about $47,000 in independent expenditures as of last week, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. But a spokesperson for that agency on Wednesday said Greater Philadelphia PHL has not filed the necessary paperwork to operate as a political action committee.

Gleason said the group filed that paperwork last Wednesday or Thursday.

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