'Some people like to build walls...I like to build bridges'
Susan Rzucidlo is running for a seat representing the 158th District, in an election that will be held Nov. 4.
By Richard L. Gaw
On Monday afternoon, Sept. 22, when it had been announced that Cuyler Walker was withdrawing from the 158th District State Representative race, Susan Rzucidlo, the Democratic candidate for the same seat, was out knocking on doors and introducing herself to potential constituents.
When a reporter called her for a comment on Walker's withdrawal, she couldn't think of any words. It was unfamiliar behavior for her; in recent years, Rzucidlo has put her slogan – that the 'z' in her name may be silent, but she isn't – out on the front lines of grassroots advocacy. Her presence is, by her own admission, both direct and persistent. In the hallowed halls of state legislature in Harrisburg, in township buildings and in Chester County government meeting rooms, Rzucidlo has been a thorn of activity and results in the sides of a too-often stubborn band of elected officials.
She has proven herself to be blind to political categories, believes in the power of coalitions, and has brought both Republicans and Democrats together to champion causes on behalf of those who live with disabilities, and those who need access to medical services. She has served as chair of the One Voice Coalition, and has been a Pennsylvania delegate to the 2012 Mom Congress. It is said that no one ever walks away from a table and wonders, “I wonder what Susan’s opinion is on that?”
“I couldn't think of any words at the time,” Rzucidlo said from her home in Landenberg, which she shares with her husband and four children. “I said, 'We'll figure it out from here.' In the meantime, we've had an envelope stuffing party. We have talked with our volunteers. I've been out knocking on doors and talking with people – Democrats, Republicans, Green Party members and independents. We’re doing all that we can do.”
For Rzucidlo, her campaign will again be met by an old foe. After a Commonwealth judge ruled in favor of eliminating Walker's name from the ballot, the Republican Committee appointed Sen. Chris Ross to serve as the Republican candidate, who will run head-to-head with Rzucidlo over the next five weeks in a race that will be determined on Nov. 4. In her two previous campaigns for the District seat, Rzucidlo was defeated by Ross, who went on to serve two terms and was preparing to retire before being appointed last month.
With the turmoil of Walker's resignation still to be ironed out, and the appointment of Ross being seen by many as merely a finger in the dike on the Republican side, the doors may have swung wide open for Rzucidlo - on her third attempt -- to finally go to Harrisburg.
“I believed I was going to win this race before my opponent dropped out,” she said. “I am running this race to win it, and I feel that it is very winnable. I have name recognition from having run twice before. I've done a lot of work in the community, and people seem to like what I have done.”
Rzucidlo said that a major factor in what may win her the race is the changing dynamic of the district itself, whose borders have been re-drawn in recent years. Long a conservative area, the District is now 54 percent non-Republican, Rzucidlo said. She also believes she will be able to pull a lot of Republican support, because she calls herself “a fiscal conservative, and a social moderate.”
“It's not just preaching to the choir, but hopefully converting a few along the way,” she said.
Although a portion of her campaign platform leans toward traditionally liberal talking points – protecting the environment, supporting women's reproductive rights – Rzucidlo believes that the bulk of what she supports supercedes the usual party line politics. She supports welfare reform; term limits; fiscal responsibility; lower and fairer taxes for people and businesses; assistance to senior citizens and children; and the expansion of infrastructure.
A key component of Rzucidlo's campaign is finding ways to maintain – and improve – the quality of public education for children. Although she is not firmly committed to school teacher tenure, “we have to absolutely have ways to get rid of bad teachers,” she said. “You want someone who is going to do the job we need them to do, because educating our children is an investment in our future, both in our community and in our nation.”
Rzucidlo believes that he goal of a public education is to see a student through to his or her aspirations -- whether it be the attend college, enter the workforce after graduation or pursue technical skills at a trade school. She is fervently opposed to the Keystone Exams, a component of Pennsylvania’s proposed system of high school graduation requirements, that measure proficiency in various subjects such as algebra, literature and biology.
“You give a student 13 years of schooling, and along the way, you can track them, you can test them, and you should know what they’re learning, and give them the help they need,” she said. “To have one test that determines whether or not the student can graduate from high school is going to increase the number of dropouts.
"If you’re not able to pass that test, you’re not able to go to Vo-tech, so our Vo-tech kids will have to stay in school in order to pass one test," she added. "If their passion is to be in the trades, it puts up a barrier to graduation, as opposed to building a bridge to graduation. Our money should be going into ways of helping these students while in school, rather than on one test."
If there is a lightning rod of controversy that divides Pennsylvanians in this election, it is the laws, guidelines and provisions governing hydraulic fracturing in the state. To many, "fracking," the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, is a surefire economic stimulus that provides jobs, while opponents believe that Act 13 -- enacted in 2012 as a means to provide environmental standards for the extraction of natural gas -- gives gas companies the freedom to drill anywhere, free from environmental watchdogs and local zoning laws.
Last December, the Pa. Supreme Court threw out portions of Act 13, in favor of giving more power to local zoning laws that related to oil and gas development, a decision that the Corbett administration argued placed more restrictions on gas companies. While Rzucidlo does not favor the complete elimination of fracking in the state, she is in favor of holding the gas companies responsible for publicly opening the books on the means by which they are extracting gas products. Although the 158th District is beyond the borderline of where fracking is occurring in Pennsylvania, Rzucidlo said its impact is felt throughout the state.
"It affects us all, whether its in your back yard and whether the pipelines are coming through your back yard," she said. "We need to know that there’s oversight, that it’s being done safely, and that we know what is in those chemicals. We need to push these companies to find a better way of doing this, one that doesn’t involve injecting deadly chemicals into our ground that you can never get out."
Another key issue that will influence voting in Pennsylvania this November will be where candidates stand on the privatization of liquor in the state, a position that Rzucidlo does not favor.
"I don’t think that privatizing liquor is the answer," she said. "What are we going to replace that money with? I've seen that in Oregon they privatized liquor, and the tax revenue dropped, and the cost to the consumer went up 30 percent. I don’t think that anywone is looking to have that happen to us in Pennsylvania.You have to be aware of unintended consequences when you pass laws. You think you are doing something wonderful, and then you do it and you find out that, 'Oh, but he way, this worse thing happened.'"
If Rzucidlo were to look around her dining room table on Thanksgiving, she would likely see an overwhelming majority of Republicans -- 80 percent, by her count. Even her campaign committee crosses party lines; Rzucidlo describes them as a coalition that runs the extremes of the political spectrum. It is a dichotomy that has served her well in the course of her aspirations as both an advocate and a candidate, and one that she believes will help her tear down the impermeable walls that too often divide the political landscape.
"As soon as you decide to only listen to one side, you will never win," she said. "I've seen politicians who have moved into certain positions and have surrounded themselves with people who will only say ‘Yes’ to them. As a consequence, their work gets progressively worse. You need people who are going to hold you accountable.
"I have no illusions that I will be able to do great and glorious things without the help of others, but my goal has always been to make things better for the people," Rzucidlo added. "Some people build walls. I like to build bridges."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail email@example.com.
The League of Women Voters will host a debate between candidates Rzucidlo and Ross on Oct. 28, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the West Goshen Township Building, 10125 Paoli Pike, West Chester.