Sources have told City&State PA that state Rep. Bill Keller is reportedly considering retiring ahead of a hotly contested Democratic primary that has so far drawn four challengers to the race for the 184th state House District.
With petition season just days away, Keller declined multiple requests from City&State PA to discuss his reelection plans. But multiple sources close to Keller – including friends, political supporters and fellow House colleagues – said the legislator is considering dropping out of the race.
“Other state Reps. this week were under the impression he wasn’t running,” one House member said, of Keller’s plans.
The former longshoreman and La Salle graduate has represented dockside communities in South Philadelphia since 1993, buttressed by strong ties to local labor unions. Several sources confirmed that those political backers have recently scouted out other candidates in case Keller does decide to retire – Jonathan Rowan, a staffer for state Sen. Larry Farnese, and Dan Stevenson, a beer distributor owner close to Councilman Mark Squilla, were both floated as possible surrogates.
Others, like GOP state Rep. John Taylor, a longtime friend of Keller, said they weren’t counting the lawmaker out.
“He seemed like he was ready for a campaign to me," said Taylor, who announced his own retirement last year. But Taylor added that he couldn’t explain why Keller would be averse to discussing his reelection plans.
Behind the scenes, associates said Keller simply hadn’t made up his mind. His tenure has been marked by his perch atop the House Transportation Committee, where he has promoted legislation to fund big-ticket initiatives like the dredging of the Delaware River. Powerful figures, like Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, privately expressed concern about the city’s loss of clout in Harrisburg if Keller followed Taylor into retirement.
Anger with President Donald Trump’s 2016 election has driven a number of high-profile retirement announcements from entrenched incumbents ahead of what many fear will a tough year for Republicans and political moderates. Much like Taylor, Keller is often described in Harrisburg as a legislator who is able to work both sides of the aisle.
Closer to home, some say Keller has been keeping a lower profile around the neighborhood, a factor that may have inspired the large number of primary challengers. He will now face at least four primary opponents in May: lawyer Bill Ciancaglini, retired police detective Nicholas DiDonato, Jr., former WHYY reporter Elizabeth Fiedler, and attorney Tom Wyatt. DiDonato, who also hails from South Philadelphia, has called him a “wildly absent public persona.”
Keller’s resignation would also upend dynamics in the race for the 184th District, which covers some rapidly gentrifying wards as well as blue-collar neighborhoods that have historically been a seat of power for politically influential unions.
Two of Keller’s opponents – DiDonato and Ciancaglini – have deep roots in the neighborhood. His other two opponents – Fiedler and Wyatt – are more closely aligned with a wave of more well-to-do newcomers to the area. The latter two candidates have posted decent fundraising numbers: Fiedler raked in $53,000 during the last cycle, while Wyatt posted a $27,000 take.
Keller, meanwhile, brought in just a few thousand dollars – although he will enter this year with a war chest totaling some $80,000.