Delaware County's Rep. Davidson blazed a trail of firsts

Margo L. Davidson (D., Delaware) represents Millbourne, E. Lansdowne, and part of U. Darby.
Margo L. Davidson (D., Delaware) represents Millbourne, E. Lansdowne, and part of U. Darby.
Posted: January 24, 2011

Amid November's tide of Republican wins across the state and nation, the last thing you might have expected in the GOP bastion of Delaware County was a state House seat turning Democratic for the first time.

But Margo L. Davidson, now starting a two-year term in Harrisburg, is all about firsts.

Davidson, 48, is the first African American woman elected to the state House from Delaware County, as well as the first Democrat to win the 164th District since its jagged lines were drawn four decades ago.

A native of West Philadelphia who was raised by a single mother, Davidson said she wants to renew focus on neighborhoods struggling with crime, abandoned properties, and other problems in a district that includes Millbourne, East Lansdowne, and part of Upper Darby.

"There was a concern that that part of the district had been abandoned by municipal government, and certainly by state government," Davidson said during an interview last week at her new office in a shopping strip on Upper Darby's busy Garrett Road. Her new office is still makeshift, its walls temporarily decorated with Christmas-gift boxes from the egg-nog open house she threw last month for constituents. Davidson has a big laugh and a big purple flower on her lapel - and a steady, serious way of speaking.

Her victory is the latest milestone in Democrats' struggle to make inroads in a county ruled by one of the nation's most enduring GOP machines. Only in recent years have demographic shifts in the eastern part of the county, which borders West Philadelphia, trended in favor of Democrats. In the last few years, they overtook Republicans in vote-rich Upper Darby, with a population exceeding 78,000.

The local GOP organization - historically an epicenter of the party's power - kept a lock on every local seat. Even when Democrats surged to the polls for Barack Obama, they could not crack the 164th. Republican Mario Civera, in the seat since 1980, cross-filed and won both parties' primaries.

Republican leaders have been shifting their focus west in the county, where their registration edge remains strong. But that did not stop them from applying a sort of Alamo mentality last year in Upper Darby as its Democrats, including Davidson, tried to scale the ramparts.

That is when Civera became the man with two hats - he won election to the County Council but gave Democrats a parting shot by clinging to his state House seat long enough to stave off a special election till after the 2010 primary, when the red-hot Senate race between incumbent Arlen Specter and Delaware County's Joe Sestak intensified Democratic turnout.

Despite Civera's long goodbye and last year's Republican tide, Davidson emerged victorious, taking more than 53 percent of the vote and defeating school board member Maureen Carey.

She credits old-school retail politics and a growing strength in the party organization for her win.

She boasts that she and her relatives (she and her husband have four sons) knocked on 10,000 doors. She reached out to wards with strong Democratic majorities but poor voter-turnout records.

And she made sure to speak with immigrant communities, a growing and diverse force in Upper Darby. The school district has students from 67 countries who speak 73 languages and dialects.

"I really did have to go back to Jesse Jackson times, you know, bring together a rainbow coalition, to get it done," Davidson said. "Sometimes, it's a matter of just talking to people and letting them know that you care about their issues and that you're willing to listen to them."

One mother, one vote

The late Frank L. Rizzo inspired the first test of Davidson's political skills.

She was 16, the oldest of three children born to a single mother, growing up at 57th and Chestnut Streets. On the ballot was then-Mayor Rizzo's proposal to revise the Home Rule Charter and let him seek a third term.

Davidson set out to persuade one reluctant citizen to register and vote "no."

The citizen was her mother.

"I begged her to vote," Davidson said. "I actually walked her to the polling place."

The ballot measure lost.

Davidson majored in communications at Temple University and worked in radio, hosting a show on WDAS-AM and often covering politics. During the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic, she decided to step into an advocacy role.

She started her first nonprofit group, Anti-drug and Alcohol Crusaders, which helps children of parents struggling with addiction, offering day camps and after-school programs as well as resources to help parents get into rehabilitation programs.

In recent years, Davidson has focused on small-business development, launching a second nonprofit organization, the African American Female Entrepreneurs Alliance.

Obama's run drew her back into politics. She traveled as far as Montana to work on communications and marketing for the campaign.

It was in Montana, she recalled with a laugh, that some of her fellow campaign workers excitedly introduced her to the only other African American they could find.

In Harrisburg, she intends to focus on keeping taxes low and supporting job-growth policies. She plans to introduce a bill to strengthen competitive-bidding rules for state contracts, especially for spending by the courts and legislature. On Friday, she sent a memo to her 202 House colleagues, asking them to be cosponsors.

The measure may not go far. The fall elections turned the House majority from narrowly Democratic to solidly Republican.

And do not expect her mother, however proud of Davidson's unprecedented win, to pitch in just yet.

It's not personal, it's just politics.

"She can't stand the Democrats," Davidson said and laughed. "She's a black Republican, very right-wing. . . . She's always been my best friend, but we can't talk about politics now."


Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 610-627-0352 or jfarrell@phillynews.com.

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