'Rising star' Allyson Schwartz led crusade against Weiner

Rep. Allyson Schwartz: Chooses her battles.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz: Chooses her battles.
Posted: June 17, 2011

U.S. REP. Allyson Schwartz is a pearl-necklace-wearing policy wonk who prides herself on picking her battles and choosing her words carefully. But sometimes she just has to speak her mind.

Even if it means telling one of her colleagues that he's being, well, a wiener.

Schwartz, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, was the first Democratic member of Congress to publicly call on U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner to resign last week in the wake of revelations that he'd sent explicit photos of himself to women he'd met on Twitter.

Other elected officials piled on, and yesterday Weiner quit. Schwartz, who has captured huge media attention for her move, said she was simply telling it like it is.

"I tend to be a little bit careful about this," said Schwartz, who was not in Washington when the Weiner news first broke because of the death of her father. "But maybe it's time for us to stand up and say this is unacceptable - as women in politics, men as well. It was a no-nonsense response."

But the move was also a show of strength from Schwartz as she rises in power and influence.

Since arriving in Congress in 2005 after 15 years in the state Senate, Schwartz has sought out influential allies like House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, worked her way onto powerful committees, made a name as a prodigious fundraiser and lobbied aggressively for her core issues, notably health care.

She's now on the foreign-affairs committee and holds the No. 2 job on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for which she is leading the effort to recruit candidates for the 2012 House elections - a role that could pay off big in the long run.

"There's no question she's viewed as a rising star in the Democratic caucus," said political analyst Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "You can tell that by the appointments she's gotten in the caucus and the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee].

"The Weiner thing is exceptional. She really isn't known as someone who gets in front of the cameras. . . . She's known more as a workhorse than a showboat."

Schwartz, 62, has needed that workhorse ethic to claw through the stodgy boys' club of Pennsylvania politics to become the highest-ranked elected female official in the state.

The steely New York City native burst onto the Philadelphia political scene in 1990 when she unseated Republican state Sen. Joseph Rocks in a rough-and-tumble campaign.

"She's very hardworking; no one will outwork her," said G. Terry Madonna, a political-science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. "She's tenacious about the issues she cares about."

In Harrisburg, Schwartz - just one of three women in the Senate at the time - worked on legislation to expand health-insurance coverage for children, while bumping heads at times with longtime Philly pols, like former state Sen. Vince Fumo, now doing prison time for corruption.

"I wasn't going to allow anyone to control my vote or speak for me," Schwartz said, of her time in the state Capitol. "At the same time, I learned how to work the body politic to get things done."

Terry Gillen, a senior adviser to Mayor Nutter who serves as the mayor's liaison in Washington, said that Schwartz has effectively figured out how to navigate the gender divides.

"There's a lot of data now that women take smart risks," Gillen said. "I think that's true for Allyson. She's a smart risk-taker. She knows when to pick a battle and when not to pick a battle. She doesn't have an old-boys' network to fall back on."

After a failed Democratic-primary bid for the U.S. Senate in 2000, Schwartz and her husband - she also has two grown sons - moved from Mount Airy to Montgomery County.

In 2004 she entered a bruising campaign for the 13th Congressional District, a largely suburban seat vacated by former U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel. She won. Once she got to Washington, she said, she hit the ground running.

"I came to Washington with some very valuable experience," Schwartz said. "Some of the difficulty in Harrisburg may have helped me. I understood the dynamic, and we came in the minority. I was used to that."

Since then, she's become part of a coalition of moderate Democrats and has focused closely on health-care policy and business incentives. She's gotten support from Pelosi, and for several years she served on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, a role she lost when the Republicans took over the House.

A proponent of President Obama's health-care-reform legislation, Schwartz pushed to make sure that the effort included policies to ensure health insurance for sick children and to expand access to primary-care doctors. She also sought tax credits for some biotech firms.

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, who represents part of Long Island, N.Y., said that Schwartz is considered an influential voice on many policy issues.

"When there's a vote on tax incentives to research and development and for new technology, you'll notice a lot of House members congregate around Allyson on the floor," said Israel.

Israel is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and said that he personally picked Schwartz to lead recruitment for 2012.

"I asked her to take charge of recruiting because she knows how to win in tough districts, she knows the import of independent voters in the suburbs," Israel said. "She's one of the most effective fundraisers in our caucus. She's got all the tools. We call them the three M's - you need to be able to mobilize, you need to be able to create a message, you need to be able to raise money."

Schwartz has proven her mettle as a fundraiser. During her last campaign in 2010, she raised $2.8 million. And she's also raised $1.7 million for the DCCC since 2009.

Will her hard work - Israel said that Schwartz made 100 recruiting calls - pay off next year at the polls? Experts predict a heavy lift for the Democrats to take back the House.

"I'd put it at 30 percent," said Sabato. "What the Democrats have to depend on is that the economy will turn around and Obama will win with something close to his 2008 margins."

Either way, Schwartz is likely on track to run the DCCC in the future.

Reflecting on the Weiner scandal, Schwartz noted that women in elected office often feel more pressure to be perfect than their male counterparts.

"I know I take responsibility, as still one of a few women, to do the job well, to hold to the highest standards," Schwartz said. "It is good for us to change the dynamic. I do not [fight] every minute; you have to pick and choose your battles."

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