Margolies running in a very different district

Marjorie Margolies seeks to return after a 1994 loss.
Marjorie Margolies seeks to return after a 1994 loss.
Posted: June 01, 2013

Marjorie Margolies says she's the same centrist Democrat who lost her seat representing Pennsylvania's 13th District in the House two decades ago over one crucial and controversial vote.

The district, however, is not the same.

As Margolies begins her attempted political comeback, the 13th has morphed from a swing district entirely within Montgomery County into a Democratic lock that reaches into Northeast Philadelphia.

"It will be a different kind of race," Margolies said Thursday, the day she filed a declaration of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. Her widely anticipated action sets the stage for a 2014 primary battle over the party's liberal base, with three other candidates already lining up.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, for instance, is a liberal favorite who has sponsored legislation that would legalize gay marriage and marijuana. Physician Valerie Arkoosh, an activist who campaigned for President Obama's health-care law, is also running, as is State Rep. Brendan Boyle of Northeast Philadelphia.

Margolies said her can't-we-all-get-along message is even more relevant now, in an era when partisan gridlock in Washington makes the 1990s furor over her decisive vote for higher taxes seem tame.

"The public is speaking, saying: 'Stop it. Get things done. Stop acting like children,' " said Margolies, of Wynnewood.

Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky cast the deciding vote in the summer of 1993 to enact President Bill Clinton's economic plan, which increased taxes by $241 billion. Much of the burden fell on wealthy taxpayers, but there was also a hike in the gas tax, and she had promised in her successful 1992 campaign to oppose tax increases. Voters booted her in 1994.

To this day, Margolies (she uses only her birth name after a divorce) defends the costly vote as the right thing. "That set up the environment for the greatest growth in jobs since World War II," she said.

Since leaving the House, Margolies, 70, has been head of Women's Campaign International, which grooms female political leaders in the developing world and works on education and health-care issues affecting women and girls. "I wouldn't call it seamless," she said, "but I've been working on health-care issues, education issues, environmental issues around the world, and going back into Congress is not that big a leap."

The juice of the Clinton family, just offstage, is one factor in the race that has been drawing attention. Margolies can bank on the former president's gratitude for rescuing his economic plan and buttressing his young presidency at a critical moment. Plus, now she is a member of the family. Her son Marc Mezvinsky married Chelsea Clinton in 2010.

"In the primary in '92, I didn't run on Bill Clinton's coattails, and I won't this time either," Margolies said Thursday. But she wouldn't turn down Clinton help if it were offered, would she?

Margolies laughed and said, "Fair point."

Wading into intraparty House battles is nothing new for the former president. He did so in several races last year, winning about half, and is known for loyalty to people who have worked hard for him and his wife. (That explains, for example, why he stumped last year in Pennsylvania for a successful state attorney general candidate, Kathleen Kane. She had been a volunteer coordinator for Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.)

Yet some analysts ask whether the Clintons will want to risk alienating a significant slice of Democrats in an important district in light of Hillary Clinton's anticipated presidential run in 2016.

The seat is coming open because incumbent Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Montgomery County Democrat first elected to Congress in 2006, is running for the party's nomination for governor in 2014 and will not seek reelection to the House.

Only about 30 percent of the old district is left after two successive redrawings of the maps to reflect census results, a process controlled in 2011 by Republicans who have the upper hand in the state legislature. Areas of Montgomery County with high concentrations of Republican voters were parceled out to strengthen vulnerable GOP members of Congress in neighboring districts.

When Margolies, who was well known in the area for her work as a television news reporter, won the seat in 1992, the district leaned Republican by four percentage points, according to the Partisan Voter Index, a measurement by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report that is based on a district's votes in the preceding two presidential elections. Heading into next year's midterm elections, the Cook index for the twice-reconstituted 13th shows it leaning Democratic by 13 percentage points.

"The district has shifted," Democratic strategist Mark Nevins said. "She's been gone a long time."

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

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