Schwartz running 'to get things done'

Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, seeking to become the state's first female governor, has been a lawmaker for 23 years, nine in Congress.
Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, seeking to become the state's first female governor, has been a lawmaker for 23 years, nine in Congress. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 05, 2014

Third of four candidate profiles

Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz finally had air cover. As she worked the tables at the Dining Car restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia one recent morning, person after person said they'd seen her TV ads promising to confront Harrisburg insiders. She was moving.

"We're the old boys - we're not in the network, though," a retiree sitting with five pals told the candidate for governor. The man wished her luck: "There are a lot of people up there, doing nothing."

Just days before the May 20 Democratic primary, Schwartz is fighting for her political life.

Schwartz, 65, was not supposed to find herself in this situation. She began as the consensus front-runner. A formidable fund-raiser with a solid base in the critical southeast, she was running to be Pennsylvania's first female governor, with Gov. Corbett sliding in the polls.

Despite spending heavily in 2013, she did not muscle other Democrats out of the race. A relative newcomer, York businessman Tom Wolf, grabbed a double-digit lead over Schwartz and two other candidates after swamping them with millions in TV ads.

"Are Democrats really going to nominate someone who is untested?" Schwartz asked between spoonfuls of plain Chobani yogurt in the car on the way to a Northeast senior center. "I'm the only one on that debate stage who has a proven record of getting things done."

Will 2014 voters value experience? Schwartz has been a lawmaker for 23 years, with 14 in the Pennsylvania Senate and nine in Congress, but polls show approval ratings for both institutions are subterranean.

As her party's leader on the state Senate Education Committee for a decade, Schwartz crafted school-funding formulas and had a hand in enacting full-day kindergarten, a program cut by the current administration. She also helped enact the state's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), though she recently dialed back her claim to be the program's "mother."

In Congress, she plunged into health-care and tax policy as a member of the Ways and Means Committee. She's worked on legislation from the famous - Obamacare - to the more obscure - a measure nudging doctors to use electronic prescriptions to cut down on illness and death from handwriting errors.

There's a paradox at the heart of the campaign - she's an insider who's an outsider, somebody who knows how to shake up the status quo but also work to compromise and, as she says, "get things done."

To hear Schwartz tell it, she's never really belonged.

She wants to go to Harrisburg, she says, to knock heads, use persuasion and a presumed mandate from voters to force action from a recalcitrant legislature likely to remain held by Republicans. She scorns the notion of some such as Treasurer Rob McCord that all it takes is some schmoozing over beer, whiskey, or dinner.

"It is not just about having a comfortable conversation about public policy," Schwartz said. "This is about pushing hard. You fight to get it done, and of course you bring in the public and you make it a cause. You have to be willing to not just go and make friends there. You have to acknowledge how tough it is, and you have to be willing to take on that old boys' club, otherwise you're part of it."

She said she would use those tactics to enact a tax on natural gas drilling, which Corbett has resisted.

"If a state legislator wants to stand up and protect the energy companies from paying a very fair 5 percent extraction tax on their profits, I'm willing to take them on," she said.

That aggressiveness, identifying a goal and not quitting until she gets what she wants, has rubbed some people in politics the wrong way. Detractors such as City Councilwoman Marian Tasco have said Schwartz looks out for herself and tramples others to seize credit. (Admirers say she gets dinged because she is a woman.)

She got her political start in 1990, beating two better-known Democrats in a state Senate primary with backing from the Northwest Alliance, a powerful coalition of African American leaders in that section of Philadelphia.

Tasco, former NAACP chapter president J. Whyatt Mondesire, and State Rep. Dwight Evans played key roles. They say Schwartz has been standoffish since. None supports her now.

"She forgot us, the people who made her candidacy real," Mondesire said.

Her first move in public life had come at the age of 26, when she founded the Blackwell Health Center for Women, a clinic that provided medical services, including first-trimester abortions, in 1975. It was two years after Roe v. Wade.

"She's a very respectful person," said Cynthia Waters, who joined the clinic staff in 1976 and stayed until 1998. "She's also fierce about social change. She perseveres, is determined, and she doesn't back down."

At the same time, Schwartz is "not exclusive and not angry," Waters said. "She's steady."

To Harrisburg

In 1988, Schwartz joined Mayor Wilson Goode's administration, taking over the troubled Department of Health and Human Services. She is credited with stabilizing the agency.

By all accounts, that experience convinced her she needed to go to Harrisburg to shape policy - hence the run for state Senate.

Karen Kulp, plucked from running an antirape nonprofit to manage Schwartz's campaign, recalls the candidate's 6 a.m. ritual of hitting every station along the SEPTA R8 line to greet commuters. By the end, she had broken through, with commuters greeting her. The morning after the election - a landslide win over GOP Sen. Joe Rocks - Schwartz was tidying the trashed campaign office.

"She worked harder than anyone I ever met in my life," Kulp said.

In 2004, Schwartz was elected to the U.S. House. In the shorthand of the state's political class, she is tagged as a liberal, largely because of her identification with reproductive rights. But the National Journal in 2013 ranked her the 144th most liberal member of the 435-representative House, to the right of Nancy Pelosi and Philadelphia Reps. Robert Brady and Chaka Fattah.

An inner drive

Some on the left distrust her for her former membership in Third Way, a Democratic centrist group with Wall Street ties. She quit last year after activists protested its advocacy of curbs on Social Security benefits.

Every politico who reaches Schwartz's altitude has some inner furnace that fuels their drive. To those who know her best, that is her mother.

In 1939, at age 13, Renee Perl fled Nazi-occupied Austria and joined her mother in London. After her mother died, Perl sailed to Philadelphia and was taken in by the Rebecca Gratz Club, a Jewish foster home in Center City. She later graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls and went to Temple University, then met her husband, Everett Young, a dental student at the University of Pennsylvania. They moved to Flushing, Queens, and had two boys and two girls. In 1974, Renee committed suicide.

"Our mother left such a mark on us growing up," said Schwartz's sister, Nancy Young, 56. "She gave us strength: You take care of yourself and people who can't take care of themselves, do what you can to right wrongs, be aware of what's going on in the world . . . or bad things can happen."


Allyson Y. Schwartz

Age: 65.

Residence: Rydal, Montgomery County.

Family: Husband, David. They have two grown sons, Daniel and Jordan.

Education: B.A., sociology, Simmons College (1970), M.S.W., Bryn Mawr College (1972).

Occupation: U.S. representative.

Campaign website:http://allysonschwartz.com/

Background: Cofounder and director of a Philadelphia women's health center (1975-88), deputy and acting commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (1988-90), state senator (1990-2004), U.S. representative, (2005-present).


Schedule of Profiles

April 20

Rob McCord, Pennsylvania state treasurer

April 27

Katie McGinty, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

May 11

Tom Wolf, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Revenue Department


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent

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