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Schwartz with Communications Director Rachel Leed and Legislative Aide Aaron Brand.

 

By TOM NUGENT

Is she tough? Is she unyielding? If you want to get a glimpse of the political bulldog in Allyson Y. Schwartz, M.S.S. ’72, all you have to do is mention two words in her presence: “Social” and “Security.”

The dazzling smile evaporates, and the friendly voice takes on a sharp edge. The freshman congresswoman from northeast Philadelphia and environs isn’t growling yet, but she’s close.

“I do think their intention is to dismantle Social Security, and I will not stand for undermining the basic guarantee we have given to our older citizens, that we will not let them die in poverty.

“You’ve heard the Republicans saying directly that ‘now’s the time to change the entire system’,” continues the only female Democrat from Pennsylvania in the 109th Congress. “And they seem intent on undermining the basic trust we’ve had in this country since FDR—the guarantee that seniors who’ve worked all their lives are entitled to minimum benefits.” She pauses for a moment to reflect on the gathering storm. Then she sets her jaw.

“This is going to be a major fight,” says the veteran lawmaker, who spent 14 years in the Pennsylvania State Senate, “and that’s why I worked so hard to get to Washington—so that I can be part of the debate on these kinds of crucial issues.

In the tunnels under the Hill

Had you dropped by 423 Cannon House Office Building on a typical weekday afternoon this spring, the odds were high you’d find Schwartz engaged in the “enormous challenge” of trying to master one of the steepest learning curves in the federal government. Within a few hours of being sworn in back on January 4, the first-termer found herself under breaking waves of committee meetings, position papers, political receptions, House votes and eager-eyed constituents visiting from Philadelphia and adjoining Montgomery County, many of whom had journeyed to Washington to discuss complicated and time-consuming problems that only she could solve.

Exhilarating but also exhausting. Like most of the other 39 freshmen House members (24 Republican and 15 Democrats) in the 109th, Schwartz soon discovered that everything on Capitol Hill seems a bit larger than life, at least during the first few weeks of acclimatization. “One of the most remarkable things you notice when you arrive in the capital is that the buildings are all very big, and the distances between them are surprisingly vast,” she said.

Schwartz with Pennsylvania firefighters.

There’s no doubt that the pace can be brutal at times, but the good news for her and her constituents is that Allyson Schwartz’ sense of humor has obviously remained intact.

Protecting the American legacy

Only a few hours before being interviewed for the Alumnae Bulletin, Bryn Mawr College’s first U.S. congresswoman, Allyson Y. Schwartz, M.S.S. ’72, had delivered her first speech on the House floor, a somber meditation on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp at the end of World War II.

That brief speech provided a highly charged moment of emotion, since her own Jewish mother had fled Austria to this country at the height of the European Holocaust. Reflecting on her remarks to the House, Schwartz spoke quietly but forcefully.

“I do think many people say a new congressperson should wait a while, and shouldn’t give remarks so fast,” she said. “But I think this was a very appropriate moment for me. You know, if you look at my mother’s history, and at the fact that I’m a first-generation American who is now a member of the United States Congress—well, that’s where I always take a deep breath, and I remind myself that this is what America has always been: the land of opportunity, the place where people can actually realize their dreams, if only they’re willing to work hard enough at it.

“That’s the American legacy, and that’s the legacy I hope to protect—by making sure that all of us have an equal opportunity to be educated, and equal opportunity for health insurance and high-quality medical care. I’m here because I believe in our system of democracy, in spite of all its flaw, and because I really do believe that as a congresswoman, I can make a difference on the critical issues we face today.”

“All of us [newcomers] have joked about ‘needing the kindness of strangers,’ just to get from one place to the next. One way to get around is to take the [congressional subway] tunnels between buildings—but I’ve learned that it’s very easy to get lost down there. And so I’ve found myself doing a great deal of walking since the session began—which is exactly what a woman my age should be doing!”

Women’s health and education

The wife of a prominent Philadelphia cardiologist and the mother of two “very supportive” sons, Schwartz has spent nearly three decades fighting for better women’s health, and for improved public education, and for a health insurance program that now serves nearly 150,000 low and middle class working families in the Keystone State.

After earning her M.S.S. from Bryn Mawr in 1972, Schwartz helped launch a non-profit organization aimed at delivering affordable health care services to thousands of working-class citizens of Philadelphia. By 1975, she was deeply involved in the creation of the Elizabeth Blackwell Center for women’s health care, the first such facility of its kind in the region.

During the next decade, this self-described “pragmatic idealist” would serve as Blackwell’s executive director—while also becoming a familiar figure in the citywide struggle for improved health care. By 1990, her region-wide reputation as a fighter for better education and health care alike would make her a high-profile candidate in Philadelphia’s 4th Senate District. She beat an entrenched Republican incumbent that year and then went on to serve four terms as an increasingly powerful Democrat with a special passion for women’s health and education.

By 2004, after 14 years of struggle in the senate, Schwartz would be perfectly positioned for a congressional run in the recently reapportioned (2001) 13th District, where a combination of urban voters from northeast Philly and moderate Democrats and Republicans from adjoining Montgomery County would team up to create one of the most competitive swing districts in the country.

Schwartz didn’t hesitate. She spent her days going to senior centers, diners, and schools; talking to teachers, working parents, and business owners to learn about their concerns and discuss her ideas for solutions. She wanted to bring her experience working across party lines to improve the lives of these varied constituents.

By election day, it was evident that Schwartz’s experience and leadership appealed to both Democrats and moderate Republicans, with a resounding 14 percent victory margin.

Schwartz heads to the Capitol to vote.

The contest was often described as the “premier congressional race in the nation” because it was for an open seat in an evenly-divided district. On election night, the 2004 congressional race in the 13th Congressional District gave the national Democrats at least a bit of consolation—even though the Republicans once again secured a solid lock on the White House and both houses of Congress.

How did Schwartz pull it off?

According to most of the pundits, her winning strategy was based on a combination of effective coalition building and fundraising skill. In the end, her campaign raised and spent more than $4 million on the successful bid for Congress.

“Allyson Schwartz is very focused, very driven to succeed,” says Marcel Groen, the politically savvy chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, who has worked closely with Schwartz for more than a decade. “She’s also as proficient a fundraiser as you’ll ever find. She’s a formidable politician, and she’ll be a force to reckon with in Congress.”

Schwartz and Legislative Aide Aaron Brand.

Schwartz often credits the master’s program of Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research with providing the tools required for her to make the long climb from health center administrator to the 109th Congress. “That program really pushed me to learn about group dynamics and community organizing,” she recalls. “It also taught me to understand the huge impact that public policy actually has on local communities.

“At Bryn Mawr, I learned everything from how to run a community service agency to interpreting people’s ‘body language’ during a public meeting. And those skills have stood me in good stead as a politician ever since.”

The issues

After several weeks in Washington, she says she’s “beginning to settle into the job.” She also insists that she’s “enjoying the learning process,” as she attends one “content-rich” committee presentation after another. “After working 24/7 during the campaign,” she likes to joke, “these [typical for Congress] 12-hour workdays in Washington actually seem like a vacation!”

Here are Schwartz’s positions on several key issues.

The war in Iraq: “We’re in the country now, and we can’t just walk away. Certainly, we should have done a better job of getting accurate information about the weapons of mass destruction before we got in, and we should also have developed a clearer plan for managing the peace. I think our task now is to support the political process there after the January 30 elections, and then to bring the troops home as fast as we can. The best way out is for us to bring in our international allies.”

The environment: “I’ve already gotten my feet wet as a member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. We held our first meeting a few days ago, and we started looking into that recent oil spill on the Delaware River. And several of us were asking: How could the spill have been prevented, and how could the Coast Guard have acted more quickly to prevent the spread of the oil?” (Schwartz is also a member of the Budget Committee.)

Access to health insurance and improved health care for children: “You know, we have 48 million uninsured Americans today, and something must be done about that. They told me when I ran for the State Senate that I couldn’t do anything about the number of children who were uninsured.  And I said, ‘Well, that’s just not an acceptable answer.’ And so we went to work and we put together CHIP [the Children’s Health Insurance Program]. And that’s the same approach I hope to take in Washington. We may not be successful on every issue—but if we can focus and be clear on our goals, we will win some of the battles up ahead.”

Tom Nugent, a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, is the author of Death At Buffalo Creek. (1973).

 

What they’re saying about Congresswoman Allyson Y. Schwartz

Congressional expert G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Political Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster: “The race between Schwartz and Melissa Brown was a two-fisted, knockdown brawl. By mid-October the rhetoric was off the charts, and the two of them were shooting arrows at each other at close range. It was tough and it was brutal. But in the end, our [Keystone] polls showed that Schwartz had managed to put together a larger, more effective coalition of folks in the district. Of course, you also need to remember that John Kerry swept her district, the 13th, with more than 60 percent of the vote [Editor's note: Kerry won 56-43]. Schwartz benefited somewhat from the spillover—but she won with 55.7 percent, and she certainly earned the victory in her own right. She’s tough, she’s tenacious, and she’s extremely formidable. Unless she makes a major mistake of some kind—not very likely—she’s going to be be serving in Congress for a very long time.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal): “She’s a champion on the issues of health care, education and family, and she has a national reputation on those issues.”

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD): “The Philadelphia region needed somebody with Allyson’s talents, focus and energy—so her election was very good news.”

Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List Democratic Campaign Support Organization: “Allyson Schwartz has demonstrated her commitment to improving the lives of Pennsylvania’s working families and her skill in winning the toughest legislative fights. She will be a strong voice in Washington for the people of the 13th District.”

Former Democratic Governor Ann Richards of Texas: “She’s going to make a great member of Congress, wait and see!”

 

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