Lawmaker Schwartz aims to lead pack of Democrats for Pa. governor
Petite U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz was lost in a crowd of supporters in her tiny campaign office in Shadyside.
Moments later, Schwartz, 65, reappeared when she stepped onto boxes at the front of the room, making her almost as tall as 6-foot, 8-inch Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, who backs Schwartz for governor.
“I look pretty nice, but I’m pretty tough also,” Schwartz said in a raspy voice.
Many political observers described Schwartz, a five-term congresswoman from Montgomery County who was elected four times to the state Senate, as a front-runner in what had been a crowded field for the Democratic nomination.
But she got lost in the pack, according to a Franklin & Marshall College Poll released a month ago. It found that 36 percent of Democratic voters would have picked York County businessman Tom Wolf, the first to assault the airwaves with an advertising blitz funded partly with $10 million of his own money. Schwartz found herself a distant second, with 9 percent.
Schwartz raised $6.5 million through the end of last year, with $3.4 million transferred from her congressional campaign committees. That was less than the $13.2 million Wolf raised and the $6.6 million that state Treasurer Rob McCord piled up, but more than former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty’s $2.4 million.
They are the four Democrats remaining in a primary race that drew nine candidates.
“The campaign, in a lot of ways, is just beginning,” Schwartz said during her March 18 stop in Shadyside.
‘Straight-laced’ class president
Schwartz grew up in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., one of four children. Her father was a neighborhood dentist and her mother a Jewish immigrant who left Vienna after the German annexation of Austria in 1938.
Her father’s dentistry office was attached to the family house. When Schwartz was 3, he left home to serve as an Army captain in a Korean War MASH unit for 2½ years. After the war, he became a specialist in endodontics, performing root canals. Schwartz spent summers working in the office.
Her political career began when she ran for class president in Junior High School 189. She made her own posters. She served as class president of the private Calhoun School in Manhattan, which she attended in 10th through 12th grades.
“I liked politics very early on,” Schwartz said, though she concedes she “wasn’t a firebrand by any means” during her college years in the activist 1960s and early ’70s because she was “too straight-laced.”
After she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from private women’s colleges in Boston and Philadelphia, she said her goal was “to be the head of an agency … that could have an impact on people’s lives.”
She became an assistant director of the Philadelphia Health Services Department, then started a women’s health clinic in Philadelphia by age 26. Schwartz ran the clinic for 14 years.
What possessed her to get into politics?
“If people who are making laws don’t get what is really affecting people’s lives, then you’re really up against a lot,” Schwartz said.
‘A liberal woman’
Schwartz ran for the state Senate in 1990, winning a contested Democratic primary and defeating a Republican incumbent.
Former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, was elected to her first term in the Senate in the same year.
“We doubled the number of women in the Senate,” said Hart, 51, an attorney with Downtown-based Keevican Weiss Bauerle and Hirsch.
Aside from that bond, Hart said, “Our ideologies were very different on most fiscal and social issues. I viewed her as a liberal woman from Philadelphia.”
Hart said Schwartz became influential in her Democratic caucus, which found itself in the minority in all but one of the 10 years they served together in Harrisburg.
One of Schwartz’s signature legislative achievements happened early in her Harrisburg tenure, in 1992. Legislation to establish the Children’s Health Insurance Program, better known as CHIP, was sponsored by Schwartz in the Senate and by former state Rep. Allen G. Kukovich, D-Westmoreland County.
After an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 2000, Schwartz won a contested Democratic primary and general election for Congress in 2004. She has been re-elected four times in lopsided November wins.
She serves on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy and entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Whether she’s elected governor or not, her tenure in the House will end.
The National Journal rated Schwartz as the fifth-most-liberal member of Pennsylvania’s 18-member congressional delegation, based on her 2013 voting record. She is the delegation’s only woman.
“She has moderated more as a member of the House,” said Hart, who served with Schwartz in Washington from 2005 through early 2007.
A seasoned fighter
Schwartz shares similar views on most issues with her gubernatorial foes.
“We can’t cut funding for public schools, we shouldn’t just be giving away the gas to energy companies (without imposing a severance tax), and we ought to make sure that people have access to health care,” Schwartz said, summarizing her stance on key issues.
Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon, a Democrat who was a political director for an electricians union, has known Schwartz for years.
“She used to wear scarves and all that. She looked like royalty. But she’s become such a seasoned fighter and an advocate for the people that she represents,” Henon said.
Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer.