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Allyson Schwartz: The State Senator from Philadelphia

Sunday, March 26, 2000

By Jack Torry, Post-Gazette National Bureau

Correction/Clarification: (Published March 30, 2000) In a Sunday profile of state Sen. Allyson Schwartz, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, the degree of her support among Pennsylvania Senate Democrats was incorrect. Nine of 19 Senate Democrats have endorsed her.


PHILADELPHIA -- When state Sen. Allyson Schwartz first asked state Rep. Kathy Manderino of Philadelphia to support her bid for the U.S. Senate, Manderino balked. She was friends with Schwartz, but Manderino also liked former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who was considering the same race.

 
  Allyson Schwartz

Not easily discouraged, Schwartz continued calling, explaining in detail her plan to win the April 4 Senate Democratic primary and defeat Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., in the fall. Again, Manderino put her off. Finally after "the third or fourth" call, Manderino relented.

"I realized that she was the kind of person we needed, somebody who was going to make a plan and charge ahead," Manderino said. "There's no such thing as being a pest in politics. If you don't ask people for their support, you shouldn't be surprised if you don't get it."

It is typical of the dogged manner in which Schwartz has pursued her quest to become the first female U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. She resisted pressure to drop out of the race to clear the way for Margolies-Mezvinsky, who instead became the one to quit. In 1990, with almost no name recognition in Philadelphia, she won a state Senate seat.

 
 
Allyson Schwartz


Born: October 3, 1948, New York

Home: Philadelphia

Education: Bachelor's degree, Simmons College; master's degree, Bryn Mawr College of Social Work and Social Research.

Experience: Executive director and founder of Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center for Women, 1975-1988. First Deputy Commissioner of Philadelphia Department of Human Services, 1988-1990. Pennsylvania state senator since 1991.

Family: Schwartz and her husband, David, have two children.

   
 

"She's relentless," says Karen Kulp, her longtime political aide. "She's determined and she's tough. She knew that to win the primary and general election was going to be a fight. She didn't expect it to be handed to her. She wasn't scared away by who was in the race."

Her campaign style is to shake as many hands and attend as many events as possible. She can often be found at 7 in the morning greeting train commuters at Broad Street and Olney Avenue in Philadelphia.

Schwartz started a recent day with a 7:45 a.m. meeting with Philadelphia politicians, scrambled from event to event while working her cell phone, and ended the day with a round of ward meetings before boarding a 9:30 flight to Pittsburgh, where she would start campaigning again the next morning.

Critics say Schwartz plays to the TV cameras rather than helping pass laws. She so angered powerful state Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, during the debate over funding sports stadiums that he removed her from the appropriations committee.

"I like her on a personal level," said one senior legislative aide in Harrisburg. "She's hard working. She takes the job seriously. [But] she takes all these stands on issues that get her publicity. She doesn't get anything accomplished."

Her aides dismiss such talk as nonsense. Schwartz, they point out, was a major player in gaining legislative approval of the Children's Health Initiative Program, which expanded health insurance to children whose families couldn't afford it. She helped guide passage of a bill establishing quality standards for mammogram providers. She has pressed for passage of a patients' "bill of rights" to curb the power of managed care systems to deny coverage.

Schwartz has collected considerable support from those who work with her -- nine of her 19 Pennsylvania Senate Democratic colleagues. She is also backed by Philadelphia Mayor John Street and Emily's List, the national women's political action committee that supports Democratic female candidates who favor abortion rights.

Schwartz speaks passionately about expanding health insurance and other issues, but does not talk easily of her own personal life. In an interview, she declined to cite any politician who has served as a role model, saying, "There are a lot of people who do wonderful work out there and some of them are famous and some of them we've never heard of."

She favors abortion rights, which would provide a stark contrast in the general election to Santorum. The women's health center she founded performed abortions, which Santorum likely would use against her in the general election.

The center provides 6,000 women a year with a wide variety of health services, ranging from breast exams to routine gynecological care, pregnancy testing, family planning advice and contraceptives. Twenty percent of the patients get abortions.

"I'm very proud of running that health center," Schwartz said. "And it provided a full range of women's health services. And I am pro-choice and most Pennsylvanians -- as most Americans -- don't want politicians in Washington making this decision.

"Rick Santorum is so extreme on this issue. He wants to make abortions illegal in this country. He wants Washington politicians to decide this issue for women, and most Pennsylvanians don't agree with that."

Schwartz has lived most of her life in Philadelphia. Her mother, Renee Perl -- who died in 1975 -- arrived in Philadelphia as a 16-year-old girl after fleeing Vienna in 1938 when the Germans annexed Austria. With her father having escaped to Palestine and her mother dead, young Renee reached New York in 1940 and was placed in a girls' boarding school in Philadelphia, a city with a strong Jewish community.

"She did talk about it," Schwartz said of her mother's escape from the Nazis. "She wasn't sure how much to share. As children, it was hard to understand what kind of impact it had on her life. ... It made me keenly aware of two things: How important a healthy childhood is and how disruptive war is."

Schwartz never had "a grand plan" to run for public office. After running her health center for 13 years, she was named first deputy commissioner for the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. When state Sen. Joe Rocks in 1990 decided to switch from the Democratic to Republican Party, she chose to contest the seat.

Even though she was a political novice, Schwartz defeated a better-known Democratic rival for the nomination and beat Rocks in the general election. Now she is trying to move on to the U.S. Senate.


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