In the end—my last moment with Allyson Schwartz, sitting in her office in Washington—she is about to cry. “You’re getting a little emotional, Congresswoman,” I tell her. “Yes,” she says. “So I’m done.” // I laugh—her abruptness is funny, as she intends. But she also means it, that we’re done. I thank her for all the time she’s given me, we say goodbye, and our last interview is over.
Schwartz and I have spent the past half-hour rolling through some things other people have said about her. Normally, talking to Allyson Schwartz produces a torrent of energy and initiatives and ideas. By the time of that last interview, I’d spent hours with her—at a diner in the Northeast; in Pittsburgh, where she logged a day campaigning; and then in the U.S. Capitol. Her vigor and drive, especially, are daunting. There is nothing in the world around her—or, more precisely, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where she is running for governor—that Schwartz doesn’t want to fix.
Judging by Tom Corbett’s popularity, which is in the toilet, many Pennsylvanians will probably like that about Schwartz. Indeed, the governorship is there for the taking, and after a decade in Congress and 14 years before that in the state Senate, Schwartz has decided to take a shot at becoming the first woman to lead our state.
But her march back to Harrisburg is likely to reveal something else about her: that there are many people in the political worlds of Philadelphia and Harrisburg—not a few, not a mere handful, but many—who can’t stand Allyson Schwartz. Who say that what she’s really all about isn’t being a public servant and improving the lives of ordinary Pennsylvanians, as she fervently claims, but buffing and shining her own image.
This isn’t an unusual complaint about a politician, of course, and with Schwartz, it’s all complicated by the fact that she is, as she acknowledges, an aggressive woman bent on getting things done. But the hubbub surrounding her is strong. About a decade ago, Philly Democratic insiders watching her political rise were so annoyed by her that they had an “I Hated Her First” competition.
There are other stories, too. That Schwartz allegedly exaggerates what she’s accomplished. That she’s abandoned supporters. That she’s spread lies about an opponent. For example, in 2000, both Schwartz and former Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies were vying to win the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate (eventually captured by Ron Klink). Margolies supporters say Schwartz spread a story that Margolies was about to be awarded an ambassadorship by President Bill Clinton, which, of course, would have ended her run for the Senate. But no such offer was ever in the works—Schwartz, they claim, made it up.
Sitting in Schwartz’s D.C. office, I ask her about that. She says she doesn’t remember it.
There are other stories I run by her, harsh critiques of her behavior. Schwartz stays calm. In fact, almost eerily calm; the nonstop talker gets quiet. She stares. When she speaks, explaining her drive for the governorship one last time, her dark eyes are riveting. Then they get even larger with feeling and glass over.
“I’m done,” she tells me.
Though, really, she is just beginning. Convincing Pennsylvanians that she’s the one to replace Tom Corbett won’t be easy. Allyson Schwartz has hurdled many barriers in her 40 years as a woman in public roles, and it may seem absurd to think that a preponderance of the Commonwealth’s voters believe it needs to be led by a man. But a question will undoubtedly rise up, because a woman running for governor faces a deep test.
The question is: Just who is she?