Who Doesn’t Like Allyson Schwartz?

Um, a lot of people? A lifetime of breaking down barriers has earned Allyson Schwartz a chance to become Pennsylvania’s first female governor–and plenty of enemies who think she cares just a little too much about Allyson Schwartz.

Family Values: Schwartz (right) with her father and sister; at right, with her mother, holding her sister.

Family Values: Schwartz (right) with her father
and sister; at right, with her mother, holding her sister.

TO TOM CORBETT this must all look simple, a nice warm political fire he’s rubbing his hands over: Bring on Allyson Schwartz and I’ll tell you exactly who she is! A Jewish woman from Philadelphia, a tried-and-true liberal, one who once ran an abortion clinic. That is undoubtedly how Corbett will cast her as she tries to unseat him as governor. Pennsylvania is a place not notably friendly to any of those qualities the incumbent’s political team will trot out.

That characterization of Schwartz—though far too simplistic—is true enough. She launched and ran a women’s health clinic in the ’70s and ’80s that performed abortions, and her record as a legislator has generally been center-left. (National Journal currently ranks her as the 144th most liberal member of the House, to the right of Chaka Fattah, Bob Brady and Nancy Pelosi.)

Schwartz’s relatively progressive reputation, along with her fund-raising prowess and roots in population-heavy Southeastern Pennsylvania, has made her, at least at the moment, the front runner in the crowded Democratic field for governor, which includes state treasurer Rob McCord, former Rendell administration cabinet member Kathleen McGinty and businessman Tom Wolf. But her profile is also what has some people believing she’ll have a hard time beating Corbett should she actually prevail in the primary. Indeed, the conventional wisdom, at least, says the only chance colorless, politically inept Tom Corbett has of being reelected is if he goes up against a liberal Jewish woman from Philadelphia.

Schwartz, though, is among those who believe the election will be purely a referendum on Corbett, no matter who runs against him.

“Everywhere I go in the state, Pennsylvanians tell me they want change,” she says at a back table in the Dining Car in Frankford, where we meet for coffee one bright Saturday morning in November. The diner is packed, but Schwartz—who is 65 but could pass for 10 years younger—is such a forceful and fast talker that it feels like just the two of us are here, save for the occasional hello from a constituent, for the better part of two hours.

Her attempt to topple Pennsylvania’s white-men-rule world is consistent not only with her own life history—she came of age at the dawn of the women’s movement and earned a master’s in social work from Bryn Mawr—but also with the steep challenges faced by her own family.

Schwartz’s mother, Renée Perl, was a Holocaust survivor, flushed out of Austria as a child. Renée’s mother put her on a kinder transport to Holland, and from there she went on to London, and finally to Philadelphia at age 16. She would never see her parents again. Renée graduated from Girls’ High and eventually met her husband, who was studying dentistry at Penn.

America was the place she could start anew; with no family and no history in this country, the only direction to go was forward. Renée and her husband settled in Flushing, Queens. That’s where Allyson grew up, the second of four children.

Her mother’s story emerged to Allyson in bits and pieces—it did not, in itself, overwhelm her early sense for what the world offers. Yet in Allyson’s telling, a feeling comes through, both for what she calls her mother’s emotional neediness and for movement, an impetus to get on with your life.

“I was not one of those kids who knew this is where I wanted to go and planned it out exactly,” Schwartz says. “My brother is quite brilliant, a scientist, a year and a half older. My sister, 12 months younger—she is very creative and artistic. So I had to find my niche. And then we had another one—the baby. Okay, what am I if I am not those things? But I was the oldest girl, and I had real responsibility in my family. My dad went off to the Korean War when I was three; they needed dentists. For almost two and a half years—I didn’t see him the whole time. I had to look out for everyone else.”

Though of course it’s a stretch to think she was looking out for everyone in her family as a very young child, an early rigor becomes loud and clear: What you do with your life must have a certain importance.

Allyson the caretaker became president of her middle-school and high-school classes. She studied sociology and psychology at Simmons College and married a Jefferson med-school student when she graduated, which brought her to Philadelphia. (David Schwartz is a cardiologist. “We’ve been married, like, forever,” Allyson says; they have two sons in their 30s and a granddaughter.)

Allyson never had any doubt that she’d have a career of her own, and she quickly found a way to leap into the public life of her adopted city. After getting her master’s, she worked for a fledgling HMO to establish health services at hospitals in South Philly.

But in 1974, when Schwartz was 26, two important things happened. One was that her mother killed herself.