Who Doesn’t Like Allyson Schwartz?
Over 14 years, Schwartz kept pounding away at her interests, especially women’s health issues, but her record during that time—almost all of it spent in the minority party and on the outs with the Fumocrats—is thin. Schwartz herself cites changes to health insurance regulations she pushed through, coverage of domestic violence injuries and mammograms, direct access to ob-gyns, and economic development work in Mount Airy.
There is one Senate accomplishment, however, that Schwartz cites over and over: CHIP. The Children’s Health Insurance Program, passed in 1992, provided insurance for kids whose parents didn’t qualify for Medicaid. It would become a model for a similar national program; Schwartz worked with the Clintons on that while still in the state Senate.
CHIP was her bill, Allyson Schwartz says, her big accomplishment in the state Senate. Her shining star. Others tell a different tale. Her version of how CHIP came to be is still getting her in trouble—at least in terms of her reputation.
Before we get to that, though, Schwartz deserves a nod for a much sunnier time in her legislative career. In 2004, she escaped Vince Fumo and Harrisburg for Congress, winning a seat that includes eastern Montgomery County and parts of Northeast Philly—working-class neighborhoods that wouldn’t seem to be a natural stomping ground for a liberal female candidate. But nobody was going to pound on more doors than Schwartz. (“I was in good shape then,” she laughs. “I put sneakers on and ran up and down those stoops.”) She’s also a strong fund-raiser, especially among women.
Schwartz knew that her approach had to change in Congress, and it did. She wheedled Jack Murtha, for example—the now-deceased Congressman from western Pennsylvania, and about as old-school as they come—on federal funding for an expansion of a helicopter factory in her district that created jobs for hundreds of people. And she found grounding and oomph in big-time committee work—Ways and Means, Budget and Transportation—where she could have an active voice in the sussing-out of issues and potential bills.
“She jumped into areas that are very complicated and high-risk,” says John Lawrence, who was Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s longtime chief of staff. “Especially budget and health care.” Much has been made of Pelosi pushing for Schwartz to get high-level committee assignments, assignments her gender might have helped garner. But Lawrence and others are clear that when Schwartz weighs in—especially on issues of health care—Pelosi and other heavyweights pay attention.
“She has played the game better in Washington,” says David Cohen, the Comcast executive and former Rendell consigliere, who’s still an intimate observer of the political world. “But not by sacrificing her principles.”
When I run Cohen’s appraisal by her, Schwartz says, “I think that’s fair. It was also 14 years later, and I was older.”
She had, in other words, grown up.
ALLYSON SCHWARTZ BURSTS with ideas: Enact a two percent tax on Marcellus Shale companies and put the money into education; ask state-funded universities for a two-year moratorium on tuition increases; look far and wide to bring biotechnology and other high-tech companies into the state; rebuild the transportation infrastructure. At this point, of course, so early in the campaign, broad progressive talk is easy. But Tom Murphy calls Schwartz something of a visionary.
Murphy was mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2006, and he oversaw the renaissance of a city in worse shape—albeit on a considerably smaller scale—than Philadelphia. Schwartz got to know him well when she was a state senator, and lately they’ve spent time driving around Pittsburgh discussing how to bring the state into the 21st century. I catch up with Murphy at a food court in downtown Pittsburgh in late November; he’s just chaired a midday fund-raiser of businessmen for Schwartz.
“I think she gets it,” says Murphy, who now works for the Urban Land Institute, “that Pennsylvania has these resources that we’re squandering. It’s not just Marcellus Shale. Globalization is redefining the world. Pennsylvania needs to say, ‘We need to be a modern state.’ That we’re going to compete in the global economy. I think she’ll put her heart and soul into it.”
Murphy also makes a distinction that says a lot about Schwartz’s past frustration in the state Senate: “A friend told me many years ago, when I was in the legislature and pulling my hair out—he said there are two types of people in politics; one has a legislative mentality and one has an executive mentality. So you want to be sure you are in the right box. I think Allyson is a doer, and she is an executive.”
Murphy’s view of Schwartz is about as far removed from what some Allyson-haters allude to—that dark side of her—as it can get. In fact, her startling energy and ideas and career to date (including her time in the state Senate, when she at least tried to stick her finger in the eye of business as usual) all paint a pretty rosy picture.
Yet the murmurs and stories about that other side of her are strong and can’t be ignored. Starting with this:
CHIP is the home-run project of her years in the state Senate, in her telling. Schwartz claims that the bill for medical coverage of young children was her vision, and that she made it happen.
There’s a problem with that. Others involved say it’s not true.
Allen Kukovich, a member of the state legislature in the late ’80s, worked for at least three years on a complicated health-care bill that included coverage for children up to age 18; he talked publicly about his desire to get it done. Governor Bob Casey was interested in covering children, too, though he favored a bill that focused on children six and under. Kukovich and Casey staffers worked on various forms of the bill together—health-care coverage for children—before Allyson Schwartz was even elected to the state Senate.
The bill would end up languishing in the Senate, and once Schwartz took office, she began championing it. She introduced a version of the bill, says Dave Myers, then the special assistant to the governor, that looked a lot like Casey’s—it would cover children under seven. Still, months went by with no version of the bill getting close to passing, until a reapportionment of districts gave the Democrats a narrow majority in the Senate. At that point, with Schwartz serving as cheerleader, the bill passed.
But this is what Schwartz says when I ask her to explain the creation of CHIP:
“How exactly I came to the idea of actually covering kids first, I’m not really sure. I do know that in describing it, Allen Kukovich was somebody very interested in single-payer health care for all. I did approach him about taking that idea and really just starting with kids. I went to him, and I said, ‘What do you think about kids?’ His first reaction was, ‘That’s not exactly what I would do, but if you’re interested in this, I’m certainly willing to work with you on it.’ I went to work. Bob Casey was governor. We had a lot of common ground on things we cared about.”
When I run that by Kukovich, he says, “It’s not accurate.” The first time he ever talked to Schwartz, he says, his bill had already passed the House. And he knew the bill would have to focus solely on children to have a chance of passing the Senate before he and Schwartz ever had a conversation. Dave Myers concurs. He says the whole focus while the bill was still in the House, before Schwartz was involved at all, “became about children.”
If all this sounds like typical political squabbling over who gets credit for an important bill, then the point has been missed: how badly Schwartz wants CHIP to be hers. Kukovich remembers Schwartz calling him after a session with the Inquirer’s editorial board at which the veracity of her CHIP story was questioned; she asked him to back her up in case the Inky board called him. Schwartz suggested that he could be the father of the bill, and she was the mother. Could they frame it like that? Kukovich simply stayed mum—until now.
“There’s an old saying,” says Dave Myers. “‘Success has a lot of fathers.’ And in this case, mothers. But the final CHIP bill was a marriage of Allen and Casey.”