Who Doesn’t Like Allyson Schwartz?
“IF YOU TELL me that Allyson Schwartz is in a state of denial and thinks everyone loves her, I’m worried about that,” David Cohen says. “It shows a lack of self-awareness.”
Indeed. In early November, I call two well-known Philadelphia politicians. Well-known politician number one: “I hate her.” Why? “Because she promised to support me and didn’t.” Well-known politician number two: “She has rubbed me and many people the wrong way because of her ego and sense of entitlement.”
What gives? Making promises you don’t keep, being full of yourself—isn’t that simply politics? Why the special rancor for Schwartz’s brand?
It may be something in her style. Back in 1990, gearing up for her first run for state Senate, Schwartz went to City Councilwoman Marian Tasco and local NAACP head Jerry Mondesire, hoping for help in getting Congressman Bill Gray’s endorsement and with black voters in Northwest Philly.
The next day, Gray read in the Daily News that he was behind Schwartz, and he called Mondesire. “Who is this Allyson Schwartz that I’m supporting?” he asked. Typical Allyson aggressiveness: She had jumped the gun. But Tasco and Mondesire liked her, and got Gray and State Rep Dwight Evans on board. She was a political neophyte and needed ground-level help that was instrumental in defeating Joe Rocks in a nasty campaign.
But the good feeling didn’t last all that long.
“After she got elected, she sort of forgot about us,” Tasco says now, sounding more hurt than angry. “I don’t know why. I really don’t know. [But] I can have my own thoughts. Allyson used to have a luncheon every year, and I was almost the only African-American in the room, and I thought, Now wait a minute, Tasco, where are the rest of the African-American women? I was the most prominent. I thought, You are being used.”
Mondesire is even blunter on being abandoned: “She was our fucking neighbor! She was our fucking neighbor! She lived right there off Mount Pleasant Avenue.”
Schwartz doesn’t seem to know where she stands with them. She called Tasco in the spring seeking her support in running for governor. Tasco didn’t take the call. Then Schwartz sent a note, and called again, before finally getting the message.
When I tell Schwartz about Tasco’s feelings, in her office in Washington, she says that Tasco and Mondesire were very good to her politically; then, speaking very quietly and, for the first time, slowly, she says, “I think maybe she just presumed I was always going to say yes. The fact is that I didn’t always say yes, although I said yes most of the time. … And more recently, when she ran for reelection this last time, I think she was concerned not about her race—I supported her in her race—but somebody else from City Council. So I think a difference of opinion we’ve had—so I’m sorry that she saw that as a breach, and I told her that.”
Whatever all that means, and whatever happened between them, it wasn’t a mere difference of opinion, at least not from Tasco’s perspective. “It’s a feeling I have that’s in my craw,” she says. “After all these years, I go back to the initial campaign, where we made a real strong commitment, and she walked away like we didn’t exist.”
The question is whether a dustup like that one matters. Mondesire certainly thinks so: “Being governor would be real difficult for her. It’s the same reason Corbett is a failure—you have to spend time knowing the legislative process and people. You can’t step in it and then rub people’s noses in it. None of it works without relationships. That’s the key to the whole game.”
And with Schwartz, trouble getting along hasn’t been an isolated incident here or there. When she ran for Congress in 2004, the state Senate caucus reportedly supported her to a man (and it was still almost all men), happy to be rid of her. Not that the Pennsylvania delegation in Congress welcomed her with open arms; not once, says Schwartz, did anyone from the delegation, which is notably tight, invite her to dinner. And Philly Congressman Bob Brady asked for an informal show of hands among the delegation at a meeting last year: Who supports Allyson’s run for governor? All of them.
“In order,” Brady confided to a friend, “to get her out of Congress.”
All this acrimony raises another question: How much of her trouble is caused by the fact that she’s a woman? One Philadelphia politician I called, who’s not a fan of Schwartz by any stretch, suddenly broke off from critiquing her aggressive style to wonder: “Would we even be having this conversation if her first name were Adam?”
No, says Leslie Anne Miller. A lawyer who’s a staunch Schwartz supporter and financial contributor, Miller has been through these battles herself. She was in Ed Rendell’s gubernatorial cabinet as general consul and was the first woman elected president of the state’s bar association. “A woman who exemplifies Allyson’s behavior—someone who is aggressive, not afraid to push—is held to a different standard than men,” Miller says. “A man who isn’t like that is criticized as weak. But a woman is pushy, a pain. And who wants this pain in the neck around on a daily basis? Those women who have mastered the iron fist wearing a velvet glove, they go further. The old double standard is alive and well.”
IN PERSON ALLYSON SCHWARTZ comes across as dynamic but ultimately a bit distant. And she doesn’t just lapse into political self-praise; she starts driving her accomplishments into your ear as if you’ll never quite believe them. As if she’s a frustrated band of one. Perhaps that’s why she has claimed to have done a little more than meets the smell test, and why so many fellow pols are turned off by her style. Because—after 14 years in the state Senate and a decade in Congress—she’s spent a quarter-century mostly on the outs from real power, or even her true nature.
Former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy has it right: Schwartz is more executive than legislator, a doer more than a get-along type. A longtime Congressional staffer of hers says he’s not surprised in the slightest that she’s leaving the relative safety of Congress (she’s not running for reelection) and trying for governor. “You have to go back and remember who she is,” says John Sherry. “She has a degree in social work. She really does believe in building better communities.”
So when I lay out for Schwartz, in her office in Washington, the accusations that she made up something about Marjorie Margolies in order to hurt her in a U.S. Senate primary, and that Marian Tasco thinks she has no moral center, and that there was a club of Philly politicians who vied to win the “I Hated Her First” contest—well, of course nobody wants to hear those sorts of things, especially not somebody running for governor. Allyson Schwartz gets very quiet, trying to deflect my questions in a way that doesn’t feel like her at all; for the first time, she sounds weary. The criticisms must come across as yet another hurdle to leap, as yet another roadblock in her quarter-century fight to be heard.
Then Schwartz lands on what it’s like for a woman to be running for governor. Earlier she had said, “There’s still a question mark on it—what is the style, what is a woman executive, chief executive, what does she look like, what does she sound like? How does she present herself? It’s hard for people to visualize it, almost.”
Now she begins to get recharged: “I’ve actually found, and I think this is true, it’s almost palpable, the degree to which people think my being different is a positive.” Suddenly Schwartz is speaking fast and aggressively again, her natural style: “And you have to have a lot of confidence not just in yourself but the people you’re talking to. And I don’t have to tell people I’m a woman—they know it feels different to them. But they are pretty excited about that.”
Allyson Schwartz is staring at me, intense, her eyes glazing over. It’s a moment on the heels of her character being challenged—but she seems to be feeling, too, what she so badly wants, right there for the taking, after a career of push-push-push. She wants to be governor for herself, of course, and just maybe for the rest of us as well.
“The fact is, my style is different. It’s different because I’m a woman; it’s different because my history is different. It’s different because I’ve come up through public service for different reasons, a different starting point.
“And there’s absolutely no reason why Pennsylvania won’t vote for me for governor. And if I believed that they wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
“You’re getting a little emotional, Congresswoman,” I say to her.
“Yes,” the woman who might become the next leader of Pennsylvania agrees. “So I’m done.”