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Can Mary Gay Scanlon and D.C.’s New Wave of Female Voices Derail the Trump Train?

The Philly lawyer-turned-Congressional newcomer is doing her best to find out.


mary gay scanlon

Mary Gay Scanlon in her new House office. Photograph by Ryan Donnell

Like a lot of people, I’ve been jockeying between rage and despair over the state of our national government. But when I walk into Mary Gay Scanlon’s Washington, D.C., office at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in late February, I’m ready for a close and personal view of the mess, with something of a twist: I’ve come to spend the day with one of the Women in White.

That is, I’m here to get a feel, via Scanlon, for the wave that rode right into a Democratic majority in the House. Scanlon is one of four women from Pennsylvania elected to Congress last November — a notable achievement, given that the state had had no women in Washington since 2014. She represents a reconfigured district in Delaware County that also includes a small piece of South Philadelphia. And she’s been forced, to put it mildly, to hit the ground running.

Scanlon had to win two elections on the same day last November: one to finish off the term of disgraced Congressman Pat Meehan, who resigned after getting caught paying off a sexual harassment complaint with taxpayer money, and a second to fill his seat for the next two years. That meant she had no real gear-up time between campaigning and legislating. To make things more challenging, Scanlon, 59, a career pro bono lawyer, had never followed the doings of Congress, particularly, or its players. “So I had to have flashcards with names when I’d go meet someone,” she says in her self-deprecating style. She’s kidding — at least, I think she is.

We sit in her office with nearly bare walls — there’s been no time to decorate — and get right to it, as if there’s not a moment to lose coming to the point, either: Why would someone like Scanlon go to Washington? Especially at this godforsaken time?

After all, Scanlon was running a big pro bono operation for Philly-based law firm Ballard Spahr that let her help all sorts of people in desperate need, including immigrants hurt by Donald Trump’s Muslim ban two years ago. So what made her think she could have an effect anywhere that significant here, in the political mess of the Capitol?

“We started to see the complete Republican enabling of the administration — that they were changing the laws,” Scanlon says. “And I had to step up.” She points to issues she cares deeply about — not just immigration, but voter reform and clemency for prisoners sentenced to harsh prison terms in the ’90s. Scanlon says she wouldn’t have run if Hillary Clinton had been elected, and I realize that my question actually underplays the moment, from where she sits. It wasn’t about a next step in her career: “This felt like an emergency,” she says.

Right out of the chute, Scanlon was assigned to two important committees, and I’ve lucked into the perfect day to observe her and her fellow newbies: She’s co-chairing a four-hour hearing on immigration that will attempt to zero in on just why we separated children from their parents at our southwestern border. By the time that hearing is over and I watch, late that afternoon, as Mary Gay Scanlon delivers her first bill to Congress, on election finance reform, something new has come shining through. It’s the irony of Trumpism: The women of Congress — now 127 strong — dressed in white during the President’s State of the Union speech in a nod to suffragists, then stood and clapped and danced when he bragged that 58 percent of the new jobs he’d created have gone to women:

Here we are, Donald.

Mary Gay Scanlon comes by her pro bono lawyering naturally: She grew up in Watertown, New York — “a town surrounded by farms and snow and cows,” she says. Her father and grandfather were both lawyers who helped indigent locals via a loose barter system that had corn or ducks appear on the front porch as payment. She was the oldest of three girls, and in her Washington office, she pulls out a book her mother gave her at 13: Girls Are Equal Too. Mom walked the talk, teaching at a community college in the late ’60s and taking a preteen Mary Gay to anti-war demonstrations. Only five percent of her high-school class went on to four-year colleges, but she studied history at Colgate — her dad’s school — and then law at Penn.

Scanlon is easy company, wry and down-to-earth. But when I push again on how hard it will be to do anything here — no matter what her goals, she’s spitting into an ocean — she shows a different side: “Did you not notice the wave I came in with?”

Well yes, that’s why I’m here, but

“We flipped the House!” She may be understated about rising so suddenly to Congress, her first public office, but Scanlon’s a true believer in the American dream that her government can actually work.

The newly elected Fab Four — Scanlon, Madeleine Dean (Montco), Susan Wild (Lehigh Valley), and Chrissy Houlahan (Chester County) — grew close on the campaign trail, they say; they held joint fund-raisers and compared notes on how to handle media and even what to wear, sometimes meeting for margaritas.

“We do not march in lockstep, by any means,” Wild has said. “But we bounce ideas off each other and talk about issues.” And they’ve banded together in Congress: After signing on to a gun violence prevention task force, the four jointly announced their membership. Student debt, health care and climate change are issues they’ll likely work on together, Scanlon says.

Her own advocacy for victims began with her first client after law school in the mid-’80s: an 11-year-old girl who’d been sexually assaulted. Scanlon would follow her husband, Mark Stewart, to Ballard, where for 15 years she ran the firm’s pro bono department, which donates some 50,000 hours per year of free legal services nationwide. (Stewart’s now chairman of Ballard.) Scanlon says that near the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, Ballard lawyers got clemency for 29 unfairly incarcerated prisoners — Trump’s election had her pushing harder before the new administration took over. And Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants had Scanlon working around the clock dispatching lawyers. Her frustration was ramping up: “How were we going to survive this until he really screws up, or Mueller comes back with something?”

Suddenly, two things lined up: redistricting in Delaware County, which put her Swarthmore house in a district that made a win by a Democrat likely, and Meehan imploding. On the night he resigned, Scanlon went to a dinner party where two friends said, “We have a project for you.”

No. She wasn’t interested. “It would be the total disruption of my life, and Washington’s a cesspool,” she says now of her initial reaction. And her political experience consisted of heading the Wallingford-Swarthmore school board — the system her three kids attended — from 2009 to 2011.

But she had a few advantages, apart from the abrupt political plus of her gender: Ballard money to throw at her campaign — $258,000 — and the support of her Ballard colleague Ed Rendell, who gushes over Scanlon: “Mary Gay fought the battle for justice and fairness throughout her career, and she’s exactly what the framers of the Constitution envisioned — citizen-soldiers running for Congress, serving a few terms, then going back home.”

Scanlon’s one fumble in progressive bona fides pops up when she tries to justify getting so much campaign help from a huge firm that takes on decidedly non-progressive issues, such as the charge to declaw the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “I’d been a lawyer for 35 years and went to Penn, so I was in a privileged position to raise money,” Scanlon says. “I wish there was a different system, and saying it’s a bad system doesn’t make it not the system.” No, it doesn’t. But it seems odd for her to rely so heavily on a traditional big-money stream to get in the door.

At any rate, Scanlon was quickly on a mission, given how Donald Trump rankles her deeply and personally: “He’s not supportive of women,” she tells me in her office. “He’s a misogynist! And the fact he was undermining the work I was doing pro bono, in human rights … A lot of my friends and my daughter dove under covers and freaked out” after Trump was elected.

Scanlon went the other way, upending her career for a seat at the national table. I wonder if it seems like the right decision.

She smiles: “Who knows? If we can get things done.” It’s far too early to tell.

At the Judiciary Committee hearing Scanlon co-chairs that day, Republicans do their best to reframe the issue of family separation as being about the danger posed by immigrants. Andy Biggs, a Republican from Arizona, offers a message that’s Trumpian in the extreme: Very bad guys use kids for access. They must be kept out.

“I’ve been to the border, talked to agents,” Biggs says at the start of his allotted five minutes. “One described seeing a child dropped from the top of a fence into the United States.” He hesitates for dramatic effect before repeating: “A child … dropped from the top of a fence into the United States. I talked to another agent who found a toddler, a young child, wandering on the U.S. side of the border with a note pinned to their shirt: ‘My mom is in … ’”

Behind Biggs are three families he brought to the hearing; each had a loved one killed by an undocumented immigrant. “What we have here behind me are victims of forced separation because of illegal aliens who were in the country.”

The tone shifts, however, when the Democrats on the committee question the five Trump administration officials at the hearing. Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia of Texas, for example, starts off: “I’m so deeply troubled by a lot of what’s been said today, it’s almost hard to even begin.”

Garcia thanks one Trump official who did raise red flags over family separation, then asks each of the other four officials in turn: “Did you ever object at any point to superiors or someone who might listen, that this was harmful and not a good idea?”

“We understand the concerns and sensitivities,” says James McHenry, an immigration official in the Justice Department.

“Sir, I’m asking you a question.”

“Did I? No.”

None of the other three officials has a good answer, either.

Other women push hard, too. Madeleine Dean goes after Scott Lloyd, who was director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement: “Isn’t it true that you instructed your staff to prevent minors seeking abortion from meeting with attorneys?”

Lloyd, an anti-choice advocate, fumbles before declaring: “Ma’am, all the children in our care received legal screening and access to an attorney. I never finally blocked anyone from — ”

“Not finally,” Dean shoots back, “but when a minor is pregnant, any blocking of legal advice might be critical to that person.”

The Democrats, especially the 10 women who prod and accuse, have the progressive high road and run with it for four hours — almost long enough to get anyone taking it all in to feel a little sorry for the administration’s immigration flunkies.

Mary Gay Scanlon, overseeing the proceeding as co-chair, recognizes herself as one of the last on the committee to speak:

“As I’ve been listening here, I’ve been struck a couple of times by the denial of humanity of many of these families and children. When the issue is framed as an invasion by aliens … it’s easier to pretend that they’re not human, or worthy of compassion. When you say that the cause of migration is because of legal loopholes, or bad judicial decisions, rather than the dire conditions of violence or poverty in these people’s home countries that’s literally driving them from their home, it’s easier to slam the door against these kids and these families. This hearing is a recognition, and an insistence, on that humanity.”

Then Scanlon asks a few questions about policy.

It’s a strange time in our national politics, which is maybe why I do something unjournalistic after the immigration hearing — I thank Mary Gay Scanlon for her statement. Not so much for what she said — others had hit the same theme — but for her directness, her calm, and something else that felt new: She didn’t seem to be trying to score political points.

When I ask Scanlon what she thought of the hearing, though, she downplays her role: “I’m just trying to get used to presiding when everybody has opinions and nobody wants to shut up. That’s what’s kind of hard — how much is genuine hearing and how much is grandstanding.”

A couple days later, I ask Scanlon if her colleagues have been talking about the hearing. “Do you know what happened yesterday?” she laughs. Oh, yeah — Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress. That took over the conversation, before another Trump-inspired crisis horns in on that.

Senator Bob Casey nails something vital about the new helplessness in Washington by describing how, when some 50 members of Congress met with NATO allies in Europe in February, he and his colleagues felt the need to reassure them: “What used to be reinforcement and reiteration has become essential messaging now to persuade them we believe in this trans-Atlantic partnership,” he says. In Munich, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech ballyhooing Trump achievements, and even the Republicans didn’t applaud, as if they, too, had to send that message to allies of working around their president. “It’s just bizarre,” Casey says.

It’s true that the Democrats’ takeover of the House has supplied a jolt of power, and some there hope Trump can be taken on rather than just reacted to. When I touch base with Dean, she clearly has the same raw energy for this as Scanlon: “I think back to swearing-in day in January, the class picture when we stood on bleachers. I kept looking up and down: Look at this beauty, diversity, women from 29 to their 70s. To feel the joy in the air, the possibility. And the conversation is very different.”

Much has been made, of course, of Democrats in general being asleep at the switch as Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Now, it’s an open-ended question as to whether the women new to Congress, especially, will have staying power; we’ll learn much in next year’s presidential election.

“It’s felt, in a lot of ways,” Mary Gay Scanlon says of her introduction to the national stage, “like this is something I was preparing for my entire life without really knowing it.” She won’t nail down how long she wants to stay in Congress — six years sounds likely. Which would give her ample time, in the first wave of the Women in White, to answer the wake-up call to disrupt the march of Trumpism. Welcome, everyone, to Washington.

Published as “A Woman’s Place” in the May 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.