Why I’m with Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz

Nate Kleinman, a former staffer for Josh Shapiro and activist with Occupy Philly, has decided to challenge Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz in the Democratic primary.

I know Nate a little and he seems like a decent, smart guy. But I think he is making a terrible mistake.

Normally I would just ignore his challenge, since I don’t think Nate will make much headway against Congresswoman Schwartz. But, as I will point out below, even the small distraction Nate may create is a problem for progressives and Democrats not just here but across the country. And as I will also point out, this is a revealing moment in our politics and a good opportunity for us to think through what progressive Democrats both in and outside of Congress should be doing and saying now.

When primary challenges are a good idea

I don’t oppose progressives running in primaries against Democrats who consistently vote against progressive ideals or legislation. That’s by and large a good idea. I’m happy to see that Congressman Tim Holden, who voted against the ACA for no good reason, has a challenger. And I’m not going to shed a tear if Congressman Mark Critz defeats Congressman Jason Altmire in the new district that includes them both since the latter voted against the ACA after promising to support it.

Congresswoman Schwartz’s Record

Running against Congresswoman Schwartz is totally a different matter.

Congresswoman Schwartz has, from a progressive point of view, a really good record. Her AFL-CIO scores are typically in the high 90s. It was 96% in 2007 and  97% in 2008. Her ADA scores are also typically in in the 90s. It was 90 in 2010.  Recently Daily Kos created a lifetime score for all members that combined the ADA and ACU (American Conservative Union Score). Schwartz had a rating of 93 just slightly behind liberal hero Sherrod Brown’s 93.2.

Congresswoman Schwartz doesn’t just vote right. When Democrats held the House she sat on two extremely important committees, Budget and Ways and Means. She was in the thick of many battles in DC fighting on the progressive side. (She lost the seat on Ways and Means when the Democrats lost the House but is likely to get it back when Democrats return to the majority.) At Health Care for America Now, we thought of her as a champion for health care reform. She was a member of Congress we counted on to do the hard work needed to move legislation through the House. She came up with some important additions to the legislation that addressed the need to provide primary care doctors. And as a member of the New Democrat organization, she played an important role in convincing centrist Democrats to support the legislation.

Does Congresswoman Schwartz always vote as I would have? No. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the votes that disappointed me and her vote was not decisive on any of those bills. (Recently I was disappointed with her vote for the NDAA, but the final bill was far better than earlier disastrous versions.)

The Role of a Member of Congress

Does Congresswoman Schwartz speak out loudly on every issue I care about? No, again. But I’m glad she doesn’t. There are lots of ways to be a member of Congress. It seems to me that Congresswoman Schwartz decided a while ago that she was going to make a career in the House and, at least for now, put aside the idea of running for the Senate. That’s good for progressives and for Southeast PA. Most of the real legislative work in America is done in the House and the most influential members there are those who specialize in one or two legislative areas and who play a role in the party leadership. That’s what Allyson has done. She’s focused on domestic budget and health care issues and has accepted party leadership tasks at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). So she has the prospect of being a real progressive force on these issues and in the leadership for years to come.

What she doesn’t do is what a lot of Representatives with ambitions for higher office do, which is to put out press releases and YouTube videos on every issue under the sun. That’s fine with me because press releases and sound bites don’t make as much difference for us as legislative action. We know the names of the Representatives who are always ready with statement. But they are not the ones who have real influence in the House. Congresswoman Schwartz does.

Understanding the constraints on members of Congress

Even more importantly, the older I get the less I think that agreeing with me on every vote is the defining criteria for being a member of Congress deserving reelection. In a democracy, a member of Congress has a responsibility to his or her district. A member can and should try to lead the district and support some legislation that is unpopular, especially if that is because it  is not well understood. But he or she also has to respect the views of the district and not just in order to stay in office.

At any rate, one of the responsibilities of members of Congress is to stay in office. That’s not just a matter of self-interest. It’s a moral responsibility. A defeated member of Congress can’t do anyone any good. And a Democratic member of Congress who votes against her district too often and loses her seat can cost us the absolutely vital control over the House.

The 13th Congressional District

The district Congresswoman Schwartz has represented since entering the House is a moderate, swing district. It hasn’t been all that long since a Republican represented it, when Jon Fox defeated Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky in 1994. Joe Hoeffel won it in 2000 and 2002 by very narrow margins (53% and 51%) and Allyson won it in 2004 by only 54%. Then in the very bad Democratic year in 2010, she was held to 56% by a Republican candidate whose name I wouldn’t have even known if I hadn’t been driving up the Roosevelt Boulevard to work in the 8th district.

Congresswoman Schwartz’s voting record, as measured by the AFL-CIO, ADA,  and Daily Kos is only slightly less liberal than those of Congressmen Brady and Fattah. But when Brady and Fattah have Republican opposition–often they don’t–they typically win with 90% of the vote or more. Congresswoman Schwartz faces a very different set of circumstances at home than they do.

I should add that those circumstances are going to change for the better. On the whole the Congressional redistricting in Pennsylvania is appalling. But it has reshaped the 13th district so as to make it more progressive. So I would expect that Congresswoman Schwartz will have more freedom to take the lead on progressive causes in the future than she has had in the past.

I find it hard to justify opposing a member of Congress who stands with progressives most of the time, who has a record of working really hard on our behalf, and who is moving into a position of real power in the House. There just are not that many members of Congress like that.

Congresswoman Schwartz’s work on behalf of House Democrats

All this is pretty self-evident and I think most progressives in the district understand it. I decided to speak out about it for two further reasons.

The first is that Congresswoman Schwartz is playing an enormously important role in the effort to take back the House of Representatives this year. She is one of the leaders of the DCCC effort to recruit candidates running for open seats and against Republican incumbents. She has helped recruit many qualified, competitive candidates to run in these districts. This is really critical. Political scientists have shown that candidate recruitment is the critical pre-requisite to flipping seats in the House. Congresswoman Schwartz’s efforts have been widely applauded among Democrats in Washington.

Over the years, she’s also raised and distributed about a million dollars for other progressive candidates.

Given how critical it is to take back the House, especially since holding the Senate will be difficult in 2012, I don’t want to see Congresswoman Schwartz distracted from that work by Nate’s challenge. I don’t think he is going to make a dent in the primary. But if his challenge forces Allyson to her put more time or money in defending her seat instead of working to take back Republican held seats in the House, it will hurt the cause of Democrats and progressives nationwide.

The real barrier to progressive action

Second, I object to Nate’s characterization of Congresswoman Schwartz as a “corporate Democrat” not just because it is untrue—although it most certainly is—but because it is based on a misguided understanding  of contemporary politics.

That theory, which is a staple of the rhetoric of the Green Party and the bloggers at FireDogLake, is that the only thing that stands between us and a strong progressive majority in Congress is corporate money. It holds that Democrats are swayed by campaign contributions to vote with corporate interests instead of the interests of their constituents.

It’s a nice simple story. But it is just not the truth.

To begin with, while there are some examples of Democrats being swayed by major campaign contributors, they are fairly rare. (And there are no examples that involve Representative Schwartz.) Democrats who don’t vote with progressives do so because of sentiment in the district, not campaign contributions.

I read a wide variety of polls closely. And I had a good chance to meet voters all over this state during the campaign for health care reform. I’ve learned that the whole state is, unfortunately, not Mt. Airy. We are a country that is deeply divided politically. There are lots of progressives. There are also a lot of conservatives, too. No doubt some people are conservatives because the right wing message gets more media attention than our own. But most are conservative for deeper reasons having to do with where they come  from and the ideas they heard growing up. And their conservatism is also a reaction to the dramatic economic and cultural changes this country has seen in the last fifty years. It is unfortunate, but true, that the progress we have made in expanding opportunities for women, blacks, and the LGBTQ community has created a cultural backlash that hurts progressives.

Like Nate, I’m frustrated that we progressives are on the defensive right now. And I’m upset that our national leaders, including President Obama, haven’t been doing all they should in standing up for a progressive vision of the economy and, instead, have been trying to find a common ground with Republicans. But it is simply not true that this failure is solely due to the influence of corporate money. That’s a huge oversimplification of a complicated reality.

(I’ll be writing soon about all the political and personal reasons that have led the President and some Congressional leaders to continue to seek agreements with Republicans long after the uselessness of that strategy was clear to everyone else. To anticipate it: the influence of corporate money on Democrats is not the most important explanation.)

The “corporate money” theme is also a bad guide for progressive activism. The last thing we need to do now is to shout ever more left wing ideas at the top of our lungs. Instead we need to do what successful political movements have always done, capture the middle by presenting progressive ideas as the commonsense solutions to the troubles we face today.

As I wrote recently, that’s the path Joe Hoeffel took in transforming Montgomery County from a solidly Republican to a largely Democratic area. That’s the path Congresswoman Schwartz has also been following.

I’m not saying we need to back away from progressive ideals or that we shouldn’t attack the corporate elite. I’ve written in strong support of the Occupy Movement. But I am saying that while some of us raise difficult and challenging issues about corporate power and inequality in the strongest possible terms, we also need activists and political leaders who stand up for the ideals that define us in a way that appeals not just to those who already agree with us but to those who would agree with us if we could activate the latent progressivism that, as much as conservatism, is part of our American political heritage. That doesn’t mean compromising with our ideals but presenting them in a way that resonates with people in the center of the political spectrum.

Members of the House of Representatives have a limited ability to shape political discourse. But to the extent she can, Congresswoman Schwartz has been doing exactly that. I heard her speak recently. She talked about how the occupy movement has raised issues that have for too long been ignored. She talked passionately about inequality. And she did it in a commonsense way that can bring moderates to join us in standing up to the right wing.

The other thing Democrats need to do to broaden our support is re-build our old base in the working class. And that is what Congresswoman Schwartz did in taking the lead on the ACA, which is the first thing Democrats have done in many years that benefits working people and the middle class. When it is fully implemented, the ACA will not only do more for working people than any legislation passed since Medicare, it will be the most redistributive legislation in American history. Almost all the benefits of the bill go to working people while almost all the costs fall on the top 1%. Even if the ACA wasn’t everything we wanted, it challenged the corporate elite in a way that no other legislation has done in years.

What progressives should be doing now

So the last thing we progressive need in the 13th district is a primary challenge against Representative Schwartz. Instead we need to do two things. Some of us need to articulate a strongly progressive agenda that challenges the country from the left. And some of us need to work to present progressive ideas in a way that builds broad support in Philadelphia and Montgomery County. That’s what so many of the progressives who worked with HCAN in the 13th district tried to do on health care reform.  We need to keep doing it on other issues.

Some Democratic members of Congress need to be primaried. But those who, like Congresswoman Schwartz have disappointed us on only a very few votes need something else: an ongoing progressive effort that makes it possible for her to do even more to lead the district in a progressive direction.

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