As Hoeffel Moves On, Voters Get Ready for a Philly Free-for-All

Posted December 5, 2003 at 2:42pm

While voters in most Congressional districts can expect little excitement in 2004, those in Pennsylvania’s 13th district have not one but two interesting contests to look forward to. And in both races, they are blessed with an abundance of quality candidates. [IMGCAP(1)]

The district includes parts of the city of Philadelphia, a longtime Democratic bastion, and neighboring Montgomery County, a once-Republican suburban area that continues to trend Democratic. President Bush could greatly enhance his chances of carrying Pennsylvania if he can grow his vote in the 13th from the disappointing 42 percent he received in 2000.

The district will be open because Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) is running for the Senate seat held by Sen. Arlen Specter (R), a former Philadelphia district attorney and a moderate Republican who has run well in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Democratic voters are likely to choose between state Sen. Allyson Schwartz and Joe Torsella, a 40-year-old deputy mayor for policy and planning under former Philadelphia Mayor (now Gov.) Ed Rendell (D).

Schwartz, 55, founded a health center for women and served as Philadelphia’s Commissioner of Human Services before winning election to the Pennsylvania Senate in 1990. Now serving her fourth term, she lost the 2000 Senate primary to then-Rep. Ron Klink.

Torsella has never held office, but he drew raves for his work as CEO of the National Constitution Center, a $185 million museum in Philadelphia that has boosted community morale.

Both Democrats are personable and articulate. Schwartz is remarkably enthusiastic and upbeat. She lacks neither self-confidence nor energy. Torsella, a Rhodes Scholar, seems far too normal, relaxed and natural to be a politician. Like Schwartz, he is smart and unfailingly likeable.

Ideologically, the two Democrats aren’t easy to classify. While Schwartz is listed as one of the Democratic Leadership Council’s “top 100 elected officials,” her views and record seem generally liberal. Torsella’s values and priorities don’t appear all that different, but he doesn’t have a voting record to defend, and that gives him greater freedom when talking about issues.

Both Democrats have proven to be effective fundraisers. Schwartz, who has already been recommended by EMILY’s List, raised better than $600,000 through the end of September, while Torsella hauled in more than $400,000 during the same period. Money should not be a problem for either hopeful.

Schwartz begins with a big advantage over Torsella in name recognition, political experience and backing from organized labor. But he has one possible ace in the hole: Rendell.

The former Philadelphia mayor, who remains close to Torsella, is popular in the city and the suburbs, and it is likely that Torsella will try to tap that popularity to woo Democratic primary voters. For now, the governor is officially neutral in the primary.

Schwartz’s initial liability is her residence. While she represents part of the Congressional district, she does not reside in it. She says that she will move into the district, but only after the U.S. Supreme Court deals with a Democratic challenge to the state’s Congressional lines.

Whichever Democrat wins the nomination, he or she will face a spirited general election in a district that only tilts Democratic.

While some Republicans are urging two-time unsuccessful GOP Philadelphia mayoral nominee Sam Katz to get into the Congressional race, the current favorite for the Republican nomination is Melissa Brown.

Brown, an ophthalmologist who is making her third bid for Congress, drew 47.3 percent of the vote against Hoeffel last year. She spent $1.8 million on the race and is both ideologically moderate and personally articulate.

Brown’s showing was strong considering that Rendell was on the ballot as the Democratic nominee for governor, and he had spent time convincing suburban Republicans to switch parties so that they could vote for him in the Democratic primary.

The Republican scored points last cycle by criticizing Hoeffel’s support for Section 8 Housing. The program offers financial assistance to low-income tenants, seniors and the disabled to help them pay their rent, in this case in northeast Philadelphia. Many residents in the area oppose the program, arguing it has led to the deterioration of some Philadelphia neighborhoods. Democrats complained that Brown’s use of the issue was racially divisive.

This time, Brown argues that Democrats will have a primary and Rendell won’t be on the ballot. The ophthalmologist raised more than $300,000 in the first three quarters of this year.

Other Republicans are in the primary, but unless Katz, a wealthy businessman, enters, they may not have the fundraising ability or breadth of appeal to deny Brown the nomination. While five-term state Rep. Ellen Bard has raised more than $100,000 for her possible bid, she hasn’t ruled out running for reelection to her state legislative seat.

Democratic strategists know that they cannot afford to lose districts like this one (particular given their strong candidates), and both national parties are likely to play heavily if the seat looks up for grabs next Labor Day. This is a district worth watching.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.