Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon on carjacking, women in politics and smoke-filled back rooms

‘I’m very much seeing this stuff play out in real time,’ Pennsylvania Democrat says

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon is seen at a House Judiciary Committee meeting in 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon is seen at a House Judiciary Committee meeting in 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 12, 2023 at 6:15am

It’s been a year since Mary Gay Scanlon was carjacked at gunpoint as she left a meeting in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think my views changed really much at all,” says the Pennsylvania Democrat, who has made a name for herself as a criminal justice reformer.

“I just would rather not have had that proof in my face,” she added.

Now entering her third full term in Congress, Scanlon says she still draws on what she learned from running a pro bono legal program — and she tries to work with other lawyers-turned-lawmakers whenever she can.

One thing they get that others don’t? “It’s not supposed to be personal,” she says.

Scanlon sat down with CQ Roll Call in the early days of the new year to talk about the shifting power and gender dynamics in the House. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: How will you approach being in the minority now that the House has flipped to Republicans?

A: This is actually my second time in the minority — I was here for six weeks in 2018. Clearly, we can already see that it’s going to be a little different. We can see the divisions within the Republican Party.

I think everyone comes to Congress with the hope to work across the aisle. I came in a wave election, so a lot of the centrists were swept out, and there was less of that than usual. And then it was followed by COVID, where people were masked and not socializing. 

So it’s been difficult to have the kinds of bipartisan relationships that you would expect. I’ve probably had the most success working with other lawyers, because by training, you represent your clients — or in this case, your constituents — and it’s not supposed to be personal. It’s supposed to be about policy and law and that kind of thing. 

I’ve worked with people who’ve held positions with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or a variety of other positions where they were using legal skills. I think of Brian Fitzpatrick, John Katko, Kelly Armstrong, folks who might be at the slightly more moderate end of what’s left of the Republican Party. Of course, several of those are leaving.

Q: A year ago you survived a carjacking. You’ve always been an advocate for criminal justice reform. Did that change anything for you?

A: I was carjacked in 2021 just before Christmas. What was really shocking about it was they were 15, 17 and 19-year-old kids. And it wasn’t about selling a vehicle or chopping it up for parts — it was about excitement and joy riding, as I understand it. And that’s a huge spike we’ve seen across the country, with kids who have no expectations of success in life or just don’t see a future for themselves. This is a thrill or something they’ve heard about online, and it speaks to the deeper economic and societal problems that we have to address. 

The statistics on who’s using guns and getting in trouble show it’s folks in poverty, who don’t have educational opportunity, who are hungry — and those are all issues that I’ve been trying to work on and we’ve worked on as the Democratic caucus. 

The big thing we haven’t been able to get a lot of traction on has been closing the loopholes that allow people — including kids — who shouldn’t have access to weapons to get access to weapons. So background checks, outlawing ghost guns. I would like to be able to make more progress there, and we’d like some help from the other side of the aisle to keep those guns off the streets. 

I don’t think my views changed really much at all from the carjacking incident. I just would rather not have had that proof in my face.

Q: What about security after the 2021 attack on the Capitol? Should more be done to protect members of Congress when you’re back in your home districts?

A: Those are two very different issues, because the folks who caused the safety concerns on Jan. 6 were not impoverished juveniles. 

I mean, I think we all are concerned about member security, given the tenfold increase in threats against members. There’s a direct line between the coarsening of political rhetoric and the lack of respect between members that the disgraced former president really weaponized. Those threats started increasing with his candidacy.

So, yes, we have to do more, because we’re seeing people leave government because they don’t want to put themselves or their families at risk. And that’s extremely valid. Overall, we need to tone down the political rhetoric and recognize that what we’re supposed to be doing here is working on behalf of the American people, not scoring points off each other all the time.

Q: You were president of a school board years before you ran for Congress. Which job is harder?

A: They both have their moments. On the school board, you’re much closer to the community, so you end up running into people in the grocery store every day. With both, I came into organizations that were fairly male dominated. When I started on our school board, it was seven men and two women — and of course, Congress is still around a 75-25 percent split. 

Q: Have you experienced any gender discrimination on Capitol Hill?

A: On the front end, being able to get to Congress is more difficult for women still. When I got elected in 2018, for weeks I was the only female representing Pennsylvania in Congress or the Senate. 

Sometimes it can be a benefit — if people aren’t expecting to see a short lady in the role, you can fly under the radar a little bit. But always just when I think maybe I can fly under the radar, then it doesn’t happen. 

There are financial disincentives. I vividly recall, while I was deciding whether to do this, people saying, “Well, can you self-fund?” I was like, “No, I can’t self-fund.” Well, then you’re going to have to go through your Rolodex and call everyone you know. 

We talk about the wage gap for women, but over time that leads to a wealth gap. If most of your contacts are women, then they have less cash reserves to play around with and essentially gamble on political candidates.

I’m very much seeing this stuff play out in real time. It’s changing. It’s much more difficult for national leaders or federal leaders to be overtly sexist in this day and age. But still — there are back rooms, and then there are back rooms.

Quick hits 

Last book you read? “TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann. I’m on the Friends of Ireland caucus, and I was particularly interested in the part that dealt with the Good Friday accord and what George Mitchell had done to will that into being.

America’s best president? My dad actually worked for the Kennedy administration when he was right out of law school. So that’s a very tempting one, just because of the hope and forward-thinking aspects. 

If you could do any other job, what would it be? I would probably go back to the job that I had before Congress, as pro bono counsel for a large law firm. 

In politics, can the ends justify the means? Can you sometimes agree to do something incrementally as opposed to all at once? Yes, because you have to make progress. But do the ends justify the means no matter what? No.

Closest friend across the aisle? Brian Fitzpatrick and I used to work at the same law firm, so I knew him before coming here. And John Katko, who just retired, it turns out we have a great-grandmother in common.