In her race for the Democratic nomination for governor, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz has considerable assets, but they're often inseparable from her liabilities.
After establishing a women's health clinic in Philadelphia, she served for nearly a quarter of a century in the state Senate and Congress, rising to a senior spot on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. She can legitimately boast of having the longest legislative track record of any of the eight candidates who have announced so far.
That has won her support from labor unions, fellow politicians, and feminist groups such as Emily's List. At the same time, that legislative record offers a gold mine for opposition researchers combing it for any isolated vote that can be used or skewed as a lever to pry support away from her, or to negatively define her for the many voters who still don't know her.
Without similarly extensive voting records, her Democratic rivals are less vulnerable to such sniping.
She has regularly topped the big Democratic field in name recognition, and as the strongest Democrat in trial heats against the man they all want to take on, Gov. Tom Corbett. That prominence is only relative. Polls suggest that most Democratic voters still don't know most of their prospective nominees. But it's enough to have made her a regular target for Republicans and, occasionally, her fellow Democrats.
If news releases from the Republican State Committee were the only guide to state politics, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Montgomery County lawmaker had already won the Democratic nomination. Just as the Obama campaign trained its rhetorical guns on Mitt Romney long before he had come close to his nomination, the GOP website regularly features headlines such "Allyson Schwartz flip-flops on Obamacare" and "Schwartz Failing Emergency Responders."
As the campaign kicked off last year, none of her Democratic rivals had attracted anywhere near that degree of GOP affection.
Ms. Schwartz, 65, was raised in New York City. She received an undergraduate degree from Simmons College, then earned a master's in social work from Bryn Mawr College. She helped establish the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center, a Philadelphia clinic affiliated with Planned Parenthood, and worked there from 1975 to 1988.
She defeated a Republican incumbent to win a state Senate seat in 1990. In the Legislature, she was a supporter of the Children's Health Insurance Program.
She touted her role as a champion of CHIP in winning the 2004 election for the congressional seat that overlapped her legislative district. On Ways and Means, she was able to continue her focus on health issues. It was one of the key panels that crafted the Affordable Care Act.
While she remains a strong supporter of the law, she joined the choruses of criticism of its stumbling implementation.
Her decision to challenge Mr. Corbett switched her career from a rising trajectory among congressional Democrats. In addition to her work on Ways and Means, she had been a senior member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in charge of candidate recruitment nationally during the 2012 election cycle. Those connections helped fill the $3.1 million congressional fundraising account that she was able to transfer to her governor's campaign, a significant down payment on the early fundraising competition scored by the year-end reports, due next month.
Including that start, according to her campaign, Ms. Schwartz will report having raised a total of $6.5 million in 2013, meaning that she collected $3.4 million more last year in addition to the $3.1 million raised under the stricter contribution limits of federal law.
Her congressional career has given Ms. Schwartz a policy platform and escalating prominence, but it's a somewhat devalued asset at a time when Congress is held in historically low regard.
Asked whether that institutional reputation was a hurdle for her candidacy, she said, "Pennsylvanians are right to be angry [at Congress], and that's one of the reason I'm running for governor. ... I share with Pennsylvania the concerns about the inaction that's been happening not only in Washington but in Harrisburg as well."
Ms. Schwartz's early professional identification with a health care institution that provided abortions has helped shaped perceptions of her as a liberal. A look at her congressional voting record, however, shows a lawmaker who, aside from social issues, is nearer the center of her party than that reputation might suggest.
According to a compilation of votes by the National Journal, her overall voting record is more moderate than some of her colleagues in the state's Democratic U.S. House delegation. On economic issues, in particular, lawmakers such as Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Bob Brady, D-Philadelphia, compiled voting records to the left of Ms. Schwartz. Her composite rating, according to the votes scored by NJ, was 75 percent liberal, compared with 87 percent for Mr. Brady and 86 percent for Mr. Doyle.
This is Ms. Schwartz's second bid for statewide office. In 2000, while still in the Legislature, she sought the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, losing to former U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, the only candidate from the western part of the state. While there were other candidates from the east in the 2000 race, Ms. Schwartz dominated the voting in her backyard, winning big in Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.
Demographic trends since suggest that those counties and their immediate neighbors will represent an even greater share of the Democratic votes at stake in 2014, with Ms. Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord and Katie McGinty, a former Department of Environmental Protection secretary, trying to stake a native claim to that support. All are residents of the Philadelphia suburbs.
So far, Ms. Schwartz and Mr. McCord have dominated the competition for early endorsements from unions and political insiders. Ms. Schwartz is backed by Emily's List and by her congressional colleague, Mr. Brady, who is the powerful chair of Philadelphia's Democratic Party Committee.
She's also supported by a variety of labor groups, including the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, several Teamsters locals and Philadelphia-based IBEW local 98, a traditionally influential group that accompanied its support with a $100,000 check.
Ms. Schwartz's polling strength rests heavily on her name recognition and popularity in her southeastern base, but, as some of her union support suggests, she has also has made inroads in the west.
One of her key early allies in the region is state Sen. Jay Costa, the leader of his chamber's Democratic caucus. Mr. Costa, who served with Ms. Schwartz in the Senate, describes her as the party's best shot to oust Mr. Corbett and argues that her presence on the November ballot would enhance the Democrats' chances of picking up Senate seats in her southeastern backyard, a region that he sees as the party's best opportunity for gains in the coming election cycle.
Mr. Costa said that while he has been doing what he can for Ms. Schwartz for months, he has held off on a formal endorsement in deference to the plans of a Democratic group of southwestern Pennsylvania elected officials who hope to endorse as a group. The informal alliance, which also includes Mr. Doyle, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Mayor-elect Bill Peduto, state Sen. Wayne Fontana and Rep. Frank Dermody, has discussed making a joint endorsement sometime early in the year.
Mr. Costa said he would be an advocate for his former colleague with that group, adding that he was not sure what course he would follow if they lined up behind one of her rivals.
Editor's note: Politics editor James O'Toole has been writing about the campaign preparations of the eight Democrats who plan to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election bid this year.
James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.