New Pennsylvania suburban Democrats expect party clout. Will the women get it?

Tara Pellegrino, a newly elected school board member from Warminster, is one of the new breed. “Democratic Party voters don’t want to hear watered-down propaganda,” says Pellegrino, with son Giovanni.

If they haven’t already, leaders of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party might want to put the champagne down. Their shotgun wedding to a coterie of new-to-the-system Democrats could be at risk of a nasty Vegas hangover.

Reality Check No. 1: The Trump-incensed mob of Democratic upstarts who delivered historic turnout and unseated Republicans in counties and municipalities across the voter-rich Philadelphia suburbs in November look nothing like the mostly baby-boomer men who have led the party for years.

Reality Check No. 2: The upstarts are in no mood to start taking top-down orders from them, either.

Newbies gave the state’s flaccid party youthful vitality thanks to people like Tara Pellegrino of Warminster and the largely women who ran for local office and won as Democrats last fall.  Because of them and the psyched voters behind them, the party may now have a shot at high-enough turnout to win Republican congressional seats this fall.

Camera icon WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer
Tara Pellegrino, newly elected Democratic school board member in Bucks County, says the party needs to listen to the newcomers who want it to move to the left of center. 

But will the party give these newcomers a seat at the table when picking primary candidates? Will it move its policy priorities and rhetoric sharply to the left, as some of these women insist? Will it deliver a unifying economic message for everyone — or just keep dishing out muddled, middle-of-the-road platitudes while it searches for a cohesive, winning identity?

The way Tara sees it — and who can really argue with her? — the party has no choice but to change its ways. And grow a backbone.

She thinks the party doesn’t make it easy enough for a diverse group of people to run for office, even though the ultimate outsider, Donald Trump, just showed everyone you can win bigly without decades of genuflecting to party chieftains.

Tara also thinks the party is too preoccupied with polls that size up “electability.” [The only reason she got the nod to run, she says, was that no one else was interested. She ended up flipping a Republican school board seat in Bucks County.]

Now that she’s won as a Democrat in the predominantly Republican Centennial School District, Tara says she — and many others who ran and won last year — expect more than lip service from her party in return.

They want clout over how the party redefines itself.

“We’re missing people that are willing to get rid of the party line and do what they need to do to help everybody,” Tara told me as we spent a few minutes in her Warminster kitchen Friday morning before she rushed out the door, before dawn, to take her son to school and get herself to work in Chester County.

 

Camera icon WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer
Tara Pellegrino rushed to take her son, Giovanni, to school and herself to work as a Spanish teacher on Friday. The newly elected Democrat on Centennial School Board is pictured here with her son at their home in Warminster, Bucks County.

She’s among a fairly young group of renegades at the battle front. Young, at least, when compared with the septuagenarians and octogenarians whose grip on congressional incumbency symbolizes just how much Democratic Party leaders can blame themselves for the party’s failure to pass the torch.

Tara is 33.

She has an Ivy League education but is a single mom who gets by on three jobs because she has no great financial pedigree and unpaid student loans. I interviewed her inside the $400-a-month rowhouse she calls home — a tiny house that used to be part of a cluster of modest housing built for U.S. soldiers.

Raised by Bucks County Republicans — her dad was a former Doylestown Township mayor — she embraced the Democratic Party as an undergrad at Penn.

But she is no party soldier. She voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary and Hillary Clinton only after he’d been knocked out by intraparty machinations. When Trump eventually won, she got moving.

She chartered a bus to take a crew to the Women’s March in Washington last January. Did it with her own money. Soon enough, she’d become a regional organizer for the march. Then, candidate for school board.

Camera icon JAMES CREIGHTON / Centennial School Board
Second from left is Tara Pellegrino, after being sworn in as a new Democrat on the overwhelmingly Republican Centennial School Board in Bucks County on Dec. 4.

On Jan. 13, she planned to spend the day in  Philadelphia for her first-ever training session for women seeking higher political office.

She thinks voters — even the working-class men who abandoned the Democrats for Trump — would embrace a crackling Democratic message if it identified a single enemy: corporate interests.

“Democratic Party voters don’t want to hear watered-down propaganda,” she says.

She and the other women are, in effect, the Democratic succession plan that the party never bothered to craft for itself. They’re being stuffed down the old guard’s throat. Now the question is: Can they fall in love?