Thomas Fitzgerald: Philadelphia-area Democrats salivate over an open U.S. House seat

Allyson Schwartz’s likely challenge to Corbett would create a rare open House seat.

If Allyson Schwartz chooses to challenge Corbett, interest is high in her 13th District House seat.

  • Philadelphia has not had the prospect of an open House seat since 2002, when Democrat Bob Borski decided not to seek reelection.
  • Sixty percent of registered voters in the newly configured 13th District are Democrats.

Since politics abhors a vacuum more than nature does, the likelihood that U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz will run for governor next year has created a Schuylkill Expressway-style ambition jam among Democrats who covet her 13th District seat.

"I've heard everybody but me is interested," said State Rep. John Sabatina Jr. of Northeast Philadelphia, who plans to stay put.

Philadelphia has not had the prospect of an open House seat since 2002, when Democrat Bob Borski decided not to seek reelection after the decennial reapportionment merged his mostly Northeast Philadelphia district into the 13th in Montgomery County. And city-based Democratic U.S. Reps. Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady have seats for life if they want them.

"There's a bottleneck of politicians that should be moving up the ladder but are stuck," as one Democratic strategist put it. "A ton of pressure has built."

Everyone is quick to praise Schwartz and, in the argot of the game, to "respect Allyson's timetable," but make no mistake: The campaign to succeed her is engaged. At least 10 wannabes are weighing their chances, talking to power brokers, and soliciting financial pledges.

So far, they're all Democrats, as it was intended. Republican legislators who redrew the congressional map in 2011 packed Schwartz's district with Democrats, taking in most of Northeast Philadelphia and inner-ring suburbs of Montgomery County. Republican areas were distributed to strengthen three GOP incumbents. The upshot: 60 percent of registered voters in the newly configured 13th are Democrats.

The Republican strategy was to create a few very Democratic districts and concede them while giving the GOP a fighting chance to win more districts, albeit by smaller margins.

It worked. Republicans won 13 of 18 Pennsylvania districts last fall even as they lost the statewide aggregate U.S. House vote, 2.8 million to 2.7 million. GOP winners averaged 59 percent of the vote, compared with 76 percent for the five Democrats who won.

The race to succeed Schwartz could hinge on geography. Montgomery County has owned the seat in the past, but on the new map, 52 percent of the district's registered Democrats reside in Northeast Philadelphia.

Democrat Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Montgomery County commissioners, who is not commenting but has made no secret of his desire to be governor someday, is being touted as a potential successor to Schwartz. He worked on Capitol Hill before serving in the legislature and winning his county post.

State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) has already hired a strategist, a pollster, and a media consultant for the congressional race. "I'm not afraid to take unpopular positions," said Leach, a sponsor of bills to legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage.

Leach once worked as a comedian. Perhaps he'll trade quips with former Philadelphia Controller Jonathan Saidel, well-liked among Democratic Party activists and known for his borscht belt-style wisecracks. "There may be better ways than comedy to vet congressional candidates, but I can't think of any," said Democratic strategist David Dunphy.

State Rep. Brendan Boyle of the Northeast has expressed interest, too, as has State Sen. LeAnna Washington of Philadelphia. State Sen. Mike Stack, also of the Northeast, wants to be governor but also gets buzz as a potential candidate for Congress. (He says he is not interested.) He already represents a big swath of the 13th District.

Others mentioned include: State Reps. Madeleine Dean and Mary Jo Daley of Montgomery County; State Rep. Ed Neilson of Northeast Philadelphia; Mark Levy, the Montgomery County prothonotary; and Valerie A. Arkoosh, a physician and Democratic activist.

And recently, Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Green's name surfaced. He has set his sights on the mayor's office, but his father and grandfather represented the city in the House. "I would love to serve in Congress . . . but that's not where I am headed now," Green said in a statement.

If he changes his mind, he can join the crowd.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald.