In a year when the politics of female empowerment is shaking up a slew of elections around the Philadelphia region, few if any candidates are going to have a #MeToo moment to relate to voters quite like Nina Ahmad, the former deputy mayor who’s accepted the maybe-not-impossible mission of ousting Philly Democratic boss and 20-year congressman Bob Brady in May’s Democratic primary.
The year was 1971, and Ahmad was a 12-year-old girl growing up in what would become Bangladesh, an emerging South Asian nation wracked by civil war, where Pakistani soldiers were committing acts of genocide and sexual assaults against women, including young girls.
“People ask, ‘Aren’t you afraid of taking on the (Democratic) machine?'” Ahmad told me this week from her sleek, under-furnished new campaign office hidden away in the heart of South Street. “Death has visited my door — rape, and being killed.” She said her mother cut her hair as short as possible and gave her a pile of boy’s clothes, shorts and T-shirts. “If the troops came,” her mom said, “‘go back with the chickens and get in the coop. If you can’t get in, tell them [the soldiers] that you’re a boy.”
Luckily for Ahmad, it never came to that — but she said she learned a lot about courage watching her fellow Bangladeshis fight for their independence. Over the next two decades, that young girl would come to America, earn an Ivy League degree, gain U.S. citizenship and finally a Ph.D. in chemistry — fitting, perhaps, because if you went into the lab to mix up the perfect credentials for a 2018 congressional candidate, it would surely resemble the 59-year-old Ahmad.
A trained medical researcher, in a year when Democrats hope to push back against GOP science denialism? Check. Impeccable feminist credentials for this new “Year of the Woman,” including a stint as chair of Philadelphia NOW? Check. An ultra-progressive platform, including supporting Medicare for All and universal college? Check. A candidate who can cope with the present disease of money in politics? Check — literally, as Ahmad and her husband have donated $450,000 to her campaign in order to credibly challenge a 10-term incumbent in Brady.
And yet, there’s something very different about this race in Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District — one of the nation’s poorest, snaking down the Delaware from Philly’s river wards to struggling Chester in Delaware County. While Ahmad is one of hundreds of first-time female candidates to emerge since America’s p-word-grabber-in-chief was elected president in 2016, she’s also waging this fight away from the perceived epicenter of that political earthquake, predominately white and upscale suburbs with high levels of education.
Both Ahmad and now at least one other woman — veteran Wells Fargo banker Michele Lawrence — have entered what’s become a chaotic, multi-candidate struggle for Brady’s seat, where the powerful longtime boss of one of America’s last urban political machines (albeit a creaky, Rube Goldberg-type machine that has limped into the 21st century) has historically faced little or no opposition. There are lingering questions about Brady’s role in a corruption scheme that’s seen two campaign aides indicted, and now questions about whether he’ll even stay in the race with the deadline for filing for the May 15 primary just a couple of months away.
But the more interesting question is this: Can the power of the #MeToo movement — which has taken down or at least dinged dozens of powerful men for a wide range of sexual misconduct and assault and turned out huge crowds for events like the 2017 Women’s March, with a big encore slated for Saturday — do its thing in a district where the stereotypical minivan-driving soccer mom is rare, but where female voters who take the bus to work two or even three backbreaking jobs to raise their kids are an untapped political force?
Ahmad makes a strong case that working-class and poverty-plagued women need to win the war against entrenched patriarchy more urgently than affluent females, who have the means to hire a lawyer and sue a male boss for sexual harassment. “These are women who have to suck it up and have been sucking it up for ages, because they don’t have the luxury to smack the man who’s been pawing them as they do their work,” she said, “because that’s one of the three jobs they have to keep so they can put food on the table.”
It’s hard not to believe that Democrats could ride a powerful wave election — strong enough to retake the U.S. House and even make real gains in Harrisburg — if they are smart enough to tap the energy of this tsunami. Spoiler alert: They may not be that smart. In Philadelphia, there are signs that the old-boy network is still around — and still into boys. In the First District, the hot rumor, as reported by my colleague Claudia Vargas, is that Brady is semi-secretly scheming to be replaced by a new man, Mayor Kenney’s labor aide, Richard Lazer, with possible support from a gaggle of dudes like the mayor and union poobah John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. Indeed, a sudden flood of candidates — including the laughable arrival of another machine hack, former Traffic Court judge and convicted criminal (two things which are practically synonymous in Philadelphia) Willie Singletary — feels like a ploy to avoid the one thing that would have terrified the Democratic machine, a one-on-one showdown between Brady and a highly qualified woman.
In the Seventh District, which borders Brady’s district in Delaware County before flapping out toward toward Lancaster like a bat on acid, the #MeToo movement has roiled the race to challenge GOP Rep. Pat Meehan in the fall. The once-presumed Democratic front-runner, State Sen. Daylin Leach, has stumbled because of — wait for it — sexual misconduct allegations. But with two intriguing female newcomers in the race — Molly Sheehan and Elizabeth Moro — party bigwigs in D.C. are looking right past them, floating replacement candidates who just happen to be men.
In other words, Pennsylvania’s mostly male Democratic political bosses seem to have been sleeping in a dark man-cave these last 15 months. Of course, one could ask if it matters whether the city’s dominant political party puts up a male or female candidate. Of course it does. During his two-decade run, Brady has devoted himself to a virtually Trumpian, macho “art of the deal,” making headlines for getting involved in thorny labor talks. But the fact that Philadelphia has the highest rate of deep poverty of any major U.S. city has seemed barely on the radar screen of the man who’s been repping its poorest neighborhoods all this time.
“The silence around these issues is a betrayal of the people,” said Ahmad, who noted — as have others before her — that it’s “reprehensible” that Pennsylvania’s 18-member House delegation is all-male, which she believes neuters the state’s representatives in effectively fighting the so-called Republican war on women.
Yet the conventional wisdom — which also tends to be spouted mostly by, ahem, men — is that Brady, if he runs again, will be hard to beat. He’s used every trick in the book to hold onto power, including supporting a state map of gerrymandered congressional districts in 2011-12 that helped Republicans everywhere else but supposedly also enabled Brady by keeping neighborhoods like Fishtown — a blue-collar Irish American bastion when the congressman was coming up in Philadelphia politics in the 1970s and ’80s — in his district.
In 2018, diverse, hip, college-educated Fishtown looks a lot more like Nina Ahmad than Bob Brady. The only safe prediction about Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District this spring is that this will be one of the most interesting elections in America. And it won’t be a total shock if Philly’s Democratic boss wakes up on May 16 with Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes burning in his ear. “Time’s up.”