Philly House Race Among Tightest in Nation

It is certain that the 13th District in Pennsylvania will be electing a woman to Congress this November. The only thing up in the air is who that woman will be.

The Philadelphia-area race between Democratic state Sen. Allyson Schwartz (search) and Republican doctor Melissa Brown (search) is proving to be one of the tightest and possibly most expensive House races in the country.

"This race is not going to sneak up on anybody — it is going to be very competitive," said Nathan Gonzales, analyst for The Rothenberg Report, a political campaign handicapper.

Current 13th District Rep. Joseph Hoeffel (search), a Democrat, is challenging longtime GOP Sen. Arlen Specter (search) in November, leaving his current seat wide open to both parties.

Both of the women — experienced, accomplished, and heavily-supported — say they are the best fit for the district that lies in both urban Northeast Philadelphia and affluent, suburban Montgomery Country just outside the city. The area has a razor-thin Democratic registration advantage, but so far no clear favorite has emerged.

"This is a congressional seat that is very important to the state and the country," Schwartz told "I think I have the right policies and right experience to move us forward as a country."

While Schwartz may have the 14-year legislative record, Brown, an ophthalmologist, has run in this district before, and came close to Hoeffel in 2002, losing by fewer than 4 percentage points. She said she has nailed down the issues and made a reputation for herself, giving her campaign the edge.

"I think I did quite well (in 2002) and probably surprised a few people. I wasn’t surprised. I knew where we were going and what the issues were," she said. "I think I have an advantage running for that seat."

Both women won hard-fought primaries in May, though Schwartz was forced to spend nearly all of the $1.7 million she raised to beat narrowly her opponent, Joseph Torsella, a former aide to now-Gov. Ed Rendell.

Brown fared better, spending much less in the primary and reporting $425,321 in the bank as of May. She beat businessman Al Taubenberger and state Rep. Ellen Bard for the GOP nomination.

With the primaries finished, both parties are now lining up donors and spin machines to snag the seat, which the Democrats say should be theirs.

"This is definitely one we intend to compete in and win," said Kori Bernard, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"By anybody’s standard, it is the definition of a swing seat," said T.J. Rooney, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. "But when voters have a chance to compare their records … I think they’ll find Allyson Schwartz is head and shoulders above her opponent."

Bo Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign, does not dispute that this race will be one of the more contentious in the nation, but he has a different take on voter preference.

"[Melissa Brown] is going to win," he said. "There are a handful of open Democratic seats that we have a real shot at turning Republican and this is one of them."

After a career as health care provider and professor, Brown said she got into politics because of her disgust with the current health care system, including Medicare (search), insurance and malpractice (search) litigation. She said these are among the major issues for voters today, and plans to put her practice and expertise in "medical economics" to work.

"That’s why I am running — I think I have a great opportunity to run on the federal level," said Brown, who is a pro-choice Republican, backed by the moderate-supporting GOP Wish List (search).

"We think she is an excellent candidate with excellent credentials," said GOP Wish List President, Pat Carpenter.

But Democrats charge that Brown, 53, plays dirty, and pointed to her 2002 campaign in which she heavily criticized Hoeffel for supporting an expansion in low-income Section 8 (search) housing in northeastern Philadelphia.

Brown said she targeted Section 8 for criticism after widespread complaints by residents in city neighborhoods who had become disenchanted with a program they said was being abused by beneficiaries.

Many Section 8 beneficiaires are minorities, leading Brown's critics to charge that she had injected race and played on white fears. Brown's supporters say her efforts changed policy for the better and led to her strong showing in the polls.

Schwartz, 55, is also running on her record of health care advocacy. She began her career in the non-profit sector, helping to establish the Philadelphia Health Plan, which provided health coverage to poor city residents. She also helped to establish the Elizabeth Blackwell women's health center, the first of its kind in the city.

Schwartz said her service in the state Senate resulted in a children's health insurance model many states have since replicated.

The senator said she is going to underscore her opponents’ lack of experience, and run against the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq and the economy, which she claims Brown fully supports.

"This is a race where the Republican perspective and the Bush perspective are going to be a matter of concern," Schwartz said, noting that she represents, but not all of the district, in her state Senate seat. "These are very extraordinary times."

Brown agreed, but said she is not a water-carrier for the administration or the GOP. "Will I defend the policies of the president that I believe in? Yes. But there is no question that there are some that I disagree with," she said.

Both women have had high-profile assistance in recent weeks. Schwartz enjoys the endorsement of Hoeffel, who calls her "a tireless fighter for health care, children’s rights, and women’s rights." House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer made the campaign rounds with Schwartz in May, dubbing her an "extraordinarily effective" legislator.

On the flip side, First Lady Laura Bush was in town in June and lent support to Brown during a rally in the district. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt also threw his weight behind the campaign in recent weeks.

"She is dynamic, she has good name recognition," said Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania spokesman Josh Wilson. "We’re optimistic."

The 13th District went for former Vice President Al Gore over George W. Bush 51 percent to 47 percent in 2000 and gave Rendell a 2 to 1 win for the governor's seat in 2002. Both the Rothenberg Report and the Campaigns and Elections’ Political Oddsmaker give the Democrats a tilt in November – but just barely.

"It’s not like Schwartz is an unknown so we are preparing for a tight race in that district," Wilson said.