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Schwartz-Torsella a tough choice for Dems

Tue, Apr. 20, 2004
Dave Davies
Philadelphia Daily News

IT'S A battle party leaders hoped to avoid, but Democrats in the 13th Congressional District will have to choose: Do they want the former boy wonder of Ed Rendell's City Hall team, or a veteran leader of Philadelphia liberals and feminists?

Former National Constitution Center President Joe Torsella and state Sen. Allyson Schwartz are battling in the April 27 primary for the Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel, who's running for U.S. Senate.

It's hard to find a lot of daylight between Torsella and Schwartz on major issues - they're both pro-choice Democrats running against President Bush's economic policies and tax cuts for the rich.

But there's a nasty undercurrent to the contest as partisans of both sides peddle unflattering stories of their rivals. Most have amounted to little in the way of media play. On the stump, the candidates talk about their experience.

Outside a Jenkintown Acme on a recent Saturday, Torsella leaned across shopping baskets to shake hands and offer a thumbnail resume.

"I was deputy mayor with Ed Rendell and I built the National Constitution Center in Center City," he said.

Speaking to voters at Congregation Beth Or in Springhouse, Schwartz emphasized her 14 years in Harrisburg.

"For four terms, I've been an independent leader who gets things done," she said.

The closest thing to a real issue has been Schwartz's residency. A Mount Airy resident who's long shopped for higher offices to run for, she didn't live in the district when she entered the race (there's no residency requirement for Congress).

Schwartz and her husband moved to Jenkintown, but they still own their Mount Airy home and Schwartz won't say whether the move is permanent.

"I think it really matters less to voters exactly which block you live on than whether in fact you can go there and fix the failed economic policies of the Bush administration," she said in a debate on WHYY-FM's "Radio Times."

Torsella doesn't attack Schwartz on the issue, but notes he lived in the district before and will "to the end of my days."

Both candidates can point to real accomplishments, even if they exaggerate around the edges.

Before running for office, Schwartz founded and ran the Elizabeth Blackwell Center, a family planning clinic. She built a reputation as a talented administrator.

After a stint in the city's Department of Human Services, Schwartz went to the state Senate, where she's become known as a persistent voice - some would say a pest - for liberal causes in a body long dominated by Republicans.

She touts her ability to get things done as a key difference from Torsella.

In a TV ad dubbed "delivers," Schwartz claimed to have created jobs and helped families "when companies moved away" and in "communities that fell on hard times."

The only evidence the ad presents is a headline about legislation Schwartz introduced. But it was never enacted, though the campaign says a piece of her proposals was picked up by community colleges.

Schwartz claimed to have "created" the state's Children's Health Insurance Program. Several people involved in the effort said while Schwartz was among the first to advocate the program, others including Gov. Bob Casey were instrumental in its passage.

And neighbors of a nuisance boarding home in Mount Airy said she was slow to respond to their pleas for help, jumping in after it became a TV news story. Schwartz's campaign points out that after she intervened, the boarding home was closed.

Marc Stier, president of the Mount Airy Neighbors Association said his group found Schwartz responsive and helpful on a number of issues.

Torsella was a Rhodes scholar who, at 27, became issues director on Rendell's 1991 mayoral campaign.

"I was by Ed Rendell's side when we solved the deficit like the one we have in Washington," Torsella says on the stump.

Indeed Torsella was Rendell's first deputy mayor for policy and planning, where he was known as bright and resourceful. Among his projects was a money-saving reform of the city's disability system.

The knock on Torsella is that he left after two years, while Rendell and others of his team soldiered on.

For the past six years, Torsella led the effort to build the National Constitution Center, which opened last year. He boasts of having worked with Congress effectively, bringing $60 million in federal funds to the project.

While board members praise Torsella's efforts, it helped that funding the center was a high priority of Mayor Rendell at a time when his friend Bill Clinton held the White House.

The center's opening ceremony briefly propelled Torsella into the headlines when he was hit by a collapsing stage prop. The concussion he got isn't his most serious health issue, though.

He was diagnosed about 10 years ago with multiple sclerosis.

"It's a condition a lot of people have, and it's manageable," Torsella said. "I take daily medicine that keeps it under control."

Torsella said the illness makes him a bit more tired than some people, and he occasionally gets numbness, tingling or double vision that requires treatment.

He said he doesn't miss work any more than most people and is fully up to the challenges of the campaign and office he seeks.

Both candidates bring enough political support to make the race competitive. Torsella's more centrist image may be a better fit than Schwartz's liberal reputation for Northeast Philadelphia, where two-thirds of the district's Democrats live. But ethnic identity will help Schwartz among Jewish voters in several wards.

Schwartz has a loyal following among politically active women, and her campaign is a priority of the national women's group, Emily's List.

That's one reason Schwartz has outpaced Torsella in fund-raising, a critical factor in a race where TV time is enormously expensive.

Emily's List donors have given Schwartz $358,000 and the organizations has sent mailings on her behalf.

Schwartz outspent Torsella by $700,000 as of an April 7 campaign report, and both camps had a little over $200,000 remaining.

Torsella has the active support of several members of Rendell's City Hall team, though the governor has remained neutral.

Schwartz has more union support, while Torsella has more Philadelphia committeepeople and ward leaders.

Copyright © 2004, Philadelphia Daily News