The ladies loom large, and they are in charge.
The growing political clout of Pennsylvania’s liberal women exploded into view earlier this month as three-term Democratic state Senate incumbent Daylin Leach lost his 17th District seat in an extraordinary suburban Philadelphia primary challenge.
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The victor: a progressive woman with scant electoral experience. Her victory margin: a whopping two-thirds of the vote to Leach’s one-third.
Amanda Cappelletti pulled off her June 2 primary win in the middle of a deadly pandemic that made voting a challenge, and during protests against racism and police brutality against blacks that had our region, and the nation, utterly transfixed.
Unlike Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who dethroned a powerful Democrat in an outsider upset two years ago in New York, Cappelletti’s bid was supported by both newcomer women to the party and establishment politicians who wanted Leach gone.
Much of her money and muscle, however, came from elected and activist suburban women who came roaring into politics after the shock of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. These women, now more than three years into Trump’s presidency, are the reinvigorated party organization they had sought to transform.
“There are some people, even today, who say it is not your time,” Cappelletti said as we shared an East Norriton park bench a few days ago to talk. “There are more people who are excited for the shake-up and the change.”
Cappelletti is a 33-year-old lawyer with $200,000 in student loan debt — and ambition. She is determined to restore the party to a place of moral conviction.
She is a workhorse. As policy director for Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania she learned the importance of relationships in Harrisburg. Like other women I’ve met who have become recently active in suburban Democratic Party politics, she is said to have a nuts-and-bolts focus on detail and strategy. Despite a low-key demeanor, she was fearless enough to take on a sitting state senator.
“She’s always giving me a hard time of ‘Where’s the spreadsheet?’” campaign manager J.T. Gillen said with a chuckle as my conversation with Cappelletti shifted toward these leadership qualities.
“I was always Type A,” Cappelletti added with a smile. “My mom will share with you a story about how I cried at getting a Check-Plus instead of Check-Plus-Plus in first grade.”
Cappelletti’s mother is a onetime supermarket clerk and Democrat. Her father, a Republican, used to work in concrete as a laborer. The moral code they passed on to her: Make sure you spend your life helping people.
She holds multiple advanced degrees but did not take a stab at politics until Trump won battleground Pennsylvania and, with it, the White House. She, like thousands I saw across the region, was galvanized by organizing rallies in 2017 and, eventually, ran for office herself.
That fall, Cappelletti won a seat on the East Norriton Board of Supervisors.
A year later, newcomer women in Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties and Philadelphia swept into state House and Senate seats by wiping out Republican incumbents and cutting into GOP majorities in both chambers. To name just a few: Katie Muth ousted Sen. John Rafferty in Collegeville; Maria Collett defeated retiring Sen. Stewart Greenleaf’s son; and Jennifer O’Mara defeated Rep. Alexander Charlton in longtime GOP stronghold Springfield, Delaware County.
As such women were storming the party, Leach came under fire for #MeToo allegations that he inappropriately touched female former staffers and made highly sexualized jokes. He denied the allegations and refused calls for his resignation — including from Gov. Tom Wolf in late 2017.
“I wanted him gone,” longtime Lower Merion Township-area State Rep. Mary Jo Daley told me this week. “He was not the only progressive in Harrisburg anymore. There are a lot of us. And he was difficult to work with.”
Leach has sued The Inquirer and one of its reporters over coverage of the allegations. The newspaper has stood by its reporting.
When I called Leach for this column, he said he would not be challenging the results but criticized Cappelletti for sending “negative” fliers about him that referenced the #MeToo issues he continues to say were groundless.
“This is what McCarthyism looks like,” Leach said.
In August 2019, an emissary from Montgomery County Democratic circles called Cappelletti to see if she’d be interested in chasing Leach’s seat.
“I probably walked a whole block going uh, agh, uh, to the person on the phone,” Cappelletti said as she remembered the call. “I said, ‘Give me 24 hours.’”
She ran it by her husband and then a mentor from her days at Temple Law School.
She said yes.
“A woman is asked seven to nine times more often than a man before she says yes to running for public office,” Cappelletti told me. “I decided I did not want to become a statistic.”
One look at her campaign finance reports will leave you gobsmacked by the power of Pennsylvania’s ascendant women in Cappelletti’s race.
Freshman Sen. Muth donated thousands of dollars. Fellow freshman Sen. Collett kicked in more than $15,000. Represent PA, a political action committee working exclusively to elect Democratic women to the overwhelmingly male state House, handed Cappelletti $10,000. (Wolf donated $25,000 through a PAC.)
Daley, 70, a veteran of the state’s male-dominated political world, had been the first elected official to publicly endorse Cappelletti. And while her candidate is favored to defeat Republican Ellen Fisher in November, there’s a broader message for party elders, she said.
“It tells the Democratic establishment that you have to be looking out for these young candidates," Daley said as we talked outside her Narberth home. “The ones who are not afraid to say things.”