Six days from now, if the Trump administration doesn’t put a last-minute legal kibosh on it, Mary Gay Scanlon of Swarthmore will publicly cross-examine special counsel Robert Mueller about whether the president of the United States committed crimes worthy of impeachment.
This will come five months after she mercilessly grilled then-acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker. One month after the comedian Jon Stewart lacerated Congress before her committee over the health of 9/11 responders. And only months, overall, since this citizen of the Philadelphia suburbs was a public interest lawyer with little to no public profile.
Talk about the table-turning consequences of last year’s sweeping victories by Democrats in congressional elections: They’ve rocket-boosted Scanlon from a low-key citizen-lawyer from Delaware County into a freshman Democrat steeped in oversight during one of the most tumultuous political eras in U.S. history.
I asked to spend some time with Scanlon to check in on the wild ride. We met, one on one, just before her 16-hour days would bleed into a Fourth of July respite. Last time we’d met, last May, the then- Ballard Spahr lawyer was in a 10-person Democratic primary scrum for Republican Pat Meehan’s formerly gerrymandered seat. By November, she and three other victorious women from east of Harrisburg — all Democrats — had made history, blasting through the all-male ceiling that had kept women out of Pennsylvania’s House delegation for years.
Since these women aren’t firebrands, there has been little attention paid to their extraordinary first year. I thought to put an end to that.
Scanlon, with little press, angled for and won the number-two job on the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Judiciary is leading the effort to scrub the Trump administration with legal Brillo. Judiciary is vetting the Mueller report into election tampering and other tawdry maneuvers that helped the heir to a real estate fortune win the White House in 2016.
Under subpoena, Mueller agreed to appear before the committee next week.
“On the 17th, allegedly,” Scanlon said, referencing the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to thwart testimony all year. “I don’t bank on anything.”
She and I were at a table at the Inn at Swarthmore the afternoon of July 3. Her tone on the Mueller revelations was terse but disdainful — that of an attorney who can smell a con a mile away.
“If the administration can throw a monkey wrench in it," she said of Mueller’s promised testimony, "they will.”
Funny how just a few days later, news broke that Trump’s Justice Department has been trying to discourage Mueller’s top deputies from testifying next week (in their case, privately) before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.
Scanlon, who read the entirety of the Mueller report the weekend after it was released, said she became more convinced than ever that grave crimes were committed and that Americans, owing to the report’s intimidating length and the Twitter spin cycle, do not grasp just how awful its contents are. She has led her party in calling for an impeachment inquiry, despite being a pragmatist at heart.
And Mueller, in the meantime she hoped, would stay the course.
“A subpoena has been issued for him to come. He needs to come. And he’s agreed to come, and has negotiated conditions under which he is to appear. I would expect him to come,” Scanlon said. “Unlike the administration, he is a rule follower. He’s kind of Joe Friday, just the facts and by-the-book. I think his struggle with this whole situation has been the same that those of us who are trying to exercise traditional oversight have, which is that this administration doesn’t play by the rules.”
As a pro bono lawyer, Scanlon spent years working on voting rights, immigration, and other public policy cases nationally. For that reason, the learning curve in Congress has been manageable.
She also quickly made the relationships needed to get onto Judiciary. She did so with help from chief of staff Roddy Flynn, whom she describes as “super-progressive, aligned with my values — but not a bomb thrower, which is kind of me.”
She represents a Fifth Congressional District redrawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a gerrymandering ruling early last year. It’s got progressives, moderates, and conservatives, with much of Delaware County and parts of Philadelphia. (The district it replaced had excluded Swarthmore to keep its progressive voters from throwing the district to anyone but Meehan.)
Scanlon says a primary challenge is likely next year from her party’s more progressive wing. But Scanlon can’t ignore her obligation to blue-collar Dems in the district: She has worked long hours trying to save thousands of threatened jobs at the Boeing Chinook helicopter plant in Ridley Township, the Sunoco refinery that caught fire a few weeks ago in Philadelphia, and Aker Philadelphia Shipyard.
When she showed up for our meeting, I asked Scanlon if I could greet her with a hug rather than a handshake. “Working mom to working mom,” I said. Here was a woman with three grown children, and she was at the table of power in bro-heavy Washington.