Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Meet Mary Gay Scanlon, the education advocate and Ballard lawyer running for Congress | #PA5

We asked her about everything from pot to Comcast to whether Nancy Pelosi should be Speaker if Democrats win back the U.S. House.

Mary Gay Scanlon is a Democrat running in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is based in Delaware County.
Mary Gay Scanlon is a Democrat running in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is based in Delaware County.Read moreCAMPAIGN PHOTO

The single most crowded primary for Congress in all of Pennsylvania is in our back yard: There are no fewer than 10 Democrats running for the Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but also includes a chunk of Philadelphia.

How is a voter supposed to make up their mind with such a dizzying array of choices? As it turns out, many haven't: About a quarter of the electorate isn't sure who to support on May 15th, according to recent surveys.

To help you out, we requested interviews with all the candidates. Eight agreed to speak with us; two did not respond to our request. We quizzed the hopefuls on everything from marijuana to the federal budget deficit to whether Nancy Pelosi should be Speaker if Democrats win back the U.S. House.

Our first interview in this series is with Mary Gay Scanlon, a member of the Wallingford-Swarthmore school board and leader of the pro-bono program at the Ballard Spahr law firm. On the campaign trail, she has vowed to take on the NRA, backed universal pre-K, and talked about her experience fighting for disabled students and refugees as a lawyer.

Scanlon, 58, is seen as a leading candidate in the race. The Swarthmore resident has won the endorsement of the Inquirer's editorial board and placed first in internal polls conducted on behalf of her campaign and others. She has also received the backing of former Gov. Ed Rendell and Comcast senior executive V.P. David L. Cohen, as well as substantial financial support from other Ballard attorneys.

Our interview with Scanlon has been lightly edited for clarity.

Seven Quick Facts About Scanlon’s Agenda:

  1. Her plan to create jobs: Make college more affordable, expand vocational education, pass immigration reform

  2. On a $15 minimum wage: Supports it "as a goal, but I do think we need to be careful and probably stage it"

  3. Student loan debt: Forgive some debt; refinance other debt at lowest possible rate

  4. Marijuana: Supports decriminalization

  5. National jobs guarantee: "I'd want to see more details"

  6. Super PACs: They're "creating a huge problem"

  7. The budget deficit: To reduce it, roll back Trump's tax cuts to wealthy, developers

Why are you running for Congress? It has to do with the work I've been doing forever representing women and kids and public schools and immigrants and folks in the criminal justice system. And just all of that work feels like it's under attack with this administration, particularly the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. So I am running to continue doing that work, just in a new forum.

What are the biggest accomplishments of your career? Probably the biggest, widest impact has to do with work with public education, so whether it's — I was on a school board for a couple terms out in Wallingford-Swarthmore. So we did a lot of work there with respect the program, with respect to nutrition, with respect to sustainability and just a whole array of issues and providing good public education. But I am just as proud of the work I've done with city schools: Ben Franklin and Constitution High and giving opportunities to children in the city who might not otherwise have those opportunities, so trying to support education in a variety of contexts. So that's a big bucket, and then in terms of cases that I've handled or been involved in with [at Ballard's] pro bono program — literally saving lives. I mean we have handled the Daniel Dougherty case for the last 14, 15 years and that's a man who'd been sentenced to death and is now not on death row and now has a new trial coming up and the other one is Hawa Salih, who's a human rights activist from Darfur who we helped obtain asylum, and if she had been sent back to Sudan, she probably would not be alive right now. And instead she's here and still being an advocate for her people.

A recent report found that most Americans can't afford an $1,000 emergency. Wages have been stagnating for the middle class, and income inequality is high. What is your plan to create jobs and raise wages? So I'm afraid with me the answers always come back to education. I mean doing a better job with education, expanding opportunities for vocational and technical education because we've neglected that in recent years. And with respect to higher education, making sure that it's more affordable. So those kind of give people, all those three things give people a better launching pad to give people better jobs in the first place. Then we need to work on retaining for areas of the economy where jobs have changed. We're now in a global economy and we need people to help people be prepared for jobs of the future, so, you know, installing solar panels as opposed to bringing back coal.

We need to raise the minimum wage, but we need to be mindful of inflation and the impact of small businesses, so I would favor a gradual increase in the minimum wage, but we absolutely have to raise the minimum wage because … $7.25 is just not a livable wage. And there's a report out today from the Women's Law Project here about the extremely disparate impact on women of having such a low minimum wage and particularly the tipped wage limit, which I think is $2.38 and the fact that most people who receive that tipped wage are women are therefore their wages are even further suppressed. …

Eds, meds and tech have been driving the Philadelphia economy, so we need to keep investing in those jobs, research with our universities and our medical institutions, the tech boom that seems to be happening here with the development at Comcast and at Drexel and up on N3RD Street, North Third Street, so helping those small entrepreneurs succeed. We've been doing a lot of work at the firm I'm with now with respect to helping small entrepreneurs and helping them get set up and having capital for them to begin their businesses and get up and running. I think we need to look at whether we can develop portable benefits for the gig economy, so that people can switch jobs more readily without having to worry about losing health care [and] retirement funding. So those are some of the things I'm interested in. Also development at the port and infrastructure because I think for every $1 million you invest, you get, I'm trying to remember, 25,000 new jobs. So deepening the new port for Panamax ships, investing in our highways and bridges, which are going to bring jobs but then also decrease the cost for small businesses, which will make them able to hire more people.

I think all those are part of the equation as are removing barriers to employment and that would include immigration reform so that we don't have so many people who cannot obtain jobs because of their immigration status or they're forced into darkness and the underground economy. We need to work on criminal justice reforms so that people who return from incarceration are more employable and just in terms of women's health care, and reproductive rights, making sure women have access to reproductive health care so they can be in charge of when they have children and do not have children and that we have adequate, that we have affordable and available child care and pre-K, pre-school so women can work as well as men since they end up usually providing the majority of child care.

You said you support raising the minimum wage. What do you want to raise it to? I support the $15 minimum wage as a goal, but I do think we need to be careful and probably stage it so we don't spur inflation. I mean the good news is that New York and other states are already experimenting with that, so we're going to have some good data on how it's working. Certainly it's encouraging that in New York it has not caused … the kinds of horror stories that were predicted.

Talk about your foreign policy positions. Do you see yourself an interventionist, an isolationist, none of the above, or somewhere in between? I think my focus has been primarily on human rights because of the immigration work that I've done, and working with asylees and refugees, from whether it's Syria or South Central America. I do think that the U.S. has a role to play there. So that's been my primary focus to date. I'm definitely not an isolationist. That's just not the way the world works anymore. You can't be an isolationist. It's not realistic. I am concerned about all of the cuts to foreign aid and the State Department because I think that is probably the best foreign policy that we have, is to know what's going on in the world, work with people in the world. I'm particularly distressed by the elimination of the efforts to work with women around the world, whether it's on education or on birth control or other things that are going to improve women's conditions because that then universally improves the conditions for their children.

What's your position on President Trump's strikes on Syria? I think that foreign policy should not be conducted as though it were a reality show, that tweeting a teaser that you're gong to bomb someone is probably not the best use of foreign policy and wrapping it up with a "mission accomplished" when there's no long-term strategy is a bad idea.

What is your position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how to end it? That's a big question, but I want to get a sense of how you think about it. I think that it's incredibly complicated and, again, it's more nuanced than tweets and unilateral declarations. It's certainly stymied people with far more foreign policy experience than I have. I just want to look at it carefully with respect to, and have respect for, the different viewpoints and experiences in the region and what's realistic.

Let's say it's 2019. The Democrats have taken back control of the U.S. House, and Nancy Pelosi and Tim Ryan are running against each other for Speaker. Who do you vote for? I have a ton of respect for Nancy Pelosi and the work that she's done, particularly with respect to passage of the Affordable Care Act. I think I'm … going to have to say that it's going to depend on who are all the candidates at this time and what are the circumstances at that time. I do think, as a whole, the Democrats need to cultivate the next generation and I think they would be best served by leveraging Nancy Pelosi's skills to help bring along the next generation. And I'm just not sure what that's going to look like in a year and a half.

John Paul Stevens, a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, has called for the Second Amendment to be repealed. Where do you stand on that idea? And can you talk generally about your views on gun laws? So I certainly understand Justice Stevens' frustration with the way the Second Amendment is being used as a weapon, literally, against the country. Because I do think it's more nuanced than an absolute right to bear arms. The fact is that until the 2008 decision by Justice Scalia, there was no individual right to bear arms in this country. That was a reversal of nearly 200 yrs of jurisprudence, and I think that was a misreading of the First Amendment. That being said, Justice Scalia's decision did leave room to regulate weapons and certainly the types of weapons and the purposes in which they could be used and ammunition and such. So I do think there's room to legislate, lots of room to legislate common-sense gun legislation, and I would like to do that.

As I said, I'm sympathetic with Justice Stevens about the need to just outright repeal the Second Amendment when it is being used to justify actions and conduct that actually imperil large sections of our population. But I think it's probably not very realistic. I grew up in a family that had hunters and veterans and I was trained to shoot a shotgun as a teenager, and in fact have shot skeet. So my sister is an Army veteran and she is a hunter, so I understand there is room for responsible gun ownership and use in this country. What I don't think there is room for is irresponsible conduct and ownership that imperils the rest of the country.

I'm in favor of many of the proposals put forward by the Giffords Law project: closing background loopholes, banning assault weapons and large magazines. I would really like to explore further the "red flag" proposals hat would allow the seizure of guns from people who appear to be an imminent risk to themselves or to others. Because we talk a lot about the mass shootings and and the red flags that were missed in the case of the Parkland shooter, but 60 percent of the gun violence deaths from our country come from suicide. And often people are aware that there are issues with those folks, and if there were an opportunity to intervene with due process to help people who may be in an extreme situation, then I think we should try to do that.

We asked our readers to submit questions to the Fifth District congressional candidates. Here is one: Is your campaign staff unionizedNo, my campaign staff is not unionized. We've been up and running for something like eight or nine weeks. There has not been an opportunity. However, the staff is getting at least minimum wage of $15 an hour. It's higher, though. I know we checked and made sure it was at least that. We also have posted HR rules so people know the chain of command and can bring any complaints to a variety of different people so that we're trying to run a responsible, worker-friendly campaign in an extremely foreshortened campaign cycle.

I also have to say that as a candidate — I'm not a first-time candidate, but certainly as a first-time candidate in anything of this magnitude — that I'm not sure who's in charge here, because I do find myself bossed around most of the time by people who are between 22 and 26 yrs old [laughs].

On your website, you say some student loans should be forgiven, while other student debt should be refinanced at the lowest rate possible. How would you decide when one option is appropriate and the other isn't? Would it include means testing? So right off the bat, I think we need to look at the whole student loan system in general so that we are not incentivizing profit. We shouldn't be getting profit off of student loans. The goal, the primary, overarching goal, should be to provide education as widely as possible, secondary education — having our students pay the same rates as banks or the Fed, the lowest possible rate. I'm really, really concerned about the moves that have been taken under the Devos Department of education to roll back protections from predatory debt collection practices by student loan providers, particularly when the loans are attached to for-profit universities, where we've seen that often the students don't get enhanced value from having attended those programs. There's a really good statement put out a couple days ago from the Leadership Conference about the principles that need to be included in the Higher Ed Act Reauthorization, so making sure we have accountability systems to ensure that students get value from the higher education, excluding the for-profit colleges from financial aid unless they can demonstrate value, protecting the student loan borrowers. So that's part of it, is just working on the initiation and who to collect.

I'd like to see wider use of loan forgiveness for students who end up going into public service. So there's a little bit of that, although again the Trump administration is trying to roll it back with respect to the one I'm most familiar with, which is people becoming public defenders or legal aid lawyers, so they commit to going into that profession, which are low-paying jobs, which are very, very important to the communities. I'd like to see expansion of that so that people who take public service jobs where they're not going to earn as much and it's going to make it more difficult for them to repay student loans that it can be forgiven, like public school teachers, doctors for rural areas. I think that's a huge benefit to society if we can subsidize folks going into those areas.

What's your position on the free-college proposals out there? I think it's great, but it's not as easy as just saying it. Because most of the colleges and community colleges are actually run by the states, so I think those proposals usually need more development. Doing a better job with Pell grants, doing a better job with federal funding is one thing, but I think it's difficult for the federal government to declare that everybody's going to get free college education, free community college education, if the federal government doesn't actually run those institutions.

Do you agree with Nancy Pelosi, who said that Democrats can be pro-life? Or do you agree with Tom Perez, who said "every Democrat" should support abortion rightsI think the Democratic tent has been pretty big. I think I'd probably lean toward Nancy Pelosi's position, in part because I grew up with a large Irish Catholic family in which there was a lot of dissent on that very issue and most of them were Democrats. … I am pro-choice. I agree the Democratic Party is a big tent, but personally I support pro-choice candidates.

You've talked about who you've represented as part of Ballard Spahr's pro bono program. Some Democrats have argued that you should answer for the other clients Ballard has represented, in particular the University of Pennsylvania as it has opposed graduate students' efforts to unionizeWhat's your response to that? And where do you stand on the question of whether graduate students should be allowed to unionize? So first of all, obviously that's not the work that I've done. I don't participate in the fee-generating work of the law firm. My work is exclusively in the pro bono realm, which means by definition means I'm representing or coordinating representation of people who are at or near the poverty level or civil-rights or other public-interest causes. So I, actually, until this was raised in some of the online forums, had no knowledge that that work was going on, because I've been very occupied with the work I do. It is sort of the nature of a law firm: It's a law firm that has 650 lawyers and 15 different offices, so there's a lot of different work going on and some of the work that I do is not universally embraced by the lawyers who work here. People have different viewpoints. So we represent a lot of people who are in the criminal justice system for a variety of reasons and there's far from universal agreement about that representation.

My understanding is, with respect to the graduate students, that they did not pursue their request to unionize for whatever reason, but I just don't have enough information. I was not involved with that. Personally, I'm a supporter of labor rights. I understand how important it is. My mother and sister were members of the teachers' union and I personally am probably very much a beneficiary of the post-war boom and kind of the standards that had been set in this country by unions for things like pensions and fair pay and benefits and vacations and that kind of thing. So I do see that we've had serious shrinking of the middle class as labor rights have been eroded or as people have maybe become a little bit complacent about the role of unions and have taken for granted some of the benefits that they've brought.

You said you don't have enough information about the details at Penn to weigh in. But do you want to weigh in on the general topic — do you support the unionization of grad students generally? You know, I just haven't looked at it that much. As a general matter, yes, I would support their right to organize and collectively bargain.

What is your position on President Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum and other products? And where do you stand on free trade versus trade protectionism generally? As a general matter, I think we need to have fair trade because free trade is pretty much a one-way street and, again, it's a global economy and you just can't operate that way. I think we've seen his efforts to increase tariffs in those sectors have led to pain in other parts of the economy. And certainly the Chinese and others are not stupid about that. They very promptly tried to start inflicting a trade war on those areas of the country where Trump supporters were most likely to live. So I think we have to be very careful in that arena.

What is your position on the national jobs guarantee that Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to unveil, and that others like Sen. Cory Booker have expressed support for? It has been described as "a plan for the federal government to guarantee a job paying $15 an hour and health-care benefits to every American worker 'who wants or needs one.'" I think there's going to have to be an awful lot of questions about the details. I know full employment has been a goal of the U.S. government since 1978 or so, but that's a pretty difficult guarantee to offer. So I'd want to see more details about how it was going to be achieved. It sounds more like a goal than an actual guarantee.

What is your position on legalizing recreational or medical marijuana? We definitely need to decriminalize, and it looks like we're moving toward legalizing recreational marijuana. We certainly don't want to be jailing people as has been the practice. And I completely disagree with Attorney General Sessions' approach. I remain concerned about children, as I am concerned about use of any addictive substances or medical-type substances by kids and wanting to make sure we want to protect young minds and young health.

This another question proposed by a reader: Should we be concerned about the size of the federal budget deficit? If we should, what specific revenue increases and/or spending decreases would you support? Yes. I think we need to start by rolling back … the recent tax gifts to corporations and the wealthy. I would probably start first with the corporate tax reduction. That should not have been as large as it was. I would really like to roll back the gifts, the tax cuts for real estate developers. I think that was about $360 billion, and we know who the most prominent recipient of that is: the guy in the White House.

What is your position on super PACs? Should they be involved in this congressional race? No. In this race? No. Obviously super PACs are creating a huge problem with our democracy. We do need campaign finance reform. I certainly knew that before I got into this race, but the pain of having to raise enough money to be a legitimate candidate or a competitive candidate has only reinforced that. The fact that super PACs can provide unlimited dark money really skews our democracy and we need to change that.

Republicans passed a sweeping tax bill last year. What would your ideal tax legislation look like? I think it would share pain and benefit more equally … more progressively … across the country, so that it would have more emphasis on helping lower-income and middle-class families, and that's not what we recently got. I mean the fact is, if we're going to do the kinds of things we need for investing in our people, investing in our infrastructure, we need revenue to do that. Having a lot of debt undermines the country's ability to do that. So I think everyone needs to feel some pain, but we've inflicted too much pain at this point on lower- and middle-income taxpayers. We certainly have seen time and time again that trickle-down economics does not in fact work, and if we give tax breaks to anyone, it should be people who are going to use those tax breaks to put money right back into the economy, that giving all the tax breaks to corporations and high-wealth individuals does not in fact create jobs or grow the economy.

Do you support impeaching President Trump? If Robert Mueller comes up with an investigation report that provides hard evidence, absolutely. And there's certainly enough smoke out there that I wouldn't be surprise if the Mueller report does that. But in the interest of our democracy, we need to make sure that we have hard facts and a solid case before we embark on something as disruptive and extraordinary as impeachment.

What percentage of your staff and advisers is women and people of color? I think it's about 60 to 65 percent are women, and that's been a priority of my campaign. Because one of the things that got me into this race, and one of the things I've been working on for the last several years, is trying to encourage, promote, help get more women get elected, and in addition to fundraising for them, you have to have more women working on campaigns. … In terms of people of color, about 25 percent maybe.

Comcast senior executive V.P. David L. Cohen held a fundraiser for you. Ed Rendell, who was his former chief-of-staff, is also supporting you and appears in your TV ad. How would you remain independent from Comcast? Do you think it's important to do so? So Rhonda and David Cohen have been friends with my husband and I since we all graduated from law school within a year or two of each other. We all worked together and had children together. They passed on their baby clothes to us. So this is a relationship that goes back decades, so I don't consider myself to have a relationship with Comcast. I do happen to be friends with Rhonda and David Cohen, and that's just a longstanding personal relationship.

With Ed Rendell, when I graduated from law school, about six months after I graduated, I trained with the Support Center for Child Advocates, which is a group that trains lawyers to represent children in the abuse and neglect system, and he started that program when he was in the D.A.'s Office. So … I think I first met him when I was in law school just through law school things, but I've known him and his former wife Judge Rendell, Midge Rendell, who I worked with at another law firm, since the '80s. And I worked with both of them on issues involving child welfare and education and particularly civics education. Judge Rendell and I worked with Constitution High School, which is a magnet school, not a charter school, in Philadelphia for the last 12 years to help kids from throughout the city become more engaged in civics in the city. So, again, it's a longstanding personal relationship with the Rendells and with the Cohens that has led to their support for my campaign.

You are married to the chairman of Ballard Spahr, and have received numerous donations from Ballard attorneys. How would you remain independent from the law firm? I will approach service as a congresswoman the same way that I have approached pro bono work and education advocacy, with the highest of ethical standards to serve the needs of my clients first. If elected, my sole obligation will be to represent the constituents of the Fifth Congressional District and to honor the oath of office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The last question is from a reader: How would you deal with the most pressing public health issue right now — opioids and overdose deaths? Do you support safe-injection sitesUnfortunately, like just about everybody anymore, it seems, I've had a family member who's been touched by the opioid crisis. I have a nephew who only about eight months ago got out of jail because he became a heroin addict and ran into repeated legal trouble and was unable to get treatment when he was ready to get treatment, or wasn't able to get sufficient treatment. So I'm relieved he's in recovery now and he is out of jail now, and I talked with him and with providers about what to do. So based on that experience and those conversations, I think we need to limit the harm that is being done for those who are in active addiction at this point, so that would include making Narcan more available and providing for safe injection sites because that way at least you're limiting the harm.

Then we need to do a better job providing treatment options, whether it's making beds or treatment facilities more available, and I've certainly worked with clients here who were also unable to get relatives into treatment when the relative was ready for it or were only able to access treatment that was seriously substandard, so making sure that there are beds, making sure medically assisted treatment is available and then making sure that insurance will cover it, because too many times folks cannot get the insurance to cover treatment or they don't get enough treatment, so that it's far too short. And then the last thing is the federal government can play a better role in making sure doctors are adequately educated and there's adequate research to support what are the proper ways to prescribe opioids. We definitely got into a situation where they were being prescribed too freely or not tracked appropriately and we need to have the federal government come to bear on that. But at the same time, we can't go too far, because already at [campaign] forums I've heard from people who rely upon various opioid medications to deal with chronic pain, and now in the backlash against the opioid crisis, they are having trouble getting the medication they need to deal with chronic pain.

And then the last piece is just making sure that we do treat this as a public health crisis rather than a criminal justice issue or just a criminal issue, as we did in large part with the crack cocaine epidemic. Because we're still dealing with the aftermath of that, and we've been representing folks who were sent to jail for very long periods of time, in some cases life, because that was a punitive response to what was also very much a public health crisis.