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In Pa.'s Fourth Congressional District, Madeleine Dean, Mary Jo Daley, Shira Goodman aim to overcome only male in primary, Joe Hoeffel | Maria Panaritis

One thing was clear as a clanging cow bell in an elementary school auditorium last week in suburban Philly: Democratic Party faithful in Montgomery County's newly drawn 4th Congressional District badly want a woman this year. But a man could take it all come May.

The four Democrats running for U.S. representative in Pennsylvania’s 4th congressional district (clockwise from top left): attorney and gun control advocate Shira Goodman, state Rep. Mary Jo Daley, former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, and state Rep. Madeleine Dean.
The four Democrats running for U.S. representative in Pennsylvania’s 4th congressional district (clockwise from top left): attorney and gun control advocate Shira Goodman, state Rep. Mary Jo Daley, former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, and state Rep. Madeleine Dean.Read moreStaff and handout photos

This was supposed to be the Pennsylvania congressional race with the highest odds of going to a woman in November. The one that would surely break the testicular stranglehold that has kept any woman out of the state's 18-seat U.S. House delegation in recent years.

But it now looks as though Montgomery County's newly drawn Fourth Congressional District could just as easily go to a 68-year-old man. And after another man previously in the race, State Sen. Daylin Leach, withdrew amid accusations of questionable behavior with young female staffers and volunteers.  If that's not the ultimate irony in a year in which women are largely to thank for breathing new life into the old-bag-of-tricks Democratic Party, I don't know what is.

Before I name names, let me take you to Colonial Elementary School in Plymouth Meeting a week ago to paint a picture. Or, more accurately, to convey the reality of our political moment in decibels.

Dyed-in-the-wool Democrats gathered in the school auditorium for the party's Montgomery County congressional nominating convention. They'd be deciding which of three women and one man running as liberals for the county's newly drawn congressional seat would get party backing.

An endorsement would help draw other endorsements and money. But if the party decided to endorse no one, that would give the edge to whichever candidate had the most name recognition. In this case, that candidate happened to be the man seated in the crowd wearing a suit and tie. A man who'd just entered the all-women race as a potential spoiler, if not intentionally, then by default.

There'd been a ton of chaos after the state Supreme Court last month redrew all of the state's House district boundaries. The justices concluded the districts had been maliciously drawn years earlier to benefit Republicans. But one thing was clear as a clanging cowbell to me in that elementary school auditorium last week.

The party faithful in Montgomery County badly want a woman this year.

The crowd roared and whistled as each female candidate delivered her pitch from a lectern: attorney and gun-reform advocate Shira Goodman, State Rep. Mary Jo Daley, and State Rep. Madeleine Dean.

"Montgomery County needs a progressive woman in Congress to shape our American future!" Dean said, wild applause following the three-term lawmaker's next turn of phrase: "I'm a legislator, a mother, a grandmother who won't be silent!"

Then came Daley, daughter of a union electrician who put herself through the University of Pennsylvania for bachelor's and master's degrees and who is in her fifth year as a woman in the state House. Like Dean, Daley is a rare species in male-dominated Harrisburg, which itself is like an imperial nation of elected men.

"We have an opportunity to put a Democratic stamp on this new congressional district," said  Daley, who cofounded the group Emerge, which has been recruiting women to run for federal, state, and local offices in Pennsylvania.  "We have many progressive Democrats in Montgomery County. They're building the party. They're winning local elections. … I want to be a part of that." Another big ovation.

Behind her came Goodman, a Yale Law-educated first-timer running for office after battling the NRA in Harrisburg.

"We have got to save our democracy. It is under attack!" Goodman said. She, too, stepped away to near-deafening hoots and claps.

How did things go for the guy?


He spoke before the women did. He looked and sounded as if he'd served in Congress for six years back before Montgomery County had turned Democratic. And even though he was now a grandfather and no longer in public office, he said it was time to send him back to Washington as the anti-Trump savior liberals crave. He'd only hopped into the race a week earlier.

Surely you heard about the guy nearly two decades ago when he served in Congress. You know, Joe?

"Seven days ago," Joe Hoeffel told the crowd, "my wife said to me, 'You've got to stop yelling at the television and get back into the game.' "

Hoeffel got a round of polite applause — the kind a school principal gets during a mandatory assembly about the dangers of skipping class to smoke outside.

It only got worse. Hoeffel collected a total number of endorsement votes in the mere single digits. Daley and Dean, on the other hand? They duked it out in denominations of hundreds and a runoff.

And yet, no single candidate won the 60 percent needed, so the party endorsed nobody. Which means the guy with the best name recognition could walk away with the money and this race if the field stays crowded through the May primary.

How ironic, you ask? Hoeffel also happens to be the onetime campaign chairman for Leach, who'd hoped to win this district before damaging allegations of improprieties toward women triggered his withdrawal in late February.

Leach, whom women had urged to get out of the race, urged his followers in a recent tweet to check out his old buddy's campaign website.

We are talking hardball here among the so-called progressives of one of Pennsylvania's wealthiest counties.

Speaking of hardball, I wondered if Hoeffel was referencing the chick-baseball-flick A League of Their Own when, in a call with me this week, he was unapologetic and said politics is a rough-and-tumble business. The last woman in Congress from Pennsylvania was Hoeffel's successor, Allyson Schwartz, who succeeded Hoeffel in 2005.

"There's no crying in politics," Hoeffel said. "You put your name forward, you do your very best, and may the best candidate win."

Goodman and Daley aren't crying or going anywhere just yet.

"I'm not ready to make a decision right now because a man who used to be in Congress decided to get in at the last minute," Goodman said. "If somebody's a spoiler, it's up to the voters to see it."

Said Daley: "I'm not gonna fall on a sword."

Dean and I spoke briefly about the story I had in mind but I missed her voicemail when she rang me back with more time to talk a few hours later. She is viewed by party insiders as a force to be reckoned with.

My recommendation: Pay close attention. This is going to be a hell of a historic primary in Montco.

This story has been changed to correct that Rep. Madeleine Dean did return a call to the author.