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Year of the Women: Delco’s Mary Gay Scanlon and Pearl Kim vie for U.S. House

Delaware County's Fifth Congressional District race will guarantee that at least one woman will represent Philadelphia in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon and Republican Pearl Kim are vying for Pennsylvania's Fifth Congressional District.
Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon and Republican Pearl Kim are vying for Pennsylvania's Fifth Congressional District.Read moreTIM TAI and HEATHER KHALIFA

Democratic women running for the U.S. House in Pennsylvania often note as a selling point that the state's delegation in Washington doesn't have any women. On cue, voters usually respond with "That has to change" or "That's not right."

That pitch, however, has not been made in Delaware County's Fifth Congressional District, where Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon and Republican Pearl Kim are vying for an open seat in the recently redrawn district. Their race is the only one in the state that is guaranteed to send a woman to Washington.

"It takes the whole woman issue out of it," Scanlon said. "So presumably then, voters can focus on positions and qualifications."

Scanlon has been a civil rights lawyer for 35 years, advocating for children with disabilities for the Election Law Center and most recently working as a pro bono lawyer at Ballard Spahr helping refugees, veterans, and various low-income clients. She also served as president of the Wallingford-Swarthmore school board.

Kim's personal experience with the criminal justice system — as a victim of sexual assault while in college — led her to become a special victims prosecutor. While at the Delaware County District Attorney's Office, she championed human trafficking legislation. Most recently, Kim worked at the Attorney General's Office on campus safety and the opioid crisis.

Both women quit their jobs to campaign full-time during the primaries and have continued the momentum since. Scanlon won a contentious 10-way race and Kim was unopposed for the GOP nomination.

The redrawing of the district, which now encompasses all of Delaware County, a piece of Philadelphia, and a sliver of Montgomery County, gave an edge to the Democrats. It replaced the old Seventh District, which Republican Pat Meehan held before he resigned over a sexual harassment scandal, and the First District, held by Democrat Bob Brady, who did not seek reelection.

Scanlon and Kim are essentially running for two seats. They are both running to complete Meehan's term until January, and for a full term starting in January to represent the new district. In February, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court ordered U.S. House district boundaries redrawn, ruling the old lines unfairly benefited the GOP.

Despite voting patterns in the Fifth that favor Scanlon, Kim said she was "excited" about the redistricting.

"It's a diverse district, and there are a lot of immigrant communities, which I can certainly resonate with," Kim, a daughter of Korean immigrants, said before going canvassing in Upper Darby, an ethnically diverse town.

There she ran into a group of people leaving Sunday services at Prayer Chapel Church of God in Christ on Hampden Road. Oswald Okebata stopped to chat with Kim as he left the church and told her that he's a Republican committeeman and would pray for her victory.

>> VOTERS GUIDE: View candidates in the 2018 midterm election based on your address, or browse all the action in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware

Kim told him that she is receiving support from Republicans, Democrats, and independents. And added that she was on The Van Jones Show on CNN, where she answered questions about her candidacy during a brief segment in late September.

And so went most of the door-knocking. She kept her speech short, asking residents simply to consider voting for her and adding to check her out on Van Jones. She handed them a pamphlet with her bio and priorities — growing small businesses, ending the opioid epidemic, improving public safety and combating sexual violence — then it was off to the next house, almost like a relay.

A few minutes after Kim gave a woman one of her pamphlets, the woman came back out of the house and yelled across the street: "Is she a Democrat or Republican?"

Kim's information makes no mention of her Republican affiliation. That, paired with her more moderate stances and criticism of some of Trump's policies — she's for universal health care and against the separation of families at the border, and thinks leaving the Paris Agreement on climate change was a bad idea — led to a tense moment during Kim and Scanlon's debate last week.

"For the first time I'm hearing what my opponent's positions are on many of these issues, and she seems to be running against the Republican Party's positions, which I understand, because I am as well," Scanlon said. Kim just smiled as some in the audience laughed and clapped.

After the debate, Kim said she's an "independent-minded thinker" and that people might find that refreshing.

"I consider myself a fiscal conservative, and I believe in smaller government, but certainly I have moderate stances on immigration, for instance, and other issues, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, or that it makes me any less Republican," she said.

Scanlon has "Democrat" in bold at the top of her pamphlet; former President Barack Obama praises her at the start of her latest television ad.

During the debate, Scanlon spoke about the issues most Democratic candidates have been talking about: campaign finance reform, expanding access to health care, gun control and immigration reform.

She told the debate audience of more than 200 that she ran for the school board in the mid-2000s because when she raised questions about a school construction project, the administrators dismissed her and the board didn't listen. She got elected after she jumped the construction fence and discovered that the work was running behind and the school wouldn't open for at least six months.

"For the last two years, it feels like I am in front of that fence again. The [Trump] administration is telling us not to believe what we can see in front of our faces, and Congress isn't listening," Scanlon said. "So, that's why I decided to climb over the fence again."

One of the progressive platforms she has stayed away from, but that has gained steam from other Democratic candidates, is free college. Scanlon says she wants to address the student debt crisis but also she thinks it's important to look at vocational training as an alternative to college.

"We've got this gap in the Philadelphia region between skills and jobs, and a lot of it is around technical and vocational skills, and those are good jobs," she said while campaigning at the University City train station a few weeks ago. "But there's been such a push to push everyone to college in recent years that I think we need to recalibrate that a little bit. … Really having a better developed array of opportunities for folks seems like it makes more sense."

As Scanlon spoke to potential voters at the station, most mentioned health care and education as top concerns. Some brought up guns, too.

Nancy Spor, a medical technician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said she works in neurology and sometimes sees children come in with gunshot wounds to the head. She wants to see gun violence be addressed, she said. But she mostly wanted to hear Scanlon's positions.

Spor is a registered Republican but said she is open to pulling the lever for a Democrat.

"It's all about who's going to do the best for me," she said. "I'm not just going to be in this party thing anymore, because the party thing is not happening."