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State Rep. Davidson is no doctrinaire Democrat

On the one hand, Margo Davidson is the legislator who three years ago became the first Democrat, first woman, and first African American whom her Delaware County district had ever sent to Harrisburg.

State Representative Margo Davidson in her Upper Darby officein 2010. (Ed Hille / staff photographer)
State Representative Margo Davidson in her Upper Darby officein 2010. (Ed Hille / staff photographer)Read more

rOn the one hand, Margo Davidson is the legislator who three years ago became the first Democrat, first woman, and first African American whom her Delaware County district had ever sent to Harrisburg.

She's the representative who won reelection last year by a 2-1 ratio and whose name has since been floated as a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014.

But she's also the woman who made national news for siding against her party on a vote to increase state restrictions on abortion clinics, and who then voted with Republicans again to support school vouchers.

To House Democratic Caucus spokesman Bill Patton, Davidson is "an independent thinker." To her former legislative assistant Barbarann Keffer, she's "a breath of fresh air." To Billy J. Smith, who plans to challenge her in the 2014 primary, she is a conservative Democrat.

"I don't know any conservative Democrats except Margo Davidson," he adds. "Conservative Democrats are Republicans."

Puzzling Davidson might be, but Republican she is not. She is proud to signify change for a district, the 164th, where Mario Civera Jr., now the vice chair of the all-Republican County Council, had held the seat since 1980.

Davidson, 51, waves off the questions on her politics or allegiances. "How does my party want me to vote? What do the special interests want? How is this going to affect my reelection? I can't look at legislation that way," she said last month in the basement of an East Lansdowne church.

Davidson wins high praise from Democratic activists in her district, which includes Upper Darby Township, East Lansdowne, Millbourne, and parts of Lansdowne and Yeadon.

Raised in Philadelphia, Davidson was the first member of her family to graduate from high school. She worked as a broadcast journalist after she graduated from Temple University, then started a public relations firm that mostly catered to nonprofits.

She also has had stints at running drug and alcohol abuse prevention programs for the Philadelphia Public Health Department and as a field organizer for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign that took her as far as Oregon and Montana.

Davidson founded two nonprofits, one that offers camps and activities for the children of drug abusers and another to help women own businesses.

When speaking about business development, violence, single mothers (like her own mother), and a host of other issues, Davidson is quick to cite her own experiences.

She said that she hoped to focus more attention on legislation about mental health in the months to come, another interest that springs from painful personal experience.

One of her four sons was diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia during her first term. He was a 19-year-old college freshman with no prior indications of mental illness, she said, and after a sudden, terrifying onset episode, Davidson found herself battling her insurance company to get him the care he needed.

During one of his lucid moments at the hospital, Davidson said, she told her son she would give up her reelection bid to care for him.

She cried as she recalled his response: "Mommy, please don't. Because then I'll feel like that was my fault." She ran and won.

Abortion, too, is an issue that Davidson takes personally. Her 22-year-old cousin died after an abortion at the notorious clinic of Kermit Gosnell.

When the Pennsylvania legislature responded to Gosnell's crimes with restrictions on abortion clinics, Davidson was one of 44 Democrats to vote for the measure. Her teary speech as she voted made national news.

Later, she voted in favor of a bill to prevent health insurance offered in Pennsylvania through the Affordable Care Act from covering abortions, other than those of pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest or that endanger the life of the mother.

On school choice, too, she has split from most of her party. She voted in favor of vouchers for charter schools, a bill supported by 86 Republicans and only four Democrats.

She has been repeatedly supported by Students First Pa., an organization that advocates for charter schools and that is opposed by teacher unions. In the 2012 election cycle, Students First's political action committee contributed to the campaigns of 127 candidates in Pennsylvania - 104 Republicans and 23 Democrats. Davidson received $37,000, more money than all but five other candidates.

She said that with Republicans controlling the General Assembly, she is smart to make connections.

"As a party in the minority, you really control absolutely nothing that happens in Harrisburg. And we are deep in the minority right now," she said. "I have been able to build relationships in the majority to be effective."

Patton said Davidson was also among the core group of Democrats who consistently attend her party caucus' meetings. If she runs for lieutenant governor, he said, "she would have to be taken seriously."

Davidson demurred when her name first came up several months ago, but as 2014 draws closer, she has started to sound more interested.

"If there is an opportunity to run for lieutenant governor and people circulate my petition around the state, then we'll see where that goes," she said. "There are a lot of people talking to me about wanting to circulate my petition."

She is not too worried about Smith's bid to take away her seat. "Someone's pretending to challenge me," she characterized it, though she adds that she does take him seriously. But she said she feels sure of her constituents' support.

To hear Sekela Coles tell it, Davidson can count on their trust. "I don't hold my whole support of someone based on some votes. That doesn't change the bigger picture for me," said Coles, a Democrat elected in November to the Upper Darby council.

"The bigger picture for me is that the community that I live in was not engaged. There was nobody, nobody, reaching out to the African American community before her. And for that, she has my ultimate respect."