Change The Faces


October 19, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

PHILADELPHIA — BY 4:30 in the afternoon, Allyson Schwartz has worn out her first shift of campaign workers. Even her vocal chords are having trouble keeping up with the pace she sets.

More than eight months and eight hours into her race for a Senate seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly, the energetic 41-year-old Democrat is looking for votes and volunteers at a meeting of law students. Smiling and rasping, she frames the question of her campaign with a neat soap-opera cutline: ''Can a pro-choice woman new to politics defeat an anti-choice incumbent?''

Ms. Schwartz is not the only candidate asking that question in 1990. Twenty years ago only four percent of state legislators were women. That figure has risen to 17 percent. This year, the state legislature races may be where, in sports-talk, we produce the farm teams for big-league politics.

This is the first election since the Supreme Court sent out a warning that the fate of abortion rights may rest with the states. As Sharon Rodine, chair of the National Women's Political Caucus says, ''The states are where the action is. We've got pro-choice women from both sides of aisles, long-term activists, who are running themselves this year.''

In many ways, Allyson Schwartz is a prototype of this new wave of candidates. And in many ways, Pennsylvania is a case study for pro-choice politics.

A trained social worker and the mother of two sons, this trim, athletic-looking woman with gray streaks through her short curly brown hair, Ms. Schwartz came to politics with an issue, not just an ego. For 13 years, she was director of a non-profit women's health clinic that performed abortions. There, and as a deputy director of the city's health and human services, she knew what it was like on the other side of the legislature.

''I spent time talking to the legislators. It was very frustrating. They didn't listen. They didn't think that the issues I cared about would make any difference to their political futures.''

The Assembly she lobbied is overwhelmingly male. There are only 17 women among its 253 members; Pennsylvania is 46th among the states. It is also, and not altogether coincidentally, pro-life. The state's Abortion Control Act, among the most restrictive in the country, may be the Supreme Court's chance to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Watching this, Ms. Schwartz said, ''You know the expression, 'If we can't change their minds we have to change their faces?' I came to believe that.''

Ms. Schwartz wanted someone to run against her state senator, Joe Rocks, a longtime legislator and pro-life supporter. Finally, she looked in the mirror and told herself, ''I can do this. It's not rocket science.''

Now she and Mr. Rocks are in the last stretch of a race watched not only for its impact on abortion but on party control of the state Senate. This race carries all the markings of national politics from big bucks to attack ads. Mr. Rocks has sent out virulent mailings portraying Ms. Schwartz as un-American, radical, not one of ''us.'' In one piece, the photo of Ms. Schwartz, who is white, is darker than that of Mayor Wilson Goode who is black.

Nevertheless, after days that begin with morning handshakes at the train station, that include sneaker-clad canvassing in the afternoon and house parties at night, the odds that this engaging newcomer will make it grow stronger.

It is axiomatic that pro-choice voters are not one-issue voters. Nor is Ms. Schwartz a one-issue candidate. She is among more than 20 pro-choice women running against anti-abortion incumbents in Pennsylvania. She's part of a pattern that has brought great numbers of women into races in Idaho, Maryland and New York as well.

''I feel that this is the next wave for those who worked on women's rights and children's issues,'' says Ms. Schwartz. ''In the '70s, a lot of us focused on women's services, domestic violence, rape-crisis centers, discrimination. The next step as women is to be part of the political system. It's what we have to do.''

When asked what makes it worthwhile, Ms. Schwartz, outsider and future role model, lights up with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. She tells a story.

The other night a volunteer went home to find her young daughter standing on a box in the living room delivering a speech to the chairs. Asked what she was doing, the next generation of women in politics told her mother, ''I'm playing Allyson Schwartz.''

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