Eleven years ago, President Bill Clinton took to the campaign trail in an effort to help vulnerable Pennsylvania Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky hold on to her House seat.
At a December 1993 entitlement spending summit in Bryn Mawr, Pa, Clinton offered an impassioned defense of Margolies-Mezvinsky’s decision to cast a controversial vote in favor of Clinton’s Budget.
But the president’s pleas to the voters of the state’s 13th District didn’t work. Margolies-Mezvinsky went on to lose to her Republican opponent that year by 4 percentage points.
Now, more than a decade later, Clinton is swooping in to help her again.
But times have changed: Margolies (she divorced her husband in 2007 and dropped his name) is now part of the extended Clinton clan. Her son, Marc Mezvinsky, is married to Chelsea Clinton. Out of public life since the mid-1990′s, Margolies is running to reclaim her old House seat. And her political career is as uncertain as ever.
A Clinton Is Coming
With the May 20 primary just six weeks away, Margolies will welcome President Clinton to the district for a fundraiser this Thursday. For $1,000, donors can attend an hors d’oeuvres reception and hear Clinton’s remarks. A little bit more – $5000 — buys a private VIP reception and photo opportunity with Clinton.
The event is not open to the public without a donation. The Margolies campaign has touted the event with numerous emails to the campaign supporter list, and donors at any level are automatically entered into a sweepstakes to meet Clinton and have a photograph taken with him. The campaign Twitter account even tweeted a 90s #tbt photo of Clinton and Margolies.
“Any time you bring one of the Clintons into the campaign, whether raising money, doing events, or with a grassroots focus, it’s a big deal, there’s no doubt about it,” former Pennsylvania Democratic Party Executive Director Kevin Washo told ABC News.
Meanwhile, Margolies’ opponents are gaining momentum in what’s become an increasingly competitive race.
Fundraising numbers at the end of 2013 showed that Margolies had a relatively strong fourth quarter, raising $211,000, though she was trailing badly in cash on hand, with $207,000 less than her nearest opponent.
To make matters worse, a recent report in the Huffington Post asserted that Margolies “doubled her own salary as head of a small, largely taxpayer-funded charity [Women's Campaign International] into the six figures” as her now-ex-husband Ed Mezvinsky was facing charges of fraud.
In the wake of the report, Margolies campaign Senior Advisor Ken Smukler issued a statement to ABC, saying, “We live in a world that allows one misinformed blogger, with no experience or understanding of the subject matter upon which he is assigned to write, to slander Marjorie in 2014 from his own personal review of a handful of documents that are over a decade old. And we allow this blogger to do so without demanding from him one expert in the field to corroborate his conclusions or even one person with whom Marjorie worked in her 15 years at Women’s Campaign International to substantiate on the record his claims.”
State of the Race
Margolies is also facing a crowded Democratic primary field in the safe-Democratic district, and despite the high-profile help she’s getting from Clinton this week, victory is not assured.
One of her opponents, State Sen. Daylin Leach, a progressive Democrat with a commitment to gay rights and legalizing recreational marijuana, is known for his distinctive personality.
Leach recently posted a message to Facebook about his campaign commercials: “We’re going with a ‘Goodfellas’ meets ‘The Village People’ theme. But all lines will be delivered holding an apple, and in tears. Because our polling shows that what the voters want most this year is avant guarde.”
Leach’s unorthodox voice hasn’t perturbed voters in the safe Democratic district. Leach earned the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., which he added to a lengthy list of supporters including MoveOn.org, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Mich., and Democracy for America.
Another contender, Dr. Val Arkoosh, who has never held public office, touts her expertise in health policy. As President of the National Physicians Alliance, Arkoosh traveled to Washington to work on the Affordable Care Act, which she calls “the Medicare and Medicaid of our time.” With the close of the open enrollment period, Arkoosh is banking on her background as a physician to woo voters, and has shown herself to be a strong fundraiser.
Meanwhile, State Rep. Brendan Boyle is running on his pro-labor record, citing endorsements from various local and national labor groups, including the Teamsters. Although he has come under fire for a mixed record on abortion, Boyle says he has been “attacked by pro-life groups” for his support of women’s health and equality.
In the closing weeks of a primary in which the victor is likely to win the general election, Washo said it’s all about the message.
“Who’s going to have the money and communicate that message? How are they going to get their troops out?” he said. ”Each one of [the candidates] can lay claim here to victories, but we’re going to know shortly who’s going to excel heading into the finish line.”
Past Is Prologue
Back in the 1990′s, the demise of Margolies’s Congressional career came down to a single phone call.
It was August 1993, and the freshman Congresswoman cast a controversial vote in favor of the Clinton Budget, which proposed an increase in federal taxes. After promising her constituents that she was against the budget, Clinton personally called to ask her to support his economic plan.
Margolies-Mezvinsky (she was still married at the time) broke her no-new-tax pledge to cast the decisive 218th vote to Republican chants of “Goodbye, Marjorie” on the House floor. They were right. The fallout from the vote cost her the seat, and hers’ became the textbook case of a career-ending vote. ABC News called her favor to Clinton “the most celebrated political debt of the year.”
“I said to the president, I think that if I vote for this, I fall on my political sword too. But I thought it was the right thing to do,” she said during her campaign for re-election. “Win or lose, I think I did the right thing.”
That’s when President Clinton stepped in.
“Marge Mezvinsky hadn’t voted for that budget, we wouldn’t be here celebrating economic progress or talking about entitlements,” Clinton said at the 1994 campaign event. “We’d still be back in Washington, throwing mudballs at each other.”
His words didn’t help her at the time, but this week he gets to try again.
“The vote would resolve itself into one simple question: Was my political future more important than the agenda that the president had laid out for America?” Margolies later said.