Mary Gay Scanlon attends a meet and greet in Ardmore, Pennsylvania over the weekend. 
Mary Gay Scanlon attends a meet and greet in Ardmore, Pennsylvania over the weekend. 

Mary Gay Scanlon: Correcting Course

A civil rights lawyer of more than 35 years, Mary Gay Scanlon hopes to take her fight against Trump era policies to Washington.


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Mary Gay Scanlon just couldn’t shake the call to duty in the face of what she sees as desperate times in the country.

So, she decided to run for Congress.

“It feels like we’re at a point of crisis in our democracy. Yes, it would be easier not to run for Congress, but sometimes you just have to do things,” she told AL DÍA. “It’s not easy to go off to war. In some ways this feels like it’s going off to war because our country needs it.”

Scanlon, 59, is running for Pennsylvania’s new 5th district seat, which includes all of Delaware County, parts of Chester and Montgomery counties, and sections of south and southwest Philadelphia. She is also on the ballot in a special election to represent the state’s current 7th district for the rest of the term, until January 1. Republican Pat Meehan vacated this seat last spring over sexual harassment claims made against him.

“In this district, all three branches of our federal government - the executive, the courts and the legislature - have been impacted by #MeToo issues,” Scanlon noted.

Scanlon’s opponent is Republican Pearl Kim, which means the district will be guaranteed female representation in a state where currently there is none.

“It became pretty clear I think to most people that there was going to have to be a female Congressperson here,” Scanlon added.

A civil rights lawyer of more than 35 years, Scanlon emerged victorious from a crowded Democratic primary field in May. There is no shortage of issues she is passionate about, beginning first and foremost with healthcare.

“I very strongly want to repair the Affordable Care Act, and then see what we can do to extend it, to move toward universal health coverage,” she said. “The fact that this administration has tried to undermine it, with the complicity of Congress - first taking out the individual mandate, and now filing lawsuits to try to have the whole thing declared unconstitutional because they took out the individual mandate - that’s just wrong.”

Education ranks close behind in Scanlon’s legislative priorities.

“Making sure that every child can have a good public education regardless of their zip code is really important. Like healthcare, you need that good foundation of health and education in order to be successful in life,” she said.

Born and raised in upstate New York near the Canadian border, Scanlon moved to the Philadelphia area in 1981 to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania. She has stayed here ever since, working on such issues as immigration justice, voting rights and criminal justice reform over the course of her legal career.

She also served for nearly a decade on her local school board, and has long been an advocate of gun control measures, an issue she says is top of mind for many of her would-be constituents.

“There’s a lot of interest in the wake of the Parkland shooting in common sense gun control. Here in this district it’s not just the mass shootings that are an issue. In Chester and in southwest Philadelphia, there is everyday gun violence that poses a challenge,” Scanlon said.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Yes, we should reauthorize the assault weapons ban, but in a lot of communities it’s more of a public health issue,” she continued. “We need to deal with trauma-based counseling, and we need to get illegal guns off the street.”

For much of her agenda, Scanlon is able to pull from her experience in the legal field to inform her policy. This is especially true when it comes to immigration.

“The efforts by the Trump administration to demonize immigrants has been something that struck very close to home because I’ve done a lot of immigration work over the last 15 years,” she explained.

“Seeing the blatantly political use of that issue to further a divisive agenda is un-American and I want to be part of fighting back against that,” she added. “We need a more humane immigration policy. We need a path to citizenship, and not just for dreamers. We have a lot of people here who have been here a very long time, are contributing to the U.S., and should be given a path to stay.”

Scanlon’s political vision takes a more personal turn on the opioid crisis that has hit Philadelphia and surrounding areas particularly hard.

“I have a nephew who became an addict a few years ago. But for Narcan, he would not be with us now,” she said, referring to the life-saving medication for opioid overdoses.

“I think he’s been revived six times or so. I’ve had conversations with him about it, and he’s really convinced me of the need to limit the damage right now as we work towards eliminating the scourge,” she continued.

Scanlon aligns herself with former Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell on his controversial efforts to open a safe injection site in the city.

“Treat this like a disease, like a public health crisis, and try to get the treatment options available, in addition to things like Narcan and safe injection sites that are going to limit the harm short term,” she said.

A political career was not always in the cards for Scanlon, and she very well may not be running for Congress were it not for President Trump, whose agenda is at odds with the values Scanlon has dedicated her life to fighting for.

“Essentially everything that I’ve been working on has been challenged by this administration,” Scanlon said. “We’ve got a government now where the leadership doesn’t seem to believe in the rule of law, and we seem to be going backwards. It’s really just wanting to see progress, wanting to get the country back on the rails.”

“The issues I want to work on in Congress are the issues I’ve been working on my entire adult life. It’s helping families, helping folks who have been squeezed to the margins, and just doing it in a slightly different way,” she added.

Now, her political run seems like the natural next step she was always meant to take, Scanlon said.

“It’s felt, in a lot of ways, like this is something I was preparing for my entire life without really knowing it.”


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