Innovation Ecosystem

Susan Wild and the blue horizon

An interview with a winning Congressional candidate in Pennsylvania, sharing her winning messages that resonated with voters

Photo courtesy of Susan Wild's Facebook page

Susan Wild, center, celebrates her primary election victory with her children, Addie, left, and Clay, right.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/21/18
When a 60-year-old woman lawyer won a surprise victory in Pennsylvania in the 7th district, the issues that set her apart were a pragmatic approach to health care, support for immigration, a willingness to talk about the environment, and a message that resonated with older women.
How will a newly energized activism by women candidates change the face of Congress in 2018? How will successful candidates such as Susan Wild change the way that reporters tell the political stories? Are there lessons that can be learned here in Rhode Island from Wild’s successful campaign? When will pollsters in Rhode Island include a question about health care in their polling efforts? Or, a question about childcare?
As much as the focus of building an innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island has tended to focus on economic development questions around attracting companies and talent, often left out of the equation is the importance of creating conversations and convergence with engaged communities. This week, at its annual meeting, The Rhode Island Foundation will release some of the initial data analysis from its Together RI initiative. It will be interesting to see how that exercise ends up defining what it takes to be heard in Rhode Island, and whether or not that translates into an engaged community.

ALLENTOWN, Penn. – On Tuesday, May 15, Susan Ellis Wild won the Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives for the 7th Congressional District in Pennsylvania, coming out on top in a crowded field of six candidates in what came down to a three-way race between a conservative Democrat who sought a job in the Trump administration and a progressive Democrat endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Wild, a 60-year-old litigator and city solicitor, is one of eight women who won their primary elections in Pennsylvania, promising to upend the current all-male Congressional delegation representing the state.

Wild also survived a series of negative fliers put out by an out-of-state political action committee, United Together, a group registered in North Carolina, whose biggest donor is Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago White Sox owner, who gave $300,000.

In short, Wild’s victory serves as a political litmus test that captured the current body politick in the U.S., in a politically divisive world in 2018.

ConvergenceRI spoke with Wild last week to glean more about her winning strategy as a way to better understand why she triumphed – and what issues resonated most with voters.

[To some readers, it may seem a bit outside the realm of ConvergenceRI’s coverage, but the story reflects an ongoing conversation about how to build an engaged community of voters in 2018, reflective of messaging and ideas, certainly an important component of the development of any innovation ecosystem.]

ConvergenceRI: What was your final margin of victory?
Three percent, 33 percent to 30 percent.

Convergence: How would you describe the 7th District?
The district is all of Lehigh County, all of Northampton County, and a small portion of Monroe County.

ConvergenceRI: What were your successful messages that resonated with voters?
It began as a six-way race. One of my chief rivals was John Morganelli, the Northampton County District Attorney, who had served for 25 years and had a lot of name recognition. He came in second.

He was a life-long Democrat, on the very conservative side. When President Trump was elected, Morganelli tweeted out his admiration for him and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asking for a job. Morganelli later attempted to delete all those tweets.

I ended up convinced, over my initial reluctance, to do a series of mail pieces that told the story about his tweets, because while everybody knew his name, they didn’t know this part of him being Trump-loving.

I didn’t call them negative, I called them factual, reprinting his old tweets.

We mailed seven pieces, interspersed with positive mailers about my background, my positions.

His polling numbers dropped precipitously. I started out 20 points behind him; after a couple of months, I was only 10 points behind him.

Then there were these weird United Together mailers, really nasty mailers, trying to paint me with the smear brush, [with the biggest donor being Jerry Reinsdorf from Chicago].

What’s the old adage: all publicity is good publicity? In the end, I felt it helped me with my name recognition.

ConvergenceRI: Were you helped by the fact that you were an articulate woman candidate?
Yes. It is the year of the women. But, I also had run in 2013 for County Commissioner. I didn’t win, but I had earned both name recognition and credibility. If I hadn’t run in that 2013 race, I’m not sure that the outcome would have been the same.

It was not just being a woman, but a highly qualified woman.

ConvergenceRI: How important was health care as an issue?
It was the number-one issue on everyone’s mind. I had another opponent, Greg Edwards, a highly progressive candidate, endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. There was concern that Greg and I would end up splitting the progressive voters.

When we held our very first political forum, there were eight candidates at the time, sponsored by the local Medicare for All organization.

The initial litmus test of the group was they wanted everyone to sign on supporting Medicare for All.

Instead, I talked about single payer health care. Because in this area, there are many voters who have employer paid health care. The health industry sector is the largest employer.

I believe we do have to go to a single payer health care system, and to do it fairly quickly. But fixing the ACA to make it more affordable doesn’t work.

I tend to take a much process-oriented approach to get to a single payer system. I am more of a pragmatist, a pragmatic progressive.

I am not ashamed of the label “progressive.”

I have practiced law for almost 40 years, representing companies, small companies and individuals. I’m pretty pragmatic.

ConvergenceRI: How about immigration as an issue?
I have not been an immigration lawyer, but when the first travel ban came down, I became involved in helping a Syrian family, who became caught up in the conflict. They had invested all of their life savings, everything was in order, but when they landed in Philadelphia, only to be forced to leave; their passports were scratched out by ICE officials.

Allentown has the third-largest Syrian population in the United States. I worked with former Rep. Charlie Dent, with Gov. Wolfe, and with the ACLU. I don’t deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

The experience taught me how arbitrary and inhumane some of our immigration systems have become. It became a talking point on the campaign trial, and it helped me with the Syrian population.

ConvergenceRI: Did you find any traction with the environment as an issue?
I was probably the only candidate who talked about the environment. I was an environmentalist before it was cool.

Because of redistricting, a new part of my district, which is in Monroe County, is just south of where there is a lot of fracking, as well as all kinds of problems with sludge companies.

When people working with me at the national level, they often pushed environmental issues to the bottom, and I pushed it back up.

ConvergenceRI: Do you fit the prototype of what the news media calls the suburban woman?
[laughing] I suppose, technically, I am a suburban woman. I got into this race before the #MeToo movement took hold. Women were already pretty awakened, in my view. The #MeToo certainly raised the consciousness.

What I found, when I talked to people, I’m 60 years old, I’ve been practicing law for 35 years. When I began, there weren’t a whole lot of women lawyers, and not a lot of female litigators.

At first, when I started practicing law, I cannot tell you the number of times I would have a judge ask me if I was a lawyer.

When I told that story on the campaign trail, the younger women were in disbelief, they didn’t get it, but the older women got it, they understood it.

In Pennsylvania, there are no females in our Congressional delegation. When I talked about that on the campaign trail, women and men both said: we need more women in government, to make a difference in how government functions.

I was also lucky, being the only woman in the race.

Let me share one story, about a young lawyer I work with, who lives next door to a 90-year-old woman, Gloria, who wanted a yard sign supporting me.

On election day, it was beautiful until about 4:30 p.m., when we had a torrential rain storm. Gloria ran out and pulled the sign, then when the sun came out an hour later, she put it back in her yard.

I think it exemplifies what my race meant to older women, honestly, 50 years and above.

ConvergenceRI: Would you ask President Obama to come campaign for you?
Sure. In my district, Joe Biden might be better, or Michele Obama.

ConvergenceRI: What haven’t I asked that you would want to share about your campaign?
The sheer enormity of how much money you have to raise is one of the things that is repellent. It’s so wrong. It’s the part of the process that I really hate, all the calling and asking.

Editor’s Note: For transparency purposes, I knew Susan Wild when she lived in the Washington, D.C. area in the mide-1980s and was then married to a former colleague of mine.


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