Ozy, 12/03/2017 - The Everything Candidate for Congress
By Daniel Malloy
A former New York Knicks point guard is an odd icebreaker at a congressional campaign stop in a sleepy south-central Pennsylvania town, but when I bring up Stephon Marbury, Chrissy Houlahan smacks me — not delicately — on the shoulder with a wide grin: “How did you know that?” Houlahan is not much of a basketball fan, but she was the chief operating officer of And1 — a basketball shoe and apparel company that helped bring urban street ball to a global audience, and for which Marbury was chief pitchman.
Sick crossovers won’t matter much to this 86 percent white congressional district that arcs from the Philadelphia suburbs to dairy farm country. So in a brief stump speech to two dozen folks in a coffee shop in small-town Lebanon, And1 gets condensed into a line about creating jobs. Houlahan’s bio is far too rich for a five-minute speech, or a 900-word story. It’s the reason national Democrats are salivating over her first-time candidacy in a race both sides say is a bellwether for the 2018 elections. She’s an Air Force veteran and an entrepreneur. She co-founded a nonprofit and taught school in the inner city. And she slips in that one of her two daughters identifies as queer.
But in a district carefully drawn to favor Republicans — Houlahan, 50, likens it to a spiked dragon — incumbent Ryan Costello will be tough to dislodge, as he maintains a cautious distance from President Donald Trump. And Houlahan’s business background has its own baggage. During her tenure as COO, And1 was mentioned in a scathing investigation into Chinese sweatshops by the nonprofit National Labor Committee that found employees working 100-plus hours a week for 35 cents an hour, under unsafe and “militaristic” conditions. “Greedy Chrissy Houlahan lined her pockets while her company exploited and abused Chinese laborers,” says Chris Martin, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
While the report states that an And1 plant had “extremely similar if not exactly the same” conditions, the report targeted a factory supplying the apparel company Puma — and was sent to Puma, not And1. Houlahan was not aware of the report at the time, and her camp says And1 embedded its employees in factories and went through third-party audits “to create a safe and ethical work environment throughout its supply chain.”
Houlahan, née Christina Jampoler, is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who fled Poland as a child, then rose to a high-ranking career in the Navy. Houlahan wanted to be an astronaut, so she followed Sally Ride’s path to Stanford to study engineering via an Air Force ROTC scholarship. She served for three years, working in missile defense. She later picked up a master’s in technology and policy from MIT, and in 1996 she and her husband joined a fledgling company outside Philadelphiacalled And1. Bart was the finance guy, and Chrissy managed operations. The company exploded after an innovative marketing campaign involving VHS tapes of street ballers performing wild moves and grew to $175 million in revenue in 2003.
After the founders sold the company in 2005, Houlahan promoted socially responsible companies for an advocacy group, then turned to public education. “It makes total sense to me, but I’m sure from the outside it seems totally erratic,” Houlahan says. She joined Teach for America and taught 11th-grade chemistry for a year at nearly all-Black Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia, where she recalls her job was more about keeping kids off the streets than making sure they understood the periodic table. In order to reach students at a younger age, Houlahan served as president and COO/CFO for Springboard Collaborative, an elementary school literacy program now serving thousands of kids in several states.
Trump was the spark that drew her to politics, transforming the longtime Democrat from occasional door-knocker to candidate for office after she organized a bus trip to the women’s march in Washington. Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District narrowly backed Hillary Clinton last year, but G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, says he does not think Costello is in trouble — yet — because of his close attention to the district. Houlahan has put up impressive early fundraising numbers but is still honing a compelling message. “It’s one thing to have a résumé on paper,” Madonna says. “It’s another thing to win an election.”
On health care, Houlahan attacks Costello’s waffling on a replacement plan for Obamacare: He voted for the House Republican bill in committee and against it on the floor, after an analysis projected 24 million fewer people would have health coverage as a result. Houlahan says she would like to see a new government-run “public option” insurer, but she won’t endorse a Medicare-for-all plan yet. She dodges when asked whether she’d back Nancy Pelosi for another term as party leader, saying she was not focused on such “inside baseball.” She’s attacked the GOP tax plan as a giveaway to the rich, while saying she would promote environmental causes and campaign finance reform in office.
To win, Houlahan must harness the energy of the anti-Trump left, but also woo suburban moderates. She makes clear her distaste for Trump during her appearance in Lebanon, but disgust with Congress might be a better selling point. As a businesswoman and an engineer, she points out, she has a different perspective than the mass of lawyers in the Capitol — drawing the warmest reaction of the night. That line, at least, is a slam dunk.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Houlahan’s title at Springboard Collaborative.