The Philadelphia Citizen, 9/7/17 - Straight Outta Central Casting

By Larry Platt

In the 2015-16 election cycle, 920 women inquired about running for public office by reaching out to Emily’s List, the 32-year-old PAC that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women. Since last November, 16,000 women have approached the group about throwing their proverbial hat in the ring.

What’s the line from that old counterculture Buffalo Springfield song? There’s something happening here. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriok recently told Joan Walsh in the pages of The Nation. 

The most soul stirring of the new breed of female candidates is Kentucky’s Amy McGrath, a retired fighter pilot challenging Republican Andy Barr, a Mitch McConnell acolyte. McGrath’s video announcement went viral over the summer:

A couple of weeks ago, McGrath released a follow-up video. Hey, establishment pols of both parties, pay attention: Watch this and tell me it ought not be the message for these times:

I bring up McGrath, and the army of women looking to take back our politics, because we have our own version of McGrath right in our own backyard. Chrissy Houlahan, who has her sights set on Republican incumbent Congressman Ryan Costello in the Chester County-based 6th district, is no less inspiring than the Kentucky Lieutenant Colonel. No wonder Houlahan’s media messenger is Mark Putnam, the architect of McGrath’s videos. Like McGrath, Houlahan, 50, is straight out of central casting: A military veteran, engineer, entrepreneur, educator…and mom. 

When I caught up with her a couple of weeks ago, Emily’s List had recently endorsed her, and a prominent Republican had just told me to watch her: “Costello’s in trouble,” he said. When I called, Houlahan took time out from dialing for dollars to chat.

“When I first got into this, like most citizens, I had no idea what it really took,” Houlahan told me. “I’m spending six to eight hours a day on the phone raising money. It’s tragic. I told someone yesterday that the only people who can run for office are those that can put their life on hold and do nothing but raise money. It’s bad for Democracy.”

Yet she’s good at it, having raised close to $500,000 to date, in large part because—like the businesses she’s built—she’s mission driven. Like the best outsiders, what Houlahan is selling transcends the normal exchange of politics. It’s not about a litany of policies, so much as what her story represents: True American exceptionalism, the sense that inclusive values matter, and that what’s been lost—the urge to do big things together—can be regained.

Like the best outsiders, what Houlahan is selling transcends the normal exchange of politics. It’s not about a litany of policies, so much as what her story represents: True American exceptionalism, the sense that inclusive values matter, and that what’s been lost—the urge to do big things together—can be regained.

Houlahan is the daughter of Andrew Jampoler, a Holocaust survivor and career naval aviator who spent a lifetime repaying the country that took him in at Ellis Island. His daughter grew up idolizing Sally Ride and, though her astronaut dream didn’t come to be, she built a mind-numbingly varied resume with one clear constant: Chrissy Houlahan builds things. 

Here’s the quick history: She was an Air Force engineer who became one of the driving forces behind And1, the Paoli-based basketball apparel company that, for a time, gave Nike a scare in the early aughts. With her husband, Bart, and And1 founder Jay Coen Gilbert, she helped launch B Lab, the nonprofit that has jumpstarted the B Corp social impact revolution. At 45, she took chemistry and biology classes at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, joined Teach For America while studying urban education, and then helped build Springboard Collaborativeinto an innovative model for combatting the achievement gap that is now in four states, including our own. 

And now comes politics? How’d that happen?

 

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Houlahan laughs at the thought. “To me, politics was always for other people,” she says. “I always thought of myself as a private citizen contributing to the betterment of my community. But we have a saying in our family: ‘What’s your highest, best use?’ We tell our kids to ask themselves that. Well, what was I going to do after that election? Hiding under the bed and moving to Canada weren’t options. So it was a serious call to action for me.”

 

After Trump’s win, Houlahan—“this is how naive I was”—received a generic email from the Chester County Democratic Committee, an open call for anyone interested in running for local office. She showed up. Next came a candidate training day at Philadelphia University, for which she showed up with her mother, Susan, a longtime League of Women Voters volunteer. After organizing a bus comprised of 48 women and two men—all strangers to one another—to attend the Women’s March on Washington, Houlahan knew that running for Congress would be her latest calling. “It’s important to defend Democracy, because it’s under siege right now,” she says. “We can’t get used to this.”

To that end, Houlahan’s youngest daughter, 23-year-old Carly, has plastered their Devon home with handwritten signs reading “THIS IS NOT NORMAL.” 

“When you feel you want to quit, those signs are a reminder of why you started,” she says.

Though Hillary Clinton won the Sixth District last November by one point, Costello won his first reelection by 14 points. Houlahan’s brief against him hits the expected points, like the fact that he supported the Republican health care overhaul in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, before finally voting against it on the floor. “That type of ‘I was for it before I was against it’ move is opportunistic and disappointing in a leader,” she says.

“It’s important to defend Democracy, because it’s under siege right now,” she says. “We can’t get used to this.”

The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee has tried to paint Houlahan as a left wing ideologue, bashing her for not ruling out support for a single payer health care system. But Houlahan has proven adept at securing the middle ground—which is critical in her swing district. “As a pragmatist and a businesswoman, I’ll take a look at conditions when I’m elected, and will be committed to a bipartisan solution that lowers cost and increases access for everyone,” she says. Does that sound ideological, or more like what the average citizen might say?

But Houlahan takes the case against Costello a step further. She critiques him from the reasonable center not for what he’s done, but for what he’s not said. Yes, she argues, Costello criticized the president for his Charlottesville remarks, but has let so much else slide. “The people in my very purple part of the world expect our representative to express an opinion about the way the President behaves,” she says. “If you don’t have a vote, I expect you to have a voice.” 

It’s still way early, but if  Houlahan were to beat Costello in 2018, she’d be the Pennsylvania delegation’s lone Congresswoman, joining 19 men. But that’s not the heart of Houlahan’s argument to voters. To them, she often leads with the fact that, of 535 members of Congress, only 41 have a background in STEM. Houlahan—a Stanford-educated engineer—has been endorsed by 314 Action, a political action committee founded by former breast cancer researcher and former Pennsylvania congressional candidate Shaughnessy Naughton to encourage scientists and engineers to run for office. Since Trump’s election, the PAC reports that 6,000 scientists have inquired about running for office.

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Houlahan says it’s about time. She sounds aghast at what she describes as the “erosion of science, technology and fact” in our public discourse. “This isn’t just a STEM issue,” she says. “It’s a truth issue. It’s about what it means to be a thoughtful Homo sapien.”

And that’s why Republicans are fretting over the emergence of the Chrissy Houlahans and Amy McGraths in Trump’s America: Not only do they have killer resumes, they’ve fought for their country, they can raise money, and they come right out and say that their constituency is the thoughtful Homo sapien. They speak to our better angels, for who doesn’t aspire to be a member of that group?

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Campaign Staff