Chelsea Clinton seems to have a lot of family in politics right now, even her mother-in-law, Marjorie Margolies, who is locked in a tight four-way Democratic primary to regain her seat representing Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District.
It was a seat she lost, after one term, in the Republican sweep the year after the budget vote.
This deeply blue district’s pricey suburbs in Montgomery County and its white working-class areas of Philadelphia are home to some of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most loyal supporters. Local Democrats had warned would-be challengers that no one could defeat Margolies if the Clintons campaigned on her behalf.
But being a Clinton in-law has proved to be a double-edged sword. Clinton endorsed Margolies at a fund-raiser he headlined last month, his first and only event for Margolies since she entered the race a year ago. Her son, her daughter-in-law and Clinton have yet to join the campaign.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Gee whiz, where are the Clintons?’ ” said one prominent Pennsylvania Democrat who did not want to be quoted by name in discussing the family’s dynamics.
The Clintons’ relative silence has prompted awkward speculation in Philadelphia that Clinton does not want to be burdened by Margolies’s baggage in a state that could be pivotal to her chances in the 2016 presidential campaign, should she decide to run. A spokesman for Clinton, Nick Merrill, said Wednesday that she “looks forward to supporting the campaign, and will do so in the coming weeks.”
G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll, said “one huge advantage” for Margolies “that everyone thought was transcendent was her son’s marriage to Chelsea.”
“But,” he added, “other than the Clinton story, there are a lot of negatives.”
Margolies has been out of public office for almost 20 years. After she left Congress, her husband served time in prison for fraud; the couple are now divorced. Other problems are more recent. State Senator Daylin Leach, one of Margolies’s opponents in the primary, has issued a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing her campaign of illegally using general election funds in the primary. Margolies’s campaign said the accusation was baseless.
Ken Smukler, a senior political adviser to Margolies, said that Clinton had done exactly what the campaign had asked and that if he did any more, rivals would criticize her for relying too much on her family connection. “Critics will say they’re either doing too much for us or they’re not doing enough for us, and no matter what we say we can’t disabuse people of it,” Smukler said.
Chelsea Clinton and Mezvinsky have been supportive, he added, but are prohibited from a direct role in the campaign because she is a special correspondent for NBC News and he runs a hedge fund. And Hillary Clinton has mostly avoided political events as she contemplates another run for president. (If she helps the Margolies campaign, it will most likely be in the form of a fund-raiser.)
Less than three weeks before the primary on May 20, Margolies is caught in a close race with Leach; Valerie Arkoosh, a physician; and State Representative Brendan Boyle to replace Representative Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Democrat who is running for governor. Last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer called the campaign “a knock-down, drag-out brawl.”
“People said to me: ‘Oh, my god, Bill Clinton will be here every week. He’ll be knocking on doors,’ ” Leach said. But now, he said, “I don’t think Bill Clinton will make a big difference in terms of votes.”
Clinton still has enormous political clout in Pennsylvania. In 2012, he frequently visited the state to help elect Kathleen G. Kane as attorney general; her opponent in the Democratic primary, former Representative Patrick Murphy, had supported Barack Obama over Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary.
“Bill Clinton has been here so much for so many people, it’s like the Mets coming here three times a year,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based political and public relations consultant.
Margolies, who is president and founder of Women’s Campaign International, reached out to the former president last spring when she decided to run. “I said on the day I announced that I did not run on Bill Clinton’s coattails when I first ran for Congress, and I didn’t intend to in this campaign. That is as true today as it was then,” Margolies said last week in an email.
Clinton donated $2,600, the maximum allowed, to Margolies, and the fund-raiser last month brought in around $200,000. He stuck around to shake hands, pose for photographs and chat with donors in a V.I.P. room at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia. “I want to get one thing out of the way,” Clinton said at the event. “I would be here if her son was not my son-in-law.”
Many of Clinton’s friends, like Lanny J. Davis, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Harold M. Ickes, donated to Margolies’s campaign, which has raised roughly $845,000, compared with the $1.5 million raised by Arkoosh and $1 million by Leach. Smukler said Clinton might still participate in robocalls before the primary, though no campaign events are currently on his schedule.
During his budget fight in the early 1990s, Clinton pleaded with Margolies to support the measure, which included tax increases on the wealthy. After she cast her vote, Representative Robert S. Walker, a Republican from Pennsylvania, jumped up and down on the House floor chanting, “Bye-bye, Marjorie!” Margolies lost her seat in 1994 and then was defeated in a 1998 race for lieutenant governor. She dropped out of a 2000 campaign for Rick Santorum’s Senate seat.
“That was the vote that allowed Bill Clinton to unleash a whole new economic model with that budget,” said Donna Gentile O’Donnell, a Democratic strategist who served as an aide to Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania. “For Marjorie, this race really is about redemption.”
In 2002, Mezvinsky’s father, Ed Mezvinsky, pleaded guilty to 31 counts of bank fraud, although he blamed bipolar disorder and an adverse reaction to anti-malarial medication for his crimes. He was released from prison in 2008. When the couple divorced in 2007, Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky (who had been nicknamed “MMM” in Philadelphia) went back to using her maiden name.
Margolies’s opponents this year have sought to turn her relationship with the Clintons into a vulnerability. Leach has run a campaign advertisement in which his 10-year-old daughter says after footage of a Clinton news conference at the White House, “He seems like a great guy, but everything he’s talking about happened in the past, way before I was born.”
“While some cling to the past,” she continued, “we just can’t go backwards.”
Boyle closed a recent debate by talking about his father, Frank, an Irish immigrant and janitor in Philadelphia. “One of the candidates on stage has the benefit of having a famous relative that will be coming campaign for them,” Boyle said.
Then he added: “This race is not about Bill Clinton. It’s about Frank Boyle, and it’s about the millions of others like him who need a champion in Washington, D.C.”