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April 01, 2021

‘Women in Political Leadership’ Panelists Stress the Importance of Partnerships Between Government and the Legal Community

The March 31 Member Event Featured Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon, Pennsylvania House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton and Philadelphia City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker

Speak up. Work your connections. Never underestimate the impact you can make on mentees, clients and young people by being generous with your time and experience.

These were among the key pieces of advice that Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon, Pennsylvania House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton and Philadelphia City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker shared with the Philadelphia Bar Association community at a March 31 virtual event celebrating Women’s History Month. The event was organized by the Women in the Profession Committee and moderated by two of the committee co-chairs, Michele Punturi and Neelima Vanguri. The organizing committee for the event also included Women in the Profession Committee co-chair Catherine Barbieri. The event was sponsored by Exponent.

The Path to Politics

The program opened with the women describing their paths to political leadership. Scanlon said she decided to run for Congress for the same reason she decided to run for school board 15 years ago – “an anger management problem,” she said, laughing, clarifying that her desire to run came from identifying issues that were not being addressed and wanting to have a hand in solving them.

“Working as pro bono counsel at Ballard Spahr, in the first months of the Trump Administration, our work exploded on the pro bono front,” she said, naming the changes to immigration law as among the reasons for the increase. “It started to look like it was not going to be just a matter of enforcing rights and defending rights, they were changing the laws. At the same time, there was redistricting happening in Pennsylvania and I became involved in trying to elect more women to the state legislature…. Everything came together and in that moment it felt like time to take the next step.”

McClinton, who joined the event after meeting President Joe Biden when he spoke in Pittsburgh to announce his infrastructure plan, said her decision to run came when she was working as a public defender in Philadelphia and trying to determine what would be a good next step. One of her mentors, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Timika Lane, encouraged McClinton to apply for a job with her state senator, and in 2013 she became chief counsel to state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

“A vacancy came up in my neighborhood in the State House; I was not ever gearing my life toward running for office, but I got out of my head about ‘Oh I’m not a politician, I’m not a public servant,’ and said I’ve been advocating for people in court, in my personal ministry at church, in so many ways,” said McClinton, who has served in the General Assembly since 2015 and was named House Minority Leader in 2021, becoming the first woman to hold that title. “So don’t miss out in competing for this opportunity to speak up for a larger community just because I don’t consider myself political or feel ingrained into public election and I’m so glad I did.”

Parker described going to a community meeting while still in her teens and asking then state Rep. (now Congressman) Dwight Evans what he was going to do to change her neighborhood. “He did what no elected official did – he said the question is not what we’re going to do, the question is what you’re going to do,” she recalled.

She wrote a speech that won her first place in two oratorical contests and met two Philadelphia City Councilwomen, Augusta Clark and Marian Tasko, who “wrapped their arms around me.”

“My mother had passed away when I was 11, I lost my grandmother when I was 16, so that was a lot of turmoil early on,” said Parker, who served for 10 years as a Pennsylvania state representative before being elected to City Council in 2015. “I learned very early on I couldn’t even think about whether government or politics would have been a vehicle had I not seen women who looked like me, who were reflected as being a part of the solution and women who looked like me whose voices were welcome at the table to help devise solutions.”

A Partner in the Fight for Justice

The panelists also credited the Philadelphia legal community and the Bar Association for being a partner in the fight for greater access to justice.

“The Philadelphia Bar Association helped me get to where I am today,” Scanlon said. “After being chair of the children’s law committee I became part of the Chancellors’ Commission on Children at Risk and from there I joined the board of Philadelphia Legal Assistance…. Even when I was working at a law firm where my day job wasn’t the thing I had passions for I had the opportunity through the Philadelphia Bar Association to work on the things that really mattered to me and developed those connections. Then over time, that became my job and now it’s become my place in Congress.”

McClinton noted that the Bar Association helped her gain mentors and opportunities including a fellowship from the Bar Foundation when she was a public defender. She also cited the key role lawyers can play when it comes to politics and protecting rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

“We’re at a crossroads. People are focused on what happened in Georgia, but Iowa also passed voter suppression three weeks ago,” McClinton said. “Lawyers play a major role in doing bipartisan, neutral advocacy, voter protection on Election Day…. To me the Bar Association provides a web of training, information and advocacy, and not in the sense with a political party affiliation – non-partisan. Just making sure that every person has free access to the ballot.”

She also credited the legal community with “stepping into the ring” in speaking out against issues like House Bill 38, which proposes to create electoral districts for Pennsyvlania appellate court judges.

“Continue to do the work you also do with high schools,” McClinton added. “The work you do with youth in Philadelphia – it’s critical. The mentorship you provide young people in Philly, do no diminish that. I knew no lawyers in Southwest Philly growing up, not one in my family. Don’t think the time you spend … that it doesn’t make a difference; it does.”

Parker noted that the partnership between the political and legal realms is critical because many times when constituents come to City Council for assistance “what they really need is a lawyer.”

“We use the Bar Association as one of our most valuable technical tools in order to help us be effective in helping our constituents at large,” Parker said. Parker also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened push for racial equity after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others presents an opportunity to think about how to address systemic injustice in spaces including the justice system and within law firms.

“What is it that we can systemically do in our own space?” Parker asked. “If I’m at a law firm, maybe we’re raising concerns about equity and access to diversity and inclusion…. Where are the women partners? Where are the Black and Brown women in this firm? What about the middle management? What about the entry level people?... Just finding a way to make sure that access to your industry is known and available and don’t take for granted at any time or any mentorship program or any visit to a school for career day, all of those things, they matter a great deal.”

Check out the May edition of the Philadelphia Bar Reporter for more coverage of this event.

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