Michele Lawrence is betting a long career in the private sector will translate into political success — and be enough to unseat an incumbent congressman in the Democratic primary.
While still working at Wells Fargo five years ago, Lawrence’s father, Thelmon L. Newman Jr., encouraged her to run for Congress, she recalled while sitting at The Philadelphia Tribune for an editorial meeting this week.
With a full-time job at Wells Fargo and mentoring young men as part of her nonprofit, Lawrence decided against it. “My plate was a platter. … Quite frankly, I didn’t believe the work I was doing was done,” she said.
Fast-forward a few years.
As Lawrence looked around the Fishtown neighborhood where she lives, she saw resources lacking.
“The district was sending up a distress signal and I was answering it, quite frankly, with an S.O.S. of my own: service, opportunity and solutions,” said Lawrence, who is 49, divorced and has an adult son.
After retiring from Wells Fargo in 2017 as area president and senior vice president for the bank’s Greater Philadelphia Region, Lawrence now runs her own consulting firm, heads two nonprofits and is a radio host.
She will compete against U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle in the May 15 primary for the Democratic slot in the November election. Boyle, a two-term congressman representing the 13th District, found himself relocated to the 2nd District after the congressional district map was redrawn earlier this year.
During The Tribune editorial board meeting, Lawrence discussed her positions on a wide range of issues. The following are excerpts from that meeting.
Lawrence’s central platform is education, which she called the great equalizer.
If elected, Lawrence said she would fight for increasing federal spending on education, support ways to lower the costs of higher education and reinforce current educational programs and legislation.
Investing in education will ensure Philadelphians are better prepared for jobs of the future, she said.
“If we’re in fact saying we’re going to be on the cutting edge, we need to stop cutting the very thing that puts us in position to be on the cutting edge — and we keep cutting education,” Lawrence said.
Education is the root cause of many of Philadelphia’s challenges, including gun violence, drugs and poverty, she explained.
“Our root cause is not going to go away from being education,” she said.
Lawrence said she will lean heavily on her business acumen and financial background to help better allocate federal funding to the district.
“From a financial perspective, it’s the budget: Where is the money? How is it being allocated? And where’s the accountability around the distribution of it? No one does that better than I do. I’ve had to do it every day [at Wells Fargo] to make sure resources and tools were given not only to my employees but to the community,” she said.
At Wells Fargo, Lawrence said she held forums that brought in more than 200 small businesses to discuss how they could better grow and thrive in the city. As a congresswoman, she would continuing being a strong partner of small businesses, and find more ways to incubate and fund start-up businesses here, she said.
Lawrence said she supported lowering the estate tax, noting it affects only the top 1 percent and does not help the middle or lower classes. (The estate tax is paid on the transfer of an individual’s property upon his or her death. Although the yearly threshold to file for an estate tax varies, it primarily affects the wealthy; in 2018, the filing threshold increased to $10 million, according to the Internal Revenue Service’s website.)
“If I own my home, I don’t want to pay estate taxes at all — at all. … I’m fighting that, everybody should not have to pay the estate tax, because I’ve already paid tax once. Why am I paying taxes two or three times?” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said she does not support proposals for a safe-injection site that are being discussed by city officials and community members.
“I think we are putting a Band-Aid on the wound by doing that,” Lawrence said about setting up a safe-injection site, “rather than addressing the root issue of what caused them to be in that position to begin with.”
The 2nd District includes Kensington, which is at the heart of the surging opioid crisis, and where men and women remain encamped beneath railroad overpasses along Lehigh Avenue, turning them into open-air drug markets.
Instead, Lawrence said she wanted to see in her community a location where those suffering from opioid addiction could more easily access assistance programs that would include medical and counseling components. She also called for investing more in current rehab centers.
“We’re not assessing anything; we’re not determining what the root cause is; we’re not figuring out a solution by which people can become whole or become well,” Lawrence said about safe-injection sites.
Lawrence said the city should explore any proposal to bring more jobs and tax revenue to Philadelphia, but added: “It needs to be mutually beneficial.”
In February, Philadelphia was among 20 cities under consideration by the tech giant to be the location of the company’s second headquarters. Amazon has touted the prospect of 50,000 jobs and construction spending of more than $5 billion for the selected city.
“If Amazon is the fit for the city that benefits the people in as much as [Amazon] will benefit, then I’m in favor,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said she will not be an always-no Democrat against President Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress.
Lawrence said she would consider any proposal or policy of Trump’s as long as they are beneficial for voters, but she added that she won’t hesitate to challenge the president on any issue.
“If [Trump] has something that helps the people, then it’s not about going against the man; it’s about addressing his policy or the things that he’s saying he wants to implement,” she said.
Lawrence added: “I can’t promise that everything will be negative, that I’m going to say no to, and I can’t promise that I’m going to say yes to everything. My responsibility, when elected, is to do what’s best for the people. It may not always feel good, but you’re not electing me for a feeling; you’re electing me for an outcome.”