HILLARY CLINTON is preparing to make a major political decision, but it is not about the US presidency.
This one has all the ingredients of a Shakespearean drama, pitting family loyalty against political allegiances. And Irish-Americans are slap bang in the middle of it.
The other central players are Hillary’s husband Bill, their daughter, Chelsea, and Chelsea’s mother-in-law, Marjorie Margolies, a former US congresswoman from Pennsylvania, who has decided to put a fraught political past behind her and run again for Congress at the age of 71.
But Hillary’s Irish-American backers in Pennsylvania aren’t happy. They want a rising political star named Brendan Boyle, the son of an Irish immigrant, to get the seat and will be up in arms if Hillary decides to throw her weight, as requested, behind Margolies and campaign for her.
Clinton’s dilemma was described to me this way: “If Hillary goes in there she is really going to anger the Irish. But if she doesn’t go in it’s her family she’ll upset.”
Like all good dramas, family guilt is also an ingredient in this one. Apart from being Chelsea’s mother-in-law, Margolies played a central role in the success of Bill Clinton’s presidency. She lost her original Congressional seat because she decided at the last minute, after a call from the president, to vote in favour of Clinton’s 1993 budget that increased taxes on the wealthy, handing him a dramatic two-vote victory.
I happened to be working on the story in Washington at the time and Margolies’ vote created quite a stir — she became a villain to some, especially her wealthier constituents, and a hero to others.
Voting to raise taxes in America is often akin to voting for gun control. It gets you into big trouble.
So, like other members of Congress who voted for gun control during the Clinton years, Margolies failed to win re-election.
Her decision to switch sides after promising not to raise taxes has followed her for 20 years. “It was a small tax increase on the very richest 1.2% of the population. But the problem was all of them lived in Montgomery County, my district,” said Margoles. So Bill Clinton owes her politically and, since 2010, when her son Marc married Chelsea Clinton, she has also become tied to the family personally.
Now she is in the spotlight again. The Democratic primary that will elect either Boyle or Margolies to fight a Republican in the November election is coming up in May, so Hillary will have to decide soon which way to jump.
Like the Clintons themselves, both Margolies and Boyle are powerful political forces in their own right and their personal stories read like chapters from the American Dream.
Boyle’s father, Francis Brendan, emigrated from Glencolmcille, Co Donegal, in 1970 at the age of 19 and settled near Philadelphia. Some years later, he met and married Mary Cunningham, whose parents were from Sligo. The Boyles worked hard and saw their family thrive at school and later in politics.
It was grist for the political mill. In a campaign video, entitled My story and why I’m running for Congress, Boyle shows his father sweeping a Pennsylvania train station. “To most people, it looked like any other station and each day hundreds of people on their way both [to and from] work would hurry past the man sweeping on the platform,” says Boyle. “But to my brother and I, my father’s laugh and his giant personality made him bigger than life. Our mom was a school crossing guard and we didn’t have much growing up but my parents worked their hearts out. They convinced us studying hard would create opportunities they never had. Dad came to America from Ireland when he was 19 looking for a better life.”
By all accounts, his sons found it. Brendan won a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, from which he graduated with a degree in government and later earned a master’s degree from Harvard in public policy. Then, in 2010, Brendan and Kevin Boyle made history as the first brothers to ever serve together in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
So when I tracked down their aunt in Co Donegal this week, she had much about which to be proud.
Speaking from her home in Doorin, Mountcharles, Co Donegal, Christina Brogan told me: “We’re very proud of Brendan and his brother Kevin. Brendan comes over often and Kevin was married in Glencolmcille three years ago. But last year was a sad one for them when their mum died.”
Christina, who is Francis Boyle’s sister, is optimistic about Brendan Boyle’s chances and she said she might even pack her bags for the US later on and campaign for her nephew. “You never know,” she said.
“I think Brendan has a good chance of winning against the Clinton girl’s mother-in-law. He’s a very nice, honest fella. I think he should make it.”
Boyle, who had been first elected in 2008 and named one of the top 10 rising political stars by the Philadelphia Daily News, won re-election in 2010 despite a national Republican wave, defeating his Republican opponent by a margin of 64% to 36%. As the Boyle family celebrated the historic victories, in another part of the country, another family was celebrating.
The same year that the Boyle brothers were making history in Pennsylvania, the Clintons were celebrating their daughter’s wedding. On July 31, 2010, in Rhinebeck, New York, the daughter of the former US president and the former US secretary of state married investment banker Marc Mezvinsky, son of Marjorie Margolies and Edward Mezvinsky, a former congressman from Iowa with a dodgy past.
He had been imprisoned in 2003 for defrauding investors of more than $10m (€7.2m). He pleaded guilty to 31 out of 69 counts of bank, mail, and wire fraud in the case, which rocked political and financial circles at the time. His wife stood by him for the first four years of his federal prison sentence before divorcing him in 2007, just one year before he was released. “We are now divorced,” she told The New York Times.
“I am convinced he had every intention of paying everybody back. He just got into a black hole that he couldn’t get out of.”
Mezvinsky and Margolies had raised 11 children together: four from his first marriage, two she had adopted on her own, two sons they had together, and three other adopted children — in 1970 she became the first single woman in the US to adopt a foreign child.
A former journalist for CBS and NBC, Margolies teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is a women’s rights activist. She currently serves as the founder and chair of Women’s Campaign International, a group that provides advocacy training for women throughout the world. It’s an impressive CV but one that has also got her into some Irish-style trouble.
She came under fire for allegedly overpaying herself as chair of the WCI charity. The Huffington Post reported her salary has steadily increased from $54,962 in 2002 to the highest point in 2011 when she took home $164,159. Margolies’ spokesman, Ken Smukler, said she was paid less than the industry average for heads of non-profits — in the region of $95,000 — when looking at her pay over the past decade rather than the past few years. The point was also made that the ebb and flow of fundraising efforts also mean that the budgets of charities can vary, so therefore salaries can also.
Whether any of this or her vote to up taxes 20 years ago will matter in the May battle against Boyle remains to be seen. What will likely be far more important is whose side Hillary Clinton is on.
“My relationship with the Clinton family is a good one,” Margoles said recently, “and as you can understand I don’t discuss it.”
Her campaign has been less reticent and suggested that Hillary can’t have a family member lose a race for Congress just months before she herself is gearing up for a likely presidential election.
Meanwhile, the 13th congressional district is buzzing with political action. It is 60% Democratic and votes that way and this year whoever wins the May primary is likely to go all the way to Washington.
So, in the end, it will probably all be down to Hillary Clinton’s decision. And even if she ends up upsetting the Irish in Pennsylvania — and Donegal — at least it will be good practice for her next big decision.