The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Law School alumnus and freshman U.S. Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.) to discuss his time at Penn Law and his goals for Congress. He was sworn into the 113th Congress on Jan. 3.
Daily Pennsylvanian: Tell me about your time at Penn Law.
Congressman Cartwright: I enjoyed my time there. It was a time of hard work, of course, somewhat harder work than you’re used to as an undergraduate, but it was a happy time in my life … I’ll never forget that the final exam of the trial skills course [I took] was an actual trial we were supposed to take part in. And I remember my maiden voyage in a courtroom, and I was trying to cross-examine one of the witnesses, all of whom were attorneys for the Philadelphia Public Defenders Office … and they knew how to spoil a cross-examination pretty handily. But one of the friends I made from that was one of my teammates on the trial and we’ve been friends ever since.
DP: How did studying at Penn Law and practicing as an attorney for 24 years prepare you for what you’re going to do in Congress?
Cartwright: What studying at Penn Law did for me was that it opened some doors for me that wouldn’t have otherwise been opened because of being at Penn. And having the benefit of not only the wonderful education in the law but also the reputation of Penn Law School, I had a lot of different job choices available right out of law school …
Going to Penn Law School and working at Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads [after law school] — I credit those things for making me a very strong brief writer and a solid legal thinker. That gave me a very solid foundation to join a very active trial practice … Between 1988 and 2012, I was a very busy trial lawyer, representing plaintiffs in all matters, almost exclusively all in civil matters, from breach of contracts to ‘bet the company’ commercial litigation to life-or-death medical malpractice trials …
That whole time, I was standing up for ordinary American citizens, usually against more powerful opposition. Whether it was a small business in a major dispute with a gigantic bank, whether it was a railroad worker in a court case against Conrail, whether it was the widow of a medical malpractice victim against a number of hospitals and doctors, I was always on the side of the underdog. I think there are few things you can do as a young man or as a young woman that could give you better preparation for standing up in the halls of Congress for average Americans, for the working families, for the people in the middle class who need somebody who knows how to fight against powerful interests and isn’t afraid to do it.
DP: What inspired you to run for Congress?
Cartwright: I always regarded service in high government positions as an honorable thing. Certainly, there are those who have done dishonor to their positions over the years, but by and large, these people are hard working, honorable and admirable people …
But what led me to run was probably the 2010 redistricting of the Congressional lines. I have always envisioned myself getting involved in high public office, but the years turned into decades and nobody invites you to run for Congress — at least they didn’t invite me — and I started to realize that if you want to get involved in government work, you have to muscle your way in. So when they announced the redistricting of the boundary lines after the 2010 census, I looked at the redistricting lines and I saw that Scranton and Moosic were to be given a new congressman, and I looked at his voting record and the demographic center of gravity of the new district, and I saw that there was an opportunity there. Specifically, the new 17th Congressional District was radically different from how it existed from 2000 to 2010 …
And to follow up with the blue hue of [my district, in Congress] I intend to be a progressive leader on many democratic ideals. In August, I announced my support for marriage equality. In July, I announced support for an assault rifle ban. Hearing from a Congressman about positions like that on those issues would have been unheard of in my district. But [as a leader in Congress] I would rather lead from the front than lead from the rear.
DP: Do you feel that being freshman class president will help you accomplish your goals in Congress?
Cartwright: I am honored to be freshman class president on the Democratic side, but I think it should be pointed out to your readers that position carries no power whatsoever. It is akin to being elected prom king. But on the other hand, I think something like that is a barometer of how well someone is getting to know his peers.
DP: Are there any specific goals you hope to accomplish in the next two years?
Cartwright: My number one district goal is to attack the unemployment rate in northeastern Pennsylvania. Nationwide, it’s at a hair under 8 percent. In northeastern Pennsylvania, it’s pushing 10 percent … Therefore, fostering economic development is a huge part of what I hope to accomplish in the district in the next two years.
This coming week, I expect to be named the ranking member of the economic development subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. I am honored that they are naming a freshman a ranking member, and I intend to use that position to make myself aware of all the federal economic development opportunities available for northeastern Pennsylvania.
As far as legislative goals for the next two years, I have intentions of following a very aggressive line for accomplishing legislative goals. For example, I have environmental legislative issues that I want to pursue. One example [of those] is an exemption in the George Bush energy bill of 2005 that exempts oil and gas companies from disclosing what toxins they use in their extraction process [which is a loophole that] I think must be closed and repealed. I will be co-sponsoring a bill to achieve that. There are also other environmental issues that I will be pursuing as well.
DP: President Obama talked about cleaner energy during his inaugural address today. Is that something you hope to work on as well?
Cartwright: Absolutely. I am totally on board with what the president said and have been for some time. I will probably join the SEEC Caucus (Sustainable Energy and Environmental Caucus) and will also very much be part of efforts to help America take a leadership position in the world in the war on global warming.
DP: Do you have any ideas or strategies for reaching across the aisle to work with House Republicans?
Cartwright: Yes. I’ve already implemented some of them. As president of the freshman democratic class, I’ve been scheduling regular social outings with the freshmen republicans [and the republican freshman class president]. Right now, we’re checking out bowling alleys. [It will help us work better] because it’s harder to demonize someone you know. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree on anything, but we won’t have the kind of animosity that we’ve seen [before].
DP: Do you have any advice for current Penn students who are interested in going into politics or law someday?
Cartwright: Don’t go to law school unless you really want to be a lawyer because [it’s] not fun if you aren’t sure it’s your career path. My advice for people interested in politics — if you intend on running for office, do something else with your life beforehand because what I’m seeing is that the most effective congresspeople are the people that have expertise in widely varying ranges of things in business and government before they come here.