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A Perelman School of Medicine professor vying for a seat in Congress has so far found a reliable donor base among one group: Penn employees.

Valerie Arkoosh, who is one of four Democratic candidates running for U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s (D-Pa.) seat in the state’s 13th congressional district, raised $48,285 from University employees through the end of June, according to Federal Election Commission filings. That total comes as nearly 10 percent of the $494,563 Arkoosh has received in overall contributions from individuals.

Arkoosh’s support from Penn employees, many of whom work for the University’s health system, has helped push the anesthesiologist-turned-congressional candidate’s campaign out in front of a crowded pack early on in the fundraising tour. The $503,563 that Arkoosh has raised since she entered the race in March is first among her three opponents in the Democratic primary; state Sen. Daylin Leach has raised $357,590, state Rep. Brendan Boyle has raised $252,727 and Marjorie Margolies, a Fels Institute of Government faculty member and former congresswoman for the 13th district, has raised $185,345.

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The 13th district covers parts of Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County and is dominated by Democratic voters. The winner of the May 2014 primary will almost surely go on to replace Schwartz, who is running for governor.

Among the four candidates, Leach has so far placed second in fundraising at the University, receiving $7,000 in contributions from Penn employees through the end of June.

Arkoosh and Margolies, the two Penn employees going head to head in the primary, are both taking leaves of absence from the University as their campaigns heat up. In comparison to the 57 Penn employees who have given to Arkoosh’s campaign, just one University employee has given to Margolies’s, as of the most recent FEC filings. Arkoosh was the first of the four candidates to enter the race; Margolies was the last, filing her candidacy paperwork at the end of May.

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“I’ve been humbled by how robust the support has been from my colleagues, at Penn and elsewhere,” said Arkoosh, who has never run for elected office and is considered an underdog in the race. “It furthers my strong passion to make sure I run a great campaign and win this seat, just to honor the investment that they’ve made in me.”

‘Hitting the low-hanging fruit’

Arkoosh’s quarterly FEC filings paint a picture of a candidate who, several months into the race, has managed to leverage her connections at Penn and in higher education more broadly into financial success. Her list of donors so far is an impressive who’s who of Philadelphia-based physicians, many of whom say that Arkoosh, despite her political inexperience, is ready to head to Washington.

“She might be a political novice in being an elected representative, but she’s not a political novice as far as how Capitol Hill works,” said Ann Honebrink, a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology, who has donated $400 to Arkoosh’s campaign. “I see her background as an advantage in this race.”

In 2009 Arkoosh became president of the National Physicians Alliance, traveling to Washington at the height of the debate over health care reform. Penn employees who have given to Arkoosh’s campaign said that her expertise in health care, from both a clinical and legislative perspective, makes her a compelling candidate. In the past, some of these employees said they have given primarily to political action committees or other issues advocacy groups; now, however, they are vocal in their support of Arkoosh.

“There’s a strong advocacy community within the University that is interested in health care reform,” said Ian Bennett, a professor of family medicine and community health, who has donated $250 to Arkoosh’s campaign. “I think that is probably a good conduit for her campaign, given where her interests and strengths as a candidate lie.”

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Health-care reform is Arkoosh’s bread-and-butter issue as a candidate, but her qualifications, she said, extend well beyond that. Arkoosh pointed to her time as chair of the Department of Anesthesiology at Drexel University College of Medicine, for example, as a sign that she has experience balancing departmental budgets, and with economics more generally.

“Politics is politics,” she said, “and anyone who has spent their career working in academic health centers knows about politics.”

Arkoosh’s opponents said they were not surprised that she has kicked off her campaign with a strong show of financial support from colleagues at Penn.

“Fundraising in politics is all about hitting the low-hanging fruit first,” said Ken Smukler, a senior adviser to Margolies. “Where candidates go for their first quarter money is where they have been before.” It would have been a surprise, Smukler said, if Arkoosh had not received financial support from the Penn community.

Through the end of June, six Penn employees had given $2,000 or more to Arkoosh’s campaign.

“She doesn’t come across as a politician,” said Ann Steiner, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology, who has given $600 to Arkoosh’s campaign. “She thinks like a physician, in terms of evidence-based medicine and practice.”

Arkoosh’s candidacy, Steiner said, was first put on her radar during a conversation she had with a colleague in the health system earlier this year. On Sunday, she co-hosted an event for the candidate’s campaign. “I’m kind of a hard sell,” Steiner said, “but Val really sold it well.”

A tough road ahead

So far, Arkoosh has portrayed herself as a Washington outsider who would bring a much-needed expertise in policymaking and evidence-based thinking to Capitol Hill. Some, though, say that Arkoosh might be too much of an outsider to be competitive in the primary.

“It’s wonderful that she’s getting contributions from Penn, but to really be a viable candidate you have to raise money on a national level in Washington,” said Jonathan Saidel, a former Philadelphia city controller and Fels Institute instructor, who dropped out of the 13th district race in April, citing conversations with Margolies and national Democratic leaders. “There’s no way that I can envision Val Arkoosh winning the Democratic congressional primary. I wish her well, but it takes a lot more than raising funds to be a viable candidate in a race like this.”

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Because the 13th district is located in an especially expensive media market, Arkoosh would likely have to outperform her opponents significantly on the fundraising front to have a shot at overcoming her name recognition problem, said Michael Bronstein, a Philadelphia-based political consultant who is not involved in the race. Like Saidel, Bronstein said he does not see that happening.

Given the demographic diversity within the 13th district, along with the fact that the race already features four candidates who appear to be in it for the long haul, Bronstein said the May 2014 primary should be among the most intriguing nationally.

Adding to that intrigue is the possible presence of the Clinton family at some point in Margolies’s campaign. Margolies’ son is married to Chelsea Clinton, and it was the Fels instructor’s deciding vote in favor of then-President Bill Clinton’s controversial 1993 budget that many say cost her re-election to a second term in the House of Representatives. Margolies has said consistently that she does not plan to run on the Clintons’ coattails, but the help of the former first family, considered Democratic royalty in the eyes of many voters, could be a boost to her campaign.

Some Arkoosh supporters at Penn said they agree that Arkoosh will have to overcome a hefty name recognition problem, but think she is up for the challenge.

“For me, winning the race is the goal. I feel like I’d get the best return on my investment if she were elected,” said Bennett, the family medicine and community health professor. “I’m not just throwing out good money for bad.”

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