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Photo from Gabby Richards

The state of Pennsylvania has 18 seats in the House of Representatives and two seats in the Senate — all of which are currently held by men. But come this season's midterm election, 1984 Penn Law graduate Mary Gay Scanlon might help change that. 

Scanlon won the Democratic primary election this May and is running against Pearl Kim, a woman who claimed the Republican nomination. The two female candidates will be fighting head-to-head for the historic Fifth Congressional District race, which will undoubtedly result in a woman representative. 

The district encompasses southwest Philadelphia and parts of Delaware and Montgomery County. Regardless of the outcome, the race will produce a female Pennsylvania congressional representative.

Scanlon said her time spent at Penn helped shape her professional career in many ways. She credits Penn, at least in part, for inspiring her advocacy for pro bono efforts in Philadelphia, her continued engagement with Penn Law Clinic, and her current bid for Congress.

She came to Penn Law with an intention of entering into a life of public service and often volunteered in cases in which those involved could not afford counsel. But she points to a moment the summer after her first year at Penn as a catalyst for her desire to help those less fortunate in society.

Scanlon was working at the Penn Law Clinic and saw a woman's eviction case in landlord-tenant court. The woman’s lawyer started to yell at her when she wasn’t giving the answers he needed, and the woman began to cry. The judge stopped proceedings and asked the lawyer what he was doing, to which the lawyer replied, “Your honor, it’s pro bono.”

“It was appalling to me and it really reinforced a desire to represent people regardless of circumstances and to always treat them with respect,” Scanlon said. 

Before deciding to run for Congress, Scanlon most recently served as pro bono counsel at the Philadelphia Law firm Ballard Spahr, where she coordinated the firm’s volunteer legal efforts. With the 650 lawyers at the firm and their numerous clients, Scanlon said Ballard Spahr gives away 50,000 hours of free legal services every year, equivalent to over $20 million.

“It’s a good job, and it all comes from starting at Penn, having started representing folks in the legal services system,” Scanlon said.

Scanlon stayed engaged with Penn Law well after her graduation, according to two Penn Law professors who hail her as a role model for their students. 

Professor Fernando Chang-Muy first met Scanlon when she was an attorney at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, where she represented children in the public school system. She has served as a guest lecturer in his refugee law class to speak about her work with refugees seeking asylum.

“She’s a great example of a public interest lawyer who left public interest and went to work with a big law firm, but nevertheless continued to do public interest work,” Chang-Muy said. “Many of my students end up working in big law firms, and Mary Gay showed them through her personal experience, how big law firms and corporations can still do great pro bono work like she did.”

Penn Law professor Louis Rulli first connected with Scanlon through the Philadelphia pro bono community, and echoed Chang-Muy’s praises. Scanlon has also spoken with his classes about pro bono legal services and why it's important law students are involved in pro bono work.

“Mary Gay is deeply committed to public service, her whole professional career has been about helping others, especially the most vulnerable in our society,” Rulli said. “She’s a great role model for all students about how you can integrate public service into your career, no matter what your career path is.”

For Scanlon, the most important issues this election cycle deal with voting rights, health care, and education, especially with regard to student loans. 

“The student loan system is terribly broken, and we need to reform the process and make it more affordable,” Scanlon said. “We also need to address the escalating student debt and look at student loan forgiveness, as that is money that will go back into the economy in a way that corporate giveaways will not go back into the economy.”

She urged Penn students to turn out to the polls in November, in order to buck the trend of older voters deciding the fate of the future.

“Students are poised to become the biggest voting block in the country — if they turn out,” Scanlon said. “They’ve got to come out, or their grandparents are going to dictate what the country is going to look like.”