In a conversation four years ago, Michele Lawrence's father suggested she run for Congress.
"Dad, that is never going to happen," she told her dad, Thelmon Newman, who was then an English professor at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, N.J.
She recalls his shaking his head and saying, "No, the country needs people who care about people and who can create policies to help them."
It was no sale then; she was area president and senior vice president for Wells Fargo's Greater Philadelphia region. But now she's retired from the bank, and this is a year of political upheaval caused by redistricting, so she is running in the newly redrawn Second District. If elected, the Democrat would be the first African American woman from Pennsylvania to be sent to Congress.
It would be historic, but in my conversations with her, the 49-year-old Lawrence mercifully plays neither the race nor the gender card, although she has felt the sting of both racism and sexism. "I'm not doing it to be the first, I'm doing it to serve, but what a privilege it would be to be the first," says Lawrence, who is divorced with an adult son who works for a nonprofit.
After closing the books on a successful, 28-year banking career, she's in business for herself — Michele Speaks LLC, which teaches people to bootstrap themselves by utilizing "four Ws" — worth, wealth, wisdom, and wellness. She uses her life experience as a template — rising from a childhood in a housing project to the corner office of a banking executive.
When she decided to heed Dad's advice, she was set to challenge Bob Brady for the First District seat he held for 20 years. Then a couple of things happened: Brady decided he would not run for reelection, and after a court challenge, the congressional district map was redrawn and — poof — the First District moved to Bucks County.
A Fishtown resident, Lawrence found herself in the Second District, which has been represented by Dwight Evans, who now lives in the new Third District. Running in the Second is Democrat Brendan Boyle, who had been the congressman in the 13th District. Early on, Boyle was facing possible challenges by some well-known names — Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, and former City Councilman Bill Green — but each backed away from the challenge, making the race easier for Boyle and harder for Lawrence.
The dynastic feuding among Boyle, Stack, and Green had sucked most of the oxygen out of the room as the media, understandably, focused on the old-fashioned Irish donnybrook.
Unlike Boyle, Stack, and Green, Lawrence was not born here. A native of Newark, N.J., she came to Philly in 2003 for a job as district manager with Wachovia Bank.
Though underpublicized and underfunded, Lawrence did have a narrow path to victory over the better-known names. "If there are three white men, that's a good position for her," said longtime political observer Larry Ceisler before Green and Stack dropped out. They might have split the white vote, but that won't happen now. Lawrence needs big funding to get her story out, he says.
Money for her campaign is coming mostly from individuals. She has a core of about 100 volunteers, drawn from people she has met over the years. She's running for them.
The biggest plank in her platform is education. She wants Congress to increase the 6 percent of the federal budget spent on education. Her father is an educator, she's a Rutgers alum, and the former banker bemoans that a college loan can cost more than a home mortgage.
"The district sent up a distress call, and I am answering," says Lawrence, who became a licensed minister in 2016. "There's something about being called to public service that best describes what I want to be. I'm running because I have leadership skills, business acumen. and because I am good at getting at root causes."