GLENSIDE, Pa. — Reps. Chrissy Houlahan and Madeleine Dean often get lumped together. They’re both 50-something freshman Democrats from the Philadelphia suburbs, mothers of three grown children, and they helped turn this corner of Pennsylvania almost entirely blue behind a historic wave of female candidates.
But Houlahan and Dean are living parallel lives inside Congress.
Houlahan, 51, a former Air Force officer, launched a new bipartisan caucus Wednesday focused on issues for women in the military and veterans. An engineer by training, Houlahan regularly searches for GOP allies during her “get to know a Republican” practice, scanning the House floor to find a GOP lawmaker to go meet.
Dean, 59, a lawyer, is deeply engaged in the partisan standoff on the House Judiciary Committee, a showdown with President Trump that could ultimately lead to impeachment proceedings.
Just four months into her congressional service, Dean often thinks about how these investigations could define her career more than any legislative accomplishment.
“Every day. This is historic work,” Dean said over lunch Monday at the Glenside Pub, a stone’s throw from where she grew up. “We have to do both, but our system of government hangs in the balance, that basic sense of decency.”
That two first-year Democrats with so many outward similarities, living 20 miles apart, can have such different experiences on Capitol Hill demonstrates the diversity of this massive freshman class. It’s the diversity not only of identity but also of experience, ideology and outlook.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has often said that “our diversity is our strength,” but this is a caucus that will become increasingly unwieldy as the showdown with Trump continues to take center stage in the weeks and months ahead.
How she navigates the distance from the farthest left corner to the farthest right corner will determine how Pelosi gets graded in her second tenure as speaker.
While Dean is not ready to begin impeachment proceedings, she wants to keep investigating to build a case before the public that could ultimately lead to such an outcome. She has embraced her position and is a frequent guest on cable news shows.
Houlahan rarely focuses on the president, sticking to her work on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. In six town halls this year, constituents have mentioned Trump directly only once or twice. She also wants Trump out of office, but she relates the story a friend told her to illustrate why she opposes impeachment.
“We’ve got a problem, but the problem needs to be solved in 2020 at the polls,” Houlahan recalled over coffee at Pour Richard’s in Devon, an affluent town in the onetime GOP stronghold of Chester County. “And we need to be practical about how we get there. And so it’s not about how fast can you get this guy out. It’s how can we make sure that we’re addressing the issues that we got elected on.”
Dean’s election and rise to TV prominence, along with another Philadelphia-area freshman, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D), also on the Judiciary Committee, are a surprise prompted by a legal twist.
Houlahan was the early female star of these suburbs, a symbol of the 2018 midterms — a woman with national security experience running her first race, galvanized by Trump’s 2016 victory.
“I had never looked at a congressional map before,” Houlahan said.
She left the Air Force when she started having children, in an era when the military did little to accommodate mothers — a key issue for the new caucus she launched Wednesday. She settled in Devon 25 years ago and served as an executive at a sports apparel company and helped run nonprofits.
In early 2017 Houlahan responded to a fundraising request from Emily’s List, the PAC dedicated to electing female Democrats, with her résumé, and within a week an Emily’s List aide wrote back asking whether she seriously wanted to run.
She entered the race early against Rep. Ryan Costello, the second-term Republican who held the swing district, and immediately became a favorite of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But the race ended before any real votes were cast when the state Supreme Court ruled the old district lines violated the state Constitution and drew maps with more contiguous county borders.
Costello bailed on the race, in a more Democratic-leaning district. Despite winning with almost 60 percent of the vote, Houlahan has settled in ideologically with other moderates who flipped GOP seats.
The new map helped spring Dean from relative obscurity to nationally televised hearings on the Judiciary Committee.
One of seven children from a family that debated politics at the kitchen table, Dean won a local Democratic committee seat when she was just 18.
After winning a seat in the state House in 2012, she seemed stuck there — until last year’s new map left an open seat for most of Montgomery County.
As she knocked on doors last spring, Dean said, she heard two issues: health care and Trump. One voter told her he wanted one thing from Washington: “Decency.”
She won the primary easily and the general election by more than 30 points, securing a seat that she could hold for years to come.
Almost overnight, Pennsylvania went from having no women in Congress to four, with Scanlon and Susan Wild (D) also winning previous GOP territory.
The quartet are friends, having campaigned together, and they are enjoying their collective victory and their colleagues’ Trump-related appearances on TV.
“We see that it’s possible,” Houlahan said. “We see that we can build a bench. We see that we can be competitive. We see that we can raise money just like the guys.”
And Dean gets frustrated with how little attention Democrats get on their agenda.
“We walk, chew gum and floss at the same time,” she said. “It’s what we have to do.”
On Monday, she toured an art gallery displaying winners of her art competition among high school students, met with officials from a town in need of a $10 million infusion for its sewer plant and heard from a couple trying to block cell-tower lines in their neighborhood.
But she said those tasks will not be as important as her work in holding Trump accountable. “There is not a monarch,” Dean said. “There is not a dictator. We are coequal branches. And we need to restore America’s faith in that.”