Pennsylvania’s Republican-led redistricting process forced 17th District Rep. Tim Holden, a Democrat, to introduce himself to many new voters, which provided an opening in the Democratic primary for newcomer Matt Cartwright. The Scranton lawyer ran to the left of Holden as one of the few Blue Dog Democrats left in Congress, and he rode a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment to a surprising primary victory, followed by an easier general-election win.
Cartwright was born in Erie, Pa. His mother earned a law degree but didn’t practice law. His father served in the Army during World War II, and his wartime experience with radar technology led to a job with General Electric. His father’s GE work eventually led the family to relocate to Toronto. “I was the token Yankee. And they tried to teach me to play cricket, of all things. But I rebelled and I organized a softball league,” he said in an interview. Cartwright returned to the U.S. and earned his bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College in 1983. During his undergraduate years, he studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he met his future wife, Marion Munley.
He started at Temple University’s law school before transferring to earn his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. “I wanted to make something of myself, and I knew I was lousy at math,” he said of his decision to pursue law. Cartwright practiced law in Philadelphia for several years while his wife was working as a judicial clerk. The couple later moved to Scranton to join the law firm of Cartwright’s father-in-law, Robert Munley. The family practiced law together for the next 25 years. Cartwright represented consumers tangling with large corporations on a variety of civil claims.
In 2012, Cartwright decided to take on Holden. During redistricting, Holden’s hometown areas of St. Clair and Pottsville were joined with unfamiliar territory in Scranton. And although Holden previously represented part of Harrisburg, the capital city was jettisoned from the new district. Cartwright’s campaign estimated that 86 percent of the district’s likely Democratic voters were new to Holden. “I had always thought about running for high political office, and I was kind of waiting for the stars to line up,” Cartwright said. “And, you know, they don’t hold the door open for you. You kind of have to muscle your way in.”
By March, Cartwright had raised around $600,000, much of it from fellow trial lawyers. He also got outside help from the anti-incumbent super PAC called Campaign for Primary Accountability. Cartwright ran as a progressive, pushing for environmental protections and criticizing corporate tax breaks. The two candidates differed on health care, too. Cartwright supported President Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul, while Holden had voted against it.
Holden ran a hard-hitting ad insinuating that Cartwright’s law firm contributed money to jailed Luzerne County Judge Michael Toole in exchange for a favorable verdict in a malpractice case. The Citizens’ Voice newspaper of Wilkes-Barre pointed out that the political contribution was four years before the malpractice verdict and six years before Toole pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
The new Democratic district was better suited to Cartwright’s liberal views than Holden’s centrism. Cartwright won the primary, 57 percent to 43 percent. Scranton native and Vice President Joe Biden called to offer his congratulations. In the general election, Cartwright faced Scranton Tea Party founder Laureen Cummings. In safe Democratic territory, Cartwright had a distinct advantage and won.