Brendan Boyle’s Biden bet

Philadelphia Congressman Brendan Boyle was one of Biden's earliest backers for president. Will he now reap the rewards?

Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, Philadelphia Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) reached out to Joe Biden and urged him to run for president. As a devoted Biden ally and fellow Catholic of Irish descent, Boyle, 43, had his personal reasons for supporting the former vice president. But from a purely political standpoint, there was little doubt in Boyle’s mind that Biden would be the best man to take on Donald Trump, particularly in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Born in Scranton, Biden was long considered an honorary “third senator” of the state throughout his decades-long tenure representing neighboring Delaware in the upper chamber.

Despite his conviction, Boyle, a moderate Democrat in a party that appeared to be leaning leftward, was aware this outlook might be seen as untrendy, and he wanted to make sure that Biden knew he was on his side. 

“There were a lot of people in the media who were writing him off and thinking that the Democratic Party had changed,” Boyle told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “It was my view that a lot of the analysis of that time about the Democratic Party was wrong and was really overrating this dialogue that you hear on Twitter and under-representing the more rank-and-file Democrats who aren’t on social media,” he added. “That was the analysis that I offered, and I think it’s proven correct.”

Following Biden’s win, it would not be unreasonable to expect that Boyle be rewarded for his loyalty to the president-elect, who is in the process of picking staff members ahead of his January 20 inauguration. But while Boyle said he has been engaged in ongoing discussions with Biden’s transition team — the details of which he declined to disclose — the congressman claimed that he was in no way actively seeking a role in the next administration.  

“I’m very appreciative of the fact that I just got reelected to a fourth term in Congress and serve on the Ways and Means Committee,” Boyle told JI. “I happen to have a day job that I love and is a real honor to do.” Still, he didn’t rule out the possibility of working for the president-elect. “I strongly believe that this administration must be a success and want to help it in any way,” he said. “If there is at some point an opportunity that would be the right fit, then it’s something I would have to seriously consider.”

A spokesperson for Biden’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

Political strategists in Pennsylvania speculated to JI that Boyle could plausibly serve as ambassador to Ireland, given his strong connection to the country, though the role is traditionally conferred upon elder statesmen like Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), who is rumored to be Biden’s favorite for the post. Nevertheless, that the idea should even be floated underscores what many observers in Philadelphia have known about Boyle for some time — that he is a singularly savvy pol with broad appeal whose ambitions are expected, sooner rather than later, to vault him beyond his seat in Congress.

“What makes Brendan unique for a lot of my fellow Philadelphians is that he comes from a part of the city that is not wildly Democratic,” said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic strategist in Philadelphia. “That gives him insight into what plays in Pennsylvania, which is a state that is not wildly Democratic.”

Such insight no doubt paid dividends in the lead-up to the presidential election, as Biden and Trump enacted a virtual war of attrition over Pennsylvania’s 20 coveted electoral votes. Boyle — a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition — was among the first members of Congress to endorse Biden after he announced that he would run for president in April 2019 and, the following month, attended his kickoff rally in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During the primaries, Boyle campaigned for Biden in Iowa and New Hampshire and worked on ethnic and interfaith outreach as a national co-chair of Catholics for Biden.

But arguably his most consequential work was done in-state. On the Sunday before the election, Boyle hosted the former vice president at an event outside his campaign office in Pennsylvania’s 2nd congressional district, which includes all of northeast Philadelphia. Boyle’s decision to lend his political operation to the Biden campaign just days before the general election underscored the congressman’s confidence regarding his own prospects for reelection, borne out decisively on November 3: Boyle trounced his Republican opponent, David Torres, with a resounding 72.5% of the vote.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks with Rep. Brendan Boyle at a canvas kick off event in Philadelphia on Nov. 1, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Boyle’s district is reliably Democratic but still includes a smattering of Republican enclaves including the ward where Boyle lives, which went for Trump by a majority this election. It is also home to Four Seasons Total Landscaping, the site of a now-infamous press conference at which Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani appeared four days after the election to cry voter fraud at the same time TV networks were calling Pennsylvania — and thus the presidency — for Biden. 

“I am proud to say that important historical landmark is in my district,” Boyle said with a strained sense of amusement. “I hope they’re able to cash in on some of the notoriety.”

Of course, no one expected that Philadelphia, a predominantly Democratic city, would go for Trump. But in a battleground state in which every vote was vital, Boyle’s popularity in his home district — particularly among constituents in the clean energy, education and labor sectors — was surely an asset for Biden as he worked to sway every possible voter. “It turns out that Joe Biden needed all the help he could get to carry Pennsylvania,” Balaban said, noting that Biden’s 81,000-vote victory over Trump wasn’t a comfortable lead by any measure. “The margins matter.”

Boyle’s vociferous support for Biden wasn’t the only act of political goodwill he conferred on a Democratic candidate this cycle, according to Joseph Corrigan, a Democratic strategist in Philadelphia. The congressman also cut an ad for the local Democratic candidate Mike Doyle, who was running for a seat in the legislative district Boyle represented before he was elected to the House of Representatives. 

“He showed that he was willing to put in the work to try and make the district bluer,” Corrigan said. Doyle lost, but that was to be expected in a district whose only Democratic representative in history has been … Brendan Boyle.

***

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Boyle is the son of an Irish immigrant father and a mother whose parents were from Ireland. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s in public policy from Harvard University. Though he now carries widespread appeal in his section of the city, Boyle initially struggled to enter politics, losing his first two consecutive bids for public office when he ran for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2004 and 2006. The following cycle, things finally went his way. He was sworn in at the beginning of 2009 — and was later joined in the statehouse by his brother, Kevin Boyle, who still serves at the local level. 

In 2014, Boyle was elected to Congress in Pennsylvania’s 13th district, which was changed to the 2nd after a redistricting two years ago. In the nearly six years since he assumed office, Boyle has established himself as an amiable and dedicated representative whose door is always open, according to people who have lobbied him. 

Boyle’s tenure has been appreciated by those from both sides of the aisle. Bryan Leib, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully to represent Pennsylvania’s 3rd congressional district in 2018 and is the founding chairman of HaShevet, a Jewish advocacy group, said he reached out to Boyle a few years ago with the hope that he could convince him to support Holocaust education legislation.

Leib was pleased to find Boyle receptive to his overture. The congressman — who proposed mandatory Holocaust awareness curriculum during his time in the Pennsylvania state legislature — went on to introduce a bipartisan bill advocating for nationwide required Holocaust education in 2017. “While I’m probably not the biggest fan of Brendan’s politics,” Leib told JI, “I can tell you that he’s a true friend to the Jewish people.”

Shira Goodman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia, agreed with that assessment, noting that Boyle played a pivotal role in helping to pass the Never Again Education Act, which was signed into law last May and supports Holocaust education across the country. “ADL has been proud to stand with him in his efforts to mandate Holocaust education,” Goodman said. While there is still much more work to be done, she added, “we are fortunate that Congressman Boyle continues to lead the effort.”

Robin Schatz, director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, speculated that Boyle “feels that very keenly because of his Irish roots,” adding that the congressman has displayed an increased sensitivity to marginalized groups during his time in office.

Boyle’s district is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties, and he has worked hard to make sure his Jewish constituents’ concerns are given a fair hearing in Congress, according to Schatz, whose areas of focus include human services as well as Israel. “He’s always there when we need him,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever said no to me on anything.” Schatz took Boyle on his first trip to Israel when he was a state legislator, and she recalls being impressed by his level of curiosity. “He was interested, he was engaged, and I think as a congressman, he’s really grown into that,” she said.

Boyle, for his part, believes it is in the best interest of the United States that support for Israel endures among both Democrats and Republicans — a mantra he takes seriously. 

“I do think that is the case,” he said, opining that although the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has gained some traction, the overwhelming bipartisan consensus on Israel has largely overshadowed the campaign. “Ever since the moment President Truman first recognized the State of Israel,” Boyle told JI, “the U.S. has been Israel’s most important ally, and we will continue to be that.”

“On the broad range of issues, he’s been there,” said Mark Mellman, president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, which endorsed Boyle during his recent congressional run. “And not just been there, he’s been a leader on those issues and has always been supportive of strengthening that U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Rep. Brendan Boyle receives an award from Chuck Feldman of the Philadelphia Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in 2019. (Courtesy)

***

Boyle was previously a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East subcommittee before being nominated last year to serve on Ways and Means. Though he is grateful for the chance to sit on such a powerful committee, which he described as “the oldest and arguably most important” in Congress, he often misses his old post. 

“As much as I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to ascend to the Ways and Means Committee,” he said, “the one big drawback is that, since it’s an exclusive committee, it meant that I had to give up my spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee, which I absolutely loved.”

He still relishes any opportunity to discuss foreign policy and, in conversation with JI, made sure to point out that he has very much stayed involved in such matters as a co-chair with Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) of the Syria Caucus, which supports a free and democratic Syria, and as an advocate for Ukrainian sovereignty. Thanks to an appointment in 2019 from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Boyle is also a member of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, “which takes a fair amount of my time,” he said. 

Boyle is looking forward to a Biden administration in large part because he believes the president-elect has assembled a top-notch foreign policy team. Last January, Boyle met Tony Blinken, Biden’s newly picked secretary of state, at an event in Iowa. “I think very highly of him,” Boyle said, noting that there is much work to be done on the foreign policy front after four years of Trump.

“To repair the relationships we have with our traditional allies is going to be a significant and important task,” Boyle said. “We have real challenges in repairing relations with our traditional allies in Europe, like Germany, France, et cetera. The last four years has been a total abdication of the traditional role the United States has played ever since the end of World War II.” 

Biden, he said, “clearly gets that” as a former longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a former vice president. “He is a trans-Atlanticist in his head and in his heart. I do think that that’s going to be one of the real focuses of this administration.”

Boyle, like many Democrats who are critical of the president, reserved praise for the Trump administration’s role in brokering normalization agreements between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan. 

“Anytime you see two countries moving closer toward having peaceful normalized relations, it’s a good thing,” he said, while adding the caveat that the agreements had been in the works for some time without Trump’s involvement. “I happen to know that behind the scenes, Israel and a number of the Arabian Peninsula countries worked more closely together than they want to acknowledge in public,” he noted. “You saw the beginning of that years ago, and that ultimately culminated in kind of going public about it in terms of the Israel-UAE agreement.”

Boyle, seeking to bolster his point, recalled a trip to the UAE during his first term in Congress that he said foreshadowed the agreements. 

“The trip was supposed to be to go to the UAE to discuss our joint fight against ISIS,” he said. “We spent about 5% of the time talking about ISIS and 95% of the time the UAE leaders we met with spent talking about Iran and their deep concerns about the Iranian presence in the region. And, by the way, we spent zero percent of our time talking about Israel. They never even brought it up. So the Gulf countries have had this deep and growing concern about Iran for a very long period of time, and fortunately, it has helped bring Israel and those Arab countries closer together.”

Looking ahead, Boyle is hopeful that Biden will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, as he has pledged to do, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resistance to reentering the agreement. 

“Obviously, Bibi has not been shy about his strong opposition to an Iranian nuclear deal, so continuing to work with Israel on this issue is clearly important,” Boyle said, adding his belief that Iran is “the most malign force” in the Middle East as it continues to fund terrorism in the region. “But I am optimistic that ultimately we can achieve a strong and robust deal that Israel would be happy with.”

***

By coincidence, Boyle was accompanying former President Barack Obama on an Air Force One flight to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., when the agreement with Iran was reached in 2015. “We were delayed taking off for quite some time,” Boyle remembered, noting that Obama was understandably busy speaking with world leaders on the phone. 

“I’ve been lucky throughout my life,” Boyle mused. “I’ve just randomly had these good things happen.”

And the next good thing in his life still remains to be revealed. Boyle maintains that he will stay the course as he readies himself for a new term in Congress. But many are wondering how long he will be in the House as his profile continues to grow, and as he has gained political capital thanks to his connection with the incoming president.

Barring a possible role in the Biden administration, some believe it is likely Boyle will make a bid for the Senate, though such a move could be politically risky as he would have to give up his seat in Congress to run. 

Neil Oxman, the co-founder of a Democratic political ad firm in Philadelphia, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Boyle ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 2023. “He doesn’t have to give up his House seat to run for mayor,” Oxman told JI.

“The sky is the limit for him,” said Ari Mittleman, a political strategist and expert on Pennsylvania politics. “He is in a great place now and time will tell.”

For the moment, though, Boyle can at least rest assured that his early bet on a Biden presidency was the right call — and that, as he predicted, his instincts about the former vice president were shared by a majority of the electorate.

“His character and skill set,” Boyle said of the president-elect, “is uniquely suited for this moment in American history.”

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