Marita Garrett first ran for office when she was in eighth grade.
She was running for social chairwoman and, as she put it with a laugh, “That race got nasty.”
Garrett swore after that experience she wouldn’t run for office again. But the stakes in the adult world are higher than a school dance.
Women, campaign experts say, run on an issue, and Garrett saw a big one in her community. In 2013, Pennsylvania placed the Wilkinsburg School District on a financial watch list. At the same time, Wilkinsburg residents were paying the highest school taxes in Allegheny County, she said, and the second highest in the state.
Garrett doesn’t have children, but her neighbors do, and she saw the stress they were under — unable to send their kids to the public schools they paid taxes for while being financially burdened by transportation and other costs. As a homeowner and taxpayer, she also saw her borough at a stagnant point.
So she decided to run for office again. Garrett was a political novice, but she had been civically engaged and found support from her personal network, as well as from local business owners and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.
It worked: She won a seat on the Council of Wilkinsburg in 2013. Now, she’s poised to become the mayor of that borough after beating three male opponents in the Democratic primary this spring.
Political newbies, like Garrett once was, are plotting runs for office following the election of Donald Trump. Pennsylvania’s Democratic party is planning to run candidates in previously ignored races, while some Allegheny County incumbents are seeing their first primary challengers in years.
These newcomers may know why they’re running for office.
But the same can’t be said for how.
New candidates …
“Probably the most confusing for folks who are entering the political arena for the very first time is how to get the logistics lined up for the campaign,” said Dana Brown, executive director of Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics at Chatham University.
Above all, Brown stressed that first-time candidates should spend time in the communities they want to serve.
“A lot of folks in the past year have been motivated to start participating,” she said, “but at the same time the best way to build relationships is to start attending meetings [and] get to know the players … as opposed to just declaring candidacy.”
To gauge how much a candidate needs to raise, Brown said it can be useful to look at the past three election cycles. She noted that there are “thousands of opportunities for people across the commonwealth to participate in local races” — races that don’t require thousands of dollars to be competitive.
“It’s all about doing your research as a first-time candidate,” she said.
Stephanie Walsh, who describes herself as a “working mom of two,” is a Democrat running for the state Senate seat currently held by Republican Randy Vulakovich.
She worked in public policy for the Colorado Legislature and moved to Pittsburgh in 2008 when she was hired by the firm Public Works, which specializes in efficiency projects and needs assessment for local and state governments. She was previously a middle school science teacher.
Walsh, who lives in Highland Park, said she’s been interested in running for office for some time, but she wanted to wait until her children were older to do so. She volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign last year, which inspired her “to take the plunge and look at offices that were available to me.”
She landed on Vulakovich’s seat after ruling out challenging state Rep. Ed Gainey and Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Deb Gross, two Democrats she supports.
“I realized I have a state senator who is a conservative Republican who doesn’t represent our district,” she said.
That may be true of Highland Park or Millvale, but Vulakovich’s 38th District also includes several conservative strongholds including Wexford.
Brown said she advises candidates to seek the Republican or Democratic Performance Index for their area from state or county party officials. These indices show how much of the vote a candidate can expect by affiliation.
“That will help you get a better sense of what your potential turnout looks like,” she said. “A Republican running in a district where there’s only 100 Republicans registered, [and] you know you need 5,000 votes, that’s going to be a very difficult thing to accomplish.” But, Brown added that “doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run.”
Walsh said she plans to present a solutions-oriented campaign that she hopes “appeals to voters of all stripes.” Her neighbors have already jumped at the chance to help with her campaign, she said, and she’s drawn on the network she’s built professionally and through the Clinton campaign.
“I’m beginning to learn about how much I need to learn,” she said.
… new approaches
There are trainings — new and old — across the country for potential candidates, including one centered on women offered by Chatham.
“We work with a number of practitioners to build curriculum,” Brown said of the one-day Ready to Run training. She personally can offer candidates the names of fundraisers across the state from both sides of the aisle.
Walsh, as well as 412 Resistance organizer Valerie Fleisher and Mt. Lebanon school board candidate Aviva Diamond, attended a July training in D.C. held by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, whose members include Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Keith Ellison.
“They packed in a lot of very specific useful hands-on information,” Fleisher said. “They lower the bar to jump in and know everything [candidates] need to know” to run for offices from school board to congressional seats.
Fleisher was taught that part of a good campaign is presentation (“what made Trump so successful”), as well as being able to present a message in a way that won’t bore or alienate voters.
Her family carries about $100,000 in student loan debt cumulatively, she said, an issue that can be personal, not political. The training emphasized not being patronizing, but instead having a conversation about what can be done.
The training also wasn’t partisan — “If you want to go to Tea Party finishing school, you would probably get a lot of the same information,” Fleisher said — but it did provide information on how people with progressive beliefs and values can run and be successful compromising.
“That was inspiring both to hear as someone considering doing that,” she said.
Fleisher doesn’t plan to seek office in 2018, but she is thinking about a future run. Her considerations are three: time, money and people.
As a mother of two who works full-time for a nonprofit, time is at the top of that list. To run the type of campaign she would want to run, Fleisher said she’d need to spend a lot of time in her community building relationships with other organizers, learning how to fundraise then actually raising the cash.
“You can’t just show up,” she said.
Same old problems
Pennsylvania may lack many things, but white men in political office are not on that list. Pennsylvania women, LGBTQ people and people of color, meanwhile, are hardly represented at the local, state and federal level.
Of 15 members, there are just three women on Allegheny County Council and one black man. Pittsburgh City Council has two black men, four women and one openly LGBTQ person; the body will all-but-certainly be down a woman in 2018, after Anthony Coghill wins the seat held by Natalia Rudiak.
Allegheny County’s delegation in Harrisburg has just one woman — Democrat Anita Astorino Kulik — and two men of color. Just 46 state representatives and senators are women — that’s not even 19 percent of the body — and 25 are people of color.
There’s only one openly LGBTQ member of the state legislature, Democrat Rep. Brian Sims of Philadelphia. Republican Mike Fleck became Pennsylvania’s first openly gay legislator when he came out in 2012, shortly after winning reelection for a fourth term to represent Blair, Huntingdon and Mifflin counties. He lost his seat two years later.
“Mike hasn’t done anything to earn the ire of conservative groups other than them now knowing that he’s gay,” Chuck Wolfe of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund told the New York Times before Fleck’s loss.
Sara Innamorato is trying to tip the scales in favor of gender parity on two fronts. She’s a co-founder of She Runs SWPA, which is in the process of organizing resources to support female candidates. And she’s running for the seat currently held by Democrat state Rep. Dom Costa.
She Runs SWPA is still in its infancy, with a goal to support candidates by next year. Innamorato’s candidacy is in a similar place, with a kickoff event scheduled for Sept. 13.
“It’s been so lovely how excited people have been that I’m running,” she said, adding that people are “constantly” asking how they can support her candidacy. “That has been so life giving and affirming.”
Innamorato is in the building phase of her campaign, finding “trustworthy people who you can surround yourself with to build that basic infrastructure,” she said. “There are so many ways for folks to use their own individual skill sets to help the candidates that they believe in.”
Innamorato co-founded She Runs SWPA, in part, to “demystify the political process.” Brown said Chatham’s Ready to Run training attempts to do the same thing by giving candidates the tools and an outline of what they need to think through to be successful.
But the training also covers the obstacles that female candidates face, like having to “assert their qualifications much more so than male leaders,” Brown said.
There are limited state resources to support women, people of color and LGBTQ people who want to run for office. Women can also get training through Emerge Pennsylvania and cash from the Philly-based Represent! PAC. Stonewall Democrats have chapters across Pennsylvania that endorse candidates who are LGBTQ or (more often) who are LGBTQ allies.
Jim DePoe, president of Steel City Stonewall Democrats, pointed to the national Victory Fund as a resource for LGBTQ candidates.
“If someone from our community wanted to run for office, we would do whatever we could to promote them in the election,” he said. But he added that he’s not exactly sure what that would look like, as the group hasn’t had a member of the LGBTQ community to support since Bruce Kraus won his city council seat a decade ago.
There was a controversy in 2015 when Steel City Stonewall Democrats endorsed ally Deb Gross for city council over La’Tasha Mayes, a queer woman of color, after dozens of people registered for membership just in time to vote. DePoe said the organization has taken steps regarding voting eligibility to avoid a similar endorsement incident in the future.
Garrett is young, black and female, but she says only one of those adjectives came into play during her first run for office — her age. During the primary, she saw sexism at work when three men emerged to challenge her.
Race has not been an issue in any of Garrett’s runs in the majority black borough, she said. But Garrett knows that if she runs for higher office, that would be a different story.
Make new friends, but keep the old
While there’s been an infusion of new interest in politics since Trump’s election, the old guard — and cash — still rules.
The Republican committee in Allegheny County offers its office in Green Tree to candidates who need an event space or volunteer base, according to Executive Director Ryan Rabea. A candidate can also pick up forms like voter registration and nominating petitions and info like area demographics.
The committee also holds regular candidate trainings, with one set to take place in late September. Rabea added that he will sit down with a candidate one-on-one to talk. As the committee does not make endorsements before the primary, these sessions are open to all Republican candidates.
Any candidate is also welcome to meet with the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, Chair Nancy Mills said.
On a recent Saturday, statewide candidates for various judicial offices gathered together with people who have never been involved before. Mills said gatherings like this allow newcomers to introduce themselves to the committee and acquaint themselves with the players.
And right now, there are a number of newcomers, including screenwriter and political novice Emily Skopov who plans to take on one of the most powerful state Republicans, House Speaker Mike Turzai.
“We’re going to have candidates running against every single seated rep., senator or congressman,” Mills said. “We’re so excited about every single one of these candidates.”
But even if a first-time candidate gets the backing of establishment Democrats, their race may not be winnable. There’s one major obstacle that stands in the way that begins with a “G” and ends with “errymandering.”
Candidate Walsh said it’s interesting how often something so obscure and procedural like gerrymandering gets mentioned. “When elections aren’t competitive,” she said, that has a negative effect overall.
Barring a way to overcome a mathematical impossibility, perhaps the most important thing a first-time candidate needs is a healthy dose of realty.
As Mills put it, Democrats running for local office need to meet 12 chairs from 12 committees who have 12 picnics and 12 meetings a month. She asked: Can you actually imagine attending each of these meetings — and raising enough money to win again in two years?
“You find out in a big hurry what it’s going to be like to serve,” she said.