Updated, 2:57 p.m.
These 25 young leaders make a difference in Pittsburgh through politics.
For some, it’s by campaigning and fundraising for candidates. For others, it’s policymaking. And for others still, it’s adding their names to the ballot and running.
The Incline received dozens of nominations for our third Who’s Next: Politics class, and our newsroom staff selected these honorees, many of who just wrapped up campaigns for themselves or others earlier this week. The Incline published this list after Election Day, as it is not a political endorsement.
Meet our previous Who’s Next classes here, and sign up for Who’s Next email alerts by clicking the “Follow This” button. Plus, you can join us for a happy hour in honor of this class on Nov. 28. Get your tickets here.
Join us at a happy hour in honor of The Incline's third Who's Next: Politics class, sponsored by One Oxford Centre Downtown Pittsburgh. This event is for you if you're interested in politics or are trying to get involved. At this celebration:
- Meet honorees who were nominated by their peers and selected by The Incline's editorial staff.
- Enjoy food and beverages from Oxford Market, Palate Partners and Dreadnought Wines, and Liberty Pole Spirits.
Where: One Oxford Centre at 301 Grant St. (Downtown)
When: November 28, 2018 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
How much: $25 for public | Free for Who's Next: Politics honorees
Now, introducing Who’s Next: Politics:
When immigrants and others come to Pittsburgh from outside the U.S., it’s Feyisola Alabi’s job to welcome them. As a special initiatives manager for the city, she runs the Welcoming Pittsburgh Initiative and inclusion programs for immigrants and internationals. She also is the program manager for Pittsburgh's sister cities and is part of the team working to ensure an accurate count in the 2020 U.S. Census. Alabi told The Incline that as a Nigerian-American, she “strongly values international collaboration and is always excited to learn how to build bridges across cultures.” She is a graduate of the University of West Georgia and Chatham University. She lives in Carrick.
For Simone Baer, fundraising is how she channels her passion for electing Democrats to office. As national finance director, she led a team of 15 and raised over $20 million for Sen. Bob Casey who won reelection Tuesday. Baer has fundraised for a variety of candidates at national, state and city levels, including Josh Shapiro, Katie McGinty, Jay Costa and others. “She typically flies below the radar, but she is truly a backbone in Democratic politics,” her nominator wrote, calling Baer “arguably the best political fundraiser in the state.” A graduate of University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, she lives in Bloomfield.
As deputy state director for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, Robert M. Byers oversees multiple aspects of campaigning from grass-root efforts to recruiting and managing staff and volunteers. He started as deputy state director for the party earlier this year, but has worked on campaigns since 2010 including in roles as field organizer and regional field director. A previous president of the Robert Morris University College Republicans, he’s a graduate of RMU and the Duquesne University School of Law. Byers lives in Oakland.
Ashley Comans is a Wilkinsburg School Board director and project coordinator for Hill Youth Partnership for Enrichment or HYPE, where she works with community partners and teachers to enhance services for students. She ran for school board to make sure that students had a voice and the district’s elementary schools were thriving, her nominator wrote, adding, “School Board Director Ashley Comans is exemplary of the movement of our generation becoming engaged in their communities and running for office to be the representation we need.” She is also a member of LocalProgress and Young Elected Officials Network, as well as on the mayor’s planning committee in Wilkinsburg. Comans is Clarion University graduate.
Lifelong West Mifflin resident John Inglis has a passion for serving and improving the borough. He was elected to West Mifflin Borough Council in 2017 and is the chairperson of the personnel committee and vice chairperson of the council's recreation committee. Inglis also represents West Mifflin on the South Hills Area Council of Governments, created a new West Mifflin Economic Development Board, and teaches social studies at West Mifflin Area High School. “John has impacted his students and neighborhood in a number of positive ways and continues to do so every day,” his nominator wrote. Inglis is also human resources manager at Kennywood Park. He is a graduate of Duquesne University and Westminster College.
As the manager of government and community relations at Duquesne University, Alexandra Kozak works to create and maintain relationships between elected and appointed officials and the university. She also finds ways for Duquesne to collaborate with government and community organizations. Kozak previously worked in both the public and private sectors, including as district director for U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus. She is a board member of JDRF's Western Pennsylvania Chapter and on committees for Pittsburgh Downtown Partnerships and Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania. An alumna of Saint Vincent College and California University of Pennsylvania, she lives in the North Hills.
State Representative-elect Summer Lee has spent her career fighting for and working toward social, economic and racial justice. In May, she won the Democratic primary for Pa. state House District 34 over longtime incumbent Paul Costa and will be the first black woman elected to the state legislature from Western Pa. A lawyer and organizer, she was a field organizer for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party in 2016, organized with Fight for $15, and was a leader in campaigns for Woodland Hills School Board. In law school, she interned for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and was a student attorney in the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic. Lee is a graduate of Penn State University and Howard University School of Law. She lives in Swissvale.
As constituent services director for Pittsburgh City Councilmember Darlene Harris, Jephonneh "Jeff" Martin is focused on the community. He addresses constituents’ complaints, attends community meetings and more. Before starting in 2015, Martin was the human rights and youth coalition liaison for the Pa. Office of the American Friends Service Committee. While attending St. John's University in New York, he worked for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former New York City Council Member Peter Vallone, Jr. Martin is a member of the Allegheny Elks Lodge #339 and lives in Brookline.
Jon McCabe was the Democratic candidate for Pa. State House District 54 this year, ultimately losing to Republican Bob Brooks. Passionate about getting young people involved in politics, McCabe co-founded My Vote Matters while he was a student at Penn State New Kensington. The non-partisan student organization encouraged students to vote, educated them on the issues, and introduced students to lawmakers. “He’s also a leader whose conviction to fight for the promise of democracy is guided by the compass he carries in his chest in exact spot where his heart happens to be,” his nominator wrote. McCabe is a member of Young Democrats of Westmoreland County and Democratic committee chairperson for his precinct. He lives in Lower Burrell.
Samantha Medasie is the president of the Robert Morris University College Republicans, leading more than 200 members. The college junior has also interned in both the public and private sectors of politics, for Pa. state Sen. John Eichelberger and as the advocacy and government relations intern for Covestro. Medasie will spend next semester as an intern on Capitol Hill. Her nominator wrote: “She uses her platform to inspire young conservative students to be leaders and voices of the Republican Party through her many events on campus.” Medasie is also president of the Economics Club, secretary of Students for Life, and a mentor in the Women's Leadership and Mentorship Program. She lives in Hopewell Township in Beaver County.
When Hersh Merenstein was a student at Michigan State University, his classmates called him “Pittsburgh” because of his self-described nerdy obsession with his hometown. His Who's Next nominators echoed that love for the city and local government. Merenstein is the communications and outreach manager for Pittsburgh City Council member Erika Strassburger. His role includes constituent relations, communications strategy, legislation research and more. He previously was the communications manager for then-city council member Dan Gilman and authored legislation including Pittsburgh's ban on LGBTQIA+ conversion therapy and the Welcoming City Agenda. Merenstein lives in Greenfield.
Ryan B. O’Donnell has worked on two campaigns for Lt. Governor-elect John Fetterman, first as operations director for Fetterman’s senate campaign and then as campaign treasurer for Fetterman’s Lt. Gov bid. O’Donnell, a licensed social worker, is also the executive director of Nisar Health and Human Services and a member of the Edgewood Borough Council. He is a graduate of Allegheny College and the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Edgewood with his wife, Emily Price, and daughter Vivienne O'Donnell.
As the government affairs and PPG Political Action Committee manager at PPG, Arthur Pang works with internal staff, public officials and trade associations on public policy. He also manages membership and finances for PPG PAC. Pang has worked in both in the public and private sector of public policy. Outside of PPG, he is the board chairperson of PUMP and a commissioner of the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission. Pang is a board member of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of American University and Columbia University and lives in East Liberty.
This bio has been updated to reflect his role with the Women and Girls Foundation.
Growing up, Bhavini Patel watched her mom, an immigrant, work long hours to build a new life even when her family didn’t feel welcome. That shaped her dedication for community building and politics, she told The Incline. Patel co-founded BeamData, which helps local governments and other groups improve data capacity to challenge misinformation and address social issues. She’s also the vice chairperson of the Edgewood Democratic Committee and added that she was motivated to get involved to have more Asian American Pacific Islanders in politics. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and is currently earning a Master of Philosophy in International Relations at the University of Oxford. She lives in Edgewood.
With a lifelong appreciation for labor unions, Christopher Petrone is the legislative director of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 and is a member of the Allegheny County Labor Council. In his role with IUOE Local 66, Petrone works with campaigns, organizing efforts such as phone banks, as well as with elected officials on legislation. “He has a strong presence within both parties. Democrats like him and work him as do Republicans,” his nominator noted. He is a graduate of Colgate University and lives in South Fayette.
Julie Platt was one of the first to join Emily Skopov’s campaign to challenge Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai for Pa. House District 28. Platt recruited volunteers, organized issue-centric canvasses, knocked on doors and led the way with new ideas for the campaign, including community roundtable discussions. “She goes all-in for any cause which she undertakes. She is dynamic, energetic, and an unparalleled advocate once she commits herself,” her nominator wrote. On Tuesday, Skopov lost to Turzai. Platt also worked as a community organizer for Sara Innamorato’s campaign. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she is currently working on a Master of Public Health and Master of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. Platt lives in East Liberty.
As a regional field director, Ashleigh Presnar served as the liaison between the Republican Party of Pennsylvania and five counties — Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, and Washington. She started working for the party in June after graduating from Robert Morris University. At first, she was a field organizer in the North Hills and was then promoted to the regional role. As a student, Presar did a semester-long internship working in U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s D.C. office. She lives in New Castle.
Ernest Rajakone grew up in central Pennsylvania as the son of immigrants and one of the few people of color in his area. That experience, he told The Incline, helps him speak to a variety of different communities in his role as deputy manager in Pittsburgh's Office of Community Affairs. The office works with more than 95 community organizations and runs five community programs. While a student at the University of Pittsburgh, he was president of the Pitt College Democrats and the Pitt South Asian Student Association. “His work demonstrates that he is an advocate for change and improvement for all – he uplifts underserved and underrepresented groups such as young people, people of color, women, immigrants and new Americans,” his nominator wrote. A resident of Shadyside, he is is currently working on a master's degree in public management at Carnegie Mellon University.
Mallory Ruhling Hodge started volunteering for campaigns at age 10 with Bush-Cheney in 2000 and hasn’t stopped since. She was campaign manager and finance director for U.S. Representative-elect Guy Reschenthaler. In that role, Ruhling Hodge was responsible for all day-to-day operations of the campaign from fundraising to public relations and overseeing staff. Previously, she was the fundraising director at ColdSpark, a Pittsburgh political consulting firm for six years. There, she organized and executed more than 30 fundraising events a year. An avid golfer, Ruhling Hodge is a graduate of Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Oakmont.
Chardae Seligsohn is a Woodland Hills School Board director. After losing the May 2017 primary as a write-in candidate, Seligsohn was appointed to the board in August 2017 after the then-board president resigned (who she had challenged in the primary). In November 2017, Seligsohn won re-election. She also volunteers in the district and is the school board chairperson for Forbes Road Technical School. Seligsohn is Children’s Institute Family Advisory Board chairperson. The Wilkins Township resident is also a realtor for Coldwell Banker. She attended ITT Technical Institute and is currently earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Phoenix.
With a focus on policy research, analysis and management, Matt Singer is the legislative director for Pittsburgh City Council Member Corey O’Connor. Singer worked on projects including housing, municipal taxation and abatements, economic development, and government transparency and was part of creating the 2015 Paid Sick Days Act and the 2017 budget compromises that allocated $2 million in funding for early childhood education resources. He facilitates the city’s advisory board on entrepreneurship and startups. Singer lives in Allegheny Center. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and is a working on a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.
As assistant county manager, Andréa Stanford works with county department leadership, community stakeholders and others to make an impact across the region. A newcomer to the public sector, she started in her role in January. Previously, she worked as the digital experience product manager for PNC Financial Services Group and in multiple communications roles at UPMC. She is on the board of directors for Kelly Strayhorn Theater and a board member of the Women and Girls Foundation. Stanford is also a mentor and diversity committee co-chairperson for Strong Women, Strong Girls and on the advisory council for Steel Smiling. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, she lives in the East End.
As a state strategist for Majority Strategies, Kial Vidic works with campaigns to create strategic plans and influence stakeholders. “She was absolutely tireless in her pursuit of a better, more effective, intelligent and issues-oriented campaign,” her nominator wrote, adding that Vidic is “resolute about changing the way politics are conducted, yet smart and clear-eyed enough to be savvy about the way they currently occur.” Vidic previously was campaign manager for U.S. Congressman Keith Rothfus and and worked on several campaigns in Texas, Wisconsin and New Mexico. She told The Incline she feels lucky to be back in Pittsburgh, working in the region. Vidic is a graduate of Westminster College and lives in the North Hills.
Self-described as an former engaged citizen but political outsider, Jay Ting Walker decided to become more politically active after the November 2016 election. He was appointed a Democratic committeeman, but switched to the Green Party in March. He ran for Pa. House District 23 on Tuesday, losing to incumbent Democrat Dan B. Frankel. Walker is “working to build up the Green Party as a viable alternative choice for voters in an overwhelmingly Democratic city where many local races feature only once choice on the ballot,” his nominator wrote. Walker is the vice president of the Allegheny County Transit council and a member of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. He is also an administrative assistant at law firm Stember Cohn & Davidson-Welling and attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He lives in Shadyside.
Felicity Ansonia Williams is the programs and policy associate and special assistant to the president & CEO at Hill Community Development Corporation. She focuses on small business support, as well as homeownership programs, creating new programs and more, such as tracking legislation that impacts the Hill organization. A lawyer admitted to the Pennsylvania and Virginia bars, Williams previously worked in Pa. State Rep. Jake Wheatley’s office and volunteered for Citizens for Jake Wheatley. In law school, she worked with Revive My Vote to help those with non-violent felony convictions navigate the rights restoration process. Williams is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College and William & Mary Law School. She lives in Homestead.