For decades, if not centuries, in American political campaigns, the practice of covering up mistakes and missteps in one’s personal life has been commonplace. Candidates for office burst out of the gate with a sparkle and shine, convincing voters why they should fall in love with them; some voters fall for it. In some cases, though, those people are hit in the face when something problematic surfaces from the candidate’s past.
We’ve seen everything from drug use, criminal convictions, bribery and unpaid taxes, uncovered by the media and opposing campaigns, all in an attempt to raise doubt about an individual’s fitness for office. Candidates and campaigns will go to great lengths to keep those secrets, well, a secret.
But last week, Bethany Hallam shook up the local political scene by breaking away from that long-time shady campaign strategy. In an interview with WESA’s Chris Potter, on the very day she announced her candidacy to serve as an At-Large member to Allegheny County Council, Hallam told the world about her ordeal with drug use, addiction and even her incarceration.
She didn’t wait for it to come out down the road and then try to explain it away or put some kind of spin on it. Orange is the New Black has met politics and no one has ever done it like Hallam just did it. In fact, after some googling and research, I can’t seem to find another candidate for public office that has struggled openly with an opioid addiction. She may be the first and that is groundbreaking.
Unfortunately, due to the opioid epidemic, the beginning of Hallam’s story of addiction isn’t anything new. It’s what she is doing with it that’s been a breath of fresh air. She’s not covering it up, not hiding it and instead facing it head on, in a cathartic process not only for herself, but for those still caught up in a downward life spiral. She’s offering her experience in the gutter as a way to put a public face on finding real solutions where our politicians have failed us. Life is messy and it takes guts to address it in the way Hallam is setting out to do.
I give a lot of credit to anyone who offers their name up to serve in elected office. It’s not easy. So when you are presented with an individual who launches their candidacy by opening up in such an unconventional way of exposing themselves to ridicule, you will most likely hear the political establishment chatter about that candidate having little-to-no chance of winning.
But I think voters will jump to a quicker relationship with Hallam’s script flipping. By willingly talking about her past, Hallam sets the tone of the conversation. She makes the opioid crisis a topic of her campaign, instead of a tool for her candidate to use against her.
At the ripe old age of 29, Hallam’s strategy just set the stage for what is surely to be a generational competition of political engagement as well as policy ideas. And she may have changed politics in our region forever in doing so.