By Jess Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
On Thursday night, along with hundreds of others, I celebrated one of my favorite people, Bethany Hallam, getting officially sworn in as Allegheny County Democratic Councilperson At-Large. Bethany and Liv Bennett, another new County Councilwoman, beat the odds to unseat two long-time incumbents on an unapologetically progressive platform.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Hallam about her win, although in the interest of journalistic honesty and disclosure, this wasn’t a normal politician/reporter interview. I am in no way impartial. Bethany is one of my best friends, and I was heavily invested in her campaign from the beginning. Our paths had crossed at different points over the years. She’d seen me speak at the International Women’s Day Rally in 2017, and when we both volunteered for Rep. Sara Innamorato’s campaign in 2018 we realized we were both North Hills High School Alums. Aside from our roots and interest in Democratic politics, we also shared a passion for shaking up the status quo and making change. Last February in my piece about women politicians and fashion, I mentioned a discussion I had with Bethany:
“She asked for my thoughts about the advice she was given to wear heels rather than her signature sneakers. “I’ve been an athlete all my life- not a politician. This is what I’m comfortable in; this is who I am.” But now, Hallam is both.”
She stuck with the sneaks which is a good thing, considering Bethany hit every corner of the county talking to voters, a feat that paid off.
The after party for Bethany, Liv, and Tom Duerr (who defeated Republican Sue Means in District 5) was held at McFadden’s on the North Shore, and you could tell each time one of the victors had arrived by the overwhelming applause that shook the space. The party was like a giant family reunion, and the mix of folks from advocacy organizations, activists, incumbents, candidates and campaign volunteers. There were hugs and congratulations all around. It felt especially surreal for me to witness this night, because I also just won an election, and in a few days I will be sworn into elected office for Etna Borough Council.
By the time Bethany and I sat down together towards the end of the night, we were both in high spirits, and had each had our share of drinks. Laughs, hugs and mutual admiration followed. I recorded our discussion, part of which I’ve transcribed below, streamlined after removing excess laughing, language, etc.
Bethany: I feel wild. To me, this started a year ago. This is the culmination of everything, all the thousands of doors knocked, phones called, dozens of house parties. Everything that we talked about doing, nothing matters until we’re able to be sworn in and get to work. So now it starts, right? Campaigning is one thing, governance is something completely different. To be able to govern, that was the goal all along.
Jessica: What are you excited to do first?
Bethany: The first thing I want to do is move the legislation that’s been on the table for the last few months that hasn’t been passed because we haven’t had a progressive council in place. The civilian police review board, conversion therapy ban are the first two things I want to make sure are settled as soon as we get to business. Then I want to make sure that we talk about jail legislation. It’s something I’ve campaigned on. It’s something there are literally thousands of people are suffering with right now inside our county jail.
Jessica: What is the difference now? How did it feel different when you had to sit in that spot in your official position versus being a candidate or someone on the outside?
Bethany: We got a lot of pressure about the presidency vote, that was really the only business we did today. I’m proud of the fact that I held my ground and did what I thought was right despite a lot of pressure to do otherwise. You know, I’m going to go home and sleep great tonight.
Jessica: If you had to tell yourself one thing five or ten years ago, even though whatever past Bethany was going through, she still arrived at this moment right now, what would you say?
Bethany: If I would have told myself five years ago where I was going to be now, I would have laughed at myself, you know? So just, don’t stop fighting, don’t give up, because I have a lot of friends that did give up; battling addiction, battling mental health diagnoses, it’s really tough out there. So to know that if you keep fighting, you can get what you never thought you’d achieve. That to me is something that I can’t put a price tag on. That I can’t put into words, that I became my best possible self, right? That I didn’t think I could achieve, that my family or friends didn’t think I could achieve, and the only reason I did it was because I had so many people in my corner who fought for me everyday, it wasn’t just me.
Never in a million years would I have thought this is where I thought I’d be today. I thought I was going to be dead. I thought I would be where a lot of my other friends were, so jail, or rehab or dead. That’s where all the people that I had associated myself with are right now. So I’m just one of the lucky ones. I want to make sure that people who are struggling right now know that it’s not the end, even if you feel you’re at your lowest point in your entire life, that might go on for a little bit but it’s not forever. As long as you don’t give up, as long as you have people that will smother you with love and support like I have, as long as you have a reason to keep on going, you can do great things, and I just want to make sure people know that because i had people that told me that, and I want to make sure I’m the person that tells other folks that are still struggling.
At this point, for maybe the third time, Bethany tells me not to cry. But it’s a lost cause. Am I wearing waterproof mascara? No. Am I overwhelmed with pride? Yes.
Jessica: If you would have talked to me about my race ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. I wouldn’t believe that I’d be running, I wouldn’t believe that I’d be running as an out queer person
Your capacity for struggle and hardship and pain, is also the capacity we have for strength and hope. Bethany, because of your experiences what will that mean, the insight you’re bringing that folks that haven’t experienced that won’t have, it’s fucking huge.
Bethany: The insight you’ve provided me too, we have some similar personal struggles right now. The fact that I have a best friend who is able to feed off of me, and we’re able to feed off of each other and share with each other.
So, cool as hell, I’m elected to office now. Okay, sweet. But like a lot of my friends have been getting sworn in, or will be getting sworn in. So it’s not just about me. It’s the fact that the coalition we’re talking about is real. It’s actually happening so just to be able to see it come to fruition; last month my friends got sworn in to school board, today, me, Liv and Tom got sworn into County Council. On Monday you and Bobby (Wilson) are getting sworn in. To see things like that, is this dream that we all hoped for, worked for, dreamt about but not it’s real. It’s surreal to me. To have a group of people who I can confide in, to talk about our shitty days. I’m so so fortunate to have a coalition of elected officials that I can call my friends. It’s so important because we can’t do this alone. And as long as we support each other, especially other badass women we know we’re all gonna do great things.