Emily Skopov recalls one of the first articles about her fledgling campaign against Mike Turzai had a headline that referred to her status as a “tattooed mother of two.” She called that a “WTF” moment in her campaign, where her appearance was the focus rather than her political stances.
Skopov shared the anecdote at a fundraiser for the Women of The Future Pittsburgh or, WTF Pittsburgh, where the political action committee introduced its slate of candidates. All are women, all are Democrats, and all are either running unopposed or are challenging longtime incumbents.
Most of them said they were running because they felt like they had to.
For Summer Lee, who defeated longtime incumbent Paul Costa in the 34th legislative district in the May primary, she wasn’t seeing candidates who represented issues affecting people of color. “We were told we need to vote, keep voting and these issues will finally be fixed,” she told the audience via Skype (she and fellow candidate Sara Innamorato were beamed in from New York, where they were taping a segment for CNN). Those promises fell short much of the time, to the detriment of the black community and other communities of color.
Lee said she recognized it was time for a change. “I didn’t think it would be me running but here we are.”
WTF Pittsburgh supports female candidates in western Pennsylvania. It was started by Natalia Rudiak, Ashleigh Deemer, Marita Garrett and Chelsa Wagner, all female politicians (or former politicians) who realized how little financial support female candidates received in the Pittsburgh area. Pennsylvania’s Legislature ranks 49th for gender equity, and has never had a female governor.
Even with the tide starting to turn and women becoming more confident running for office, a lot of the prejudices that have precluded some women from running at all still persist.
“It’s been a lot like pregnancy; everyone has advice,” said Betsy Monroe, who is running in the 30th legislative district. Comments on their hair, their makeup, their weight, whether to wear a dress, whether to wear a purse, what lipstick is appropriate and so on are a few of the critiques the female candidates have heard (and many more than once).
Monroe jumped into the race in the 30th House district against Republican Hal English, who had been unopposed in two prior elections. At first she worried whether she was qualified. “But when I looked at the issues in this district, I realized my background is what we need more of in Harrisburg.”
English, incidentally, decided not to run for reelection, bowing out early in July. Monroe’s theory: “I think he realized he would have to campaign for the first time.”
Here’s the slate of candidates WTF Pittsburgh is supporting:
Summer Lee, now running unopposed for the 34th district, was one of the first candidates to receive funding from WTF Pittsburgh. “Women can’t run strong campaigns if they don’t have access to funds and to networks,” she said. Someone told her early on she’d need to raise $75,000 to campaign. “As a young black girl in Braddock I had never even seen $75,000,” she said.
Michele Knoll is running for House district 44, the seat being vacated by the retiring Mark Mustio, and will face Republican Valerie Gaydos. Knoll is an educator who lists her priorities as jobs, education, fiscal responsibility, health care, the environment and women’s role in government.
Lindsey Williams worked for the National Whistleblowers Center, and was fired for trying to organize a union there. She’s running in legislative district 38, she says, because she’s seen the power of a few voices. “I want to be that voice for working people.”
Betsy Monroe has worked in Pittsburgh’s healthcare industry for more than 10 years, and was inspired to seek office by the 2017 Women’s March. She says it’s time for the GOP hold on District 30 (a Republican has represented the district for most of the past 50 years) to end.
Sara Innamorato defeated incumbent Dom Costa in the primary election for the 21st District. Like Lee, Innamorato is supported by the Democratic Socialists. The WTF Pittsburgh PAC was instrumental in her election, Innamorato said. “They saw the problems with incumbency and were willing to invest in women in southwestern Pennsylvania.”
When she was 14,her family found out her father had an opioid addiction and saw the impact it had on her family. “I saw how quickly people can fall through the cracks.”
Innamorato and Lee received $5,000 each from WTF Pittsburgh.
Emily Skopov, who’s running in the 28th legislative district says two of the reasons she’s running are “Mike Turzai.” The other two reasons are her kids. She has a background in screenwriting and directing and started a nonprofit called No Crayon Left Behind, which reused discarded crayons from restaurants. She’s run into challenges fundraising, she thinks, because people in the district don’t want to be seen as not supporting Turzai.
Kim Lyons is the Pittsburgh Current’s Editor-at-Large. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org