The Incline in Harrisburg

Millennials are sick of the BS in Harrisburg — so they’re running for office

Young candidates are swarming state races on both sides of the aisle.

From left: Jennifer O'Mara, Ethan Keedy, Amber Little-Turner, and Jon McCabe

From left: Jennifer O'Mara, Ethan Keedy, Amber Little-Turner, and Jon McCabe

The Incline Illustration
Sarah Anne Hughes

HARRISBURG — Ethan Keedy is a member of Connellsville City Council, the owner of a pizza shop in the Fayette County city, a substitute teacher, and a candidate for state House.

He’s also 24.

That may seem young to run for office, but Keedy’s far from alone. He’s one of more than a dozen millennials vying for seats in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. They run the generational gamut from people in their early 30s to the youngest age legally possible: Logan Dellafiora, a Democrat running in Indiana County, turned 21 on July 30.

While millennial candidates supported by the Democratic Socialists of America have gotten a lot of ink for their wins in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvanians in their 20s and 30s running for House and Senate seats prove the generation is anything but a monolith.

Keedy lost his father to opioid addiction and suicide in his teens. He calls this point rock bottom, when his family didn’t know where they were going to live or what they were going to eat. He was supported by a teacher who “went out of her way to make sure I was OK,” which is why he got certified to be an emergency substitute teacher in what little spare time he has.

Far from their lazy and entitled stereotype, many young candidates like Keedy share similarly difficult upbringings — experiences that are driving their runs.

Sara Innamorato, the DSA-backed Democratic candidate who beat an incumbent in Pittsburgh, also lost her father to an opioid addiction. James Craig, a Democrat running for state Senate in Western Pa., lost his mother and brother.

Jon McCabe grew up and still lives in Lower Burrell in a family that, he said, “couldn’t support me financially.” The 22-year-old state House hopeful enrolled at Penn State New Kensington after earning a Horatio Alger scholarship, awarded to students who have “overcome great obstacles in their young lives.

Jennifer O’Mara’s father, a Philadelphia firefighter, died by gun suicide when she was 13. Her mother raised three kids alone in Delaware County, at times depending on the children’s health insurance program that recently became a bargaining chip in Congress, and eventually worked as a union school bus driver.

“But we made it,” said O’Mara, who was the first person in her family to attend college.

Her story is her own, but the 28-year-old knows it isn’t unique among families in her Delaware County district. She wanted to do something to protect the programs that helped her growing up, but didn’t know what that would look like.

“My husband was like, ‘You’re going to run for office,’” she said. “I thought he was crazy.”

But after researching her district, she realized she could make a difference in the General Assembly. She reached out to Run for Something and Turn PA Blue for initial advice and was eventually accepted into Emerge Pennsylvania’s training program for Democratic women. Fellow millennial alumnae include current state Senate candidates Lindsey Williams (the Pittsburgh suburbs), Katie Muth (the Philly suburbs), and Emily Best (South Central Pa.).

“We’re getting involved, and we want to fix things,” O’Mara said.

Less of a liability, more a positive

McCabe looks like your typical cool-kid 20-something — clear glasses, plaid shirt — but he doesn’t really care what you think of him as long as you listen to his message.

“Basically what I tell people is, you could call me a millennial, you can call me a progressive, you could call me a freakin’ hipster. I’m just here to solve problems,” he said. “That’s what I want to do.”

He’s running as a Democrat in District 54 — a wide-ranging part of suburban Pittsburgh — and will face former Murrysville Mayor Bob Brooks, who’s in his 70s, in November.

“This is a David and Goliath battle, and I’m fully aware of that,” McCabe said of the race. “But honestly, just having the experiences that I’ve had throughout my life, I definitely feel like people deserve more justice than what they’ve been given.”

McCabe’s race is perhaps this year’s most extreme example of generational divide. Keedy and O’Mara will face incumbents in their 30s. But so far, O’Mara said her age has been an advantage.

To be clear, she gets asked about her age a lot.

But once people figure out that the young woman before them is the same one in the literature promising better healthcare and services for veterans (her husband served in Afghanistan) they get excited.

McCabe also meets older folks who see young people as possible saviors.

“Honestly, I get really positive reactions when I knock on doors,” he said. “I get a lot of people saying, you know, my generation messed this up, and your generation needs to fix this.”

They’re so unusual! (Or are they?)

Pennsylvania law requires state representatives be at least 21 and senators be at least 25, along with some residency requirements.

Between both chambers of the General Assembly, there are roughly 30 millennials (meaning someone born between 1980 and 2000) in office. That’s out of 253 members, who are on average 53 in the House and 59 in the Senate.

Several other current members who are part of a different generation were first elected in their 20s and early 30s. That includes House Leader Dave Reed, one of the most powerful people in Harrisburg, who won his first race at 24.

Registered Democrats under 35 outnumber Republicans of the same age by more than 400,000 people in Pennsylvania at the moment. But the majority of House millennials are Republicans, and the GOP has again put its support behind younger candidates.

There’s Mike Puskaric, who’s running to be Rick Saccone’s successor in District 39; Amber Little-Turner, who wants to replace her boss Rep. Harry Lewis Jr. in the 74th; Inderjit Bains, who is again challenging Margo Davidson in District 164; John Hershey, an aide to Rep. Charlie Dent poised to win in District 82; and combat veteran Andrew Lewis of Lower Paxton Township, who unsuccessfully ran for state Senate in 2016.

Along with three Democrats, Lewis’ state House campaign was endorsed by Philly Set Go, a political action committee that supports millennial candidates.

“In our view, the critical component to getting legislation passed is building consensus,” Philly Set Go’s vice chair and co-founder Matthew Fontana said. That’s why the PAC is bipartisan: “At the end of the day, there’s more common ground out there than people realize.”

Since its formation in 2015, Philly Set Go has spent thousands of dollars to support millennial candidates, some of whom run without traditional party funding. But giving money to young people is just one part of the PAC’s playbook. Another key element of the strategy is mobilizing the millennial vote, according to Fontana — whether that be through calls, emails, or events like last year’s district attorney forum — and canvassing for endorsed candidates.

Fontana said he and the PAC’s other founder, Gabriela Guaracao, sensed that “the millennial demographic was becoming an important part of the commonwealth and the city,” but that the change “wasn’t translating into increased political engagement” or effect on policy and elections.

Engagement was especially weak at the state and local level — races that are arguably just as, if not more, important than high-profile ones like president.

Two of Philly Set Go’s other endorsed candidates were successful in the primary: Elizabeth Fiedler, a DSA-backed former reporter from South Philly, and Malcolm Kenyatta, who will likely be the first openly gay person of color to serve in the General Assembly.

Kenyatta said his young age “matters when we think about dealing with healthcare costs, college debt — these are problems in the commonwealth.”

Healthcare reform is a common refrain for millennial candidates, who have grown up among insurance insecurity and rising costs. McCabe supports Medicare for All, as does Senate candidate Muth, who’s in her 30s.

Schools are also a top issue for millennials, in particular for those with children. “Most of us want good public education,” said 33-year-old Little-Turner, who has four kids.

Little-Turner is from Coatesville, a city where 31.5 percent of people live in poverty. This year, the area school district raised property taxes by more than 5 percent — the biggest increase among districts. She supports a fair funding formula for schools that would reduce the tax burden on communities like hers.

“A district like ours suffers from a financial standpoint because we don’t have the tax base,” she said.

Goodbye labels, hello common ground

While Fiedler was endorsed by the DSA, she doesn’t call herself a socialist.

In fact, many of the millennial candidates running this year are label-averse, instead focusing on what can bring people together rather than further divide them.

Keedy describes himself as a Southwest Pa. Democrat — slightly more conservative, but deeply committed to unions and a strong believer in hard work. He’s hunted since he was 12 and has a concealed carry permit. He meets people afraid the Democrats are going to take their guns.

“I have a lot of people I have to deal with if you think that’s the case,” he jokes.

He also knows what it is to struggle financially, something people in his district can relate to.

Little-Turner feels the same way. She grew up experiencing poverty and in the foster care system. While the people in her district are majority Democrat, she wants them to look at her as “Amber,” and not as the Republican candidate.

“I’m not far removed from their circumstances,” she said. “I lived right among them.”

Finding common ground with people from other political parties is also a recurring theme among millennial campaigns.

O’Mara is running to represent a district that’s almost always had a Republican in the seat. At the moment, she’s only canvassing at households with independents or Republicans — and “no doors are being slammed.”

“People are genuinely excited about change,” she said, adding that people in her district want a legislator who wants to “listen to issues regardless of registration.”

That’s why she picked her slogan: “There is more that unites us than divides us.”

Billy Penn reporter Michaela Winberg contributed reporting. 

Want some more? Explore other The Incline in Harrisburg stories.

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