Q&A With Jessica Benham, Incumbent Candidate for PA House District 36

Jessica Benham
Photo via Benham campaign

As a member of the minority party, it’s incredibly difficult to get legislative priorities to move in Harrisburg. In fact, so far, no bill prime sponsored by a House Democrat has been signed into law this legislative session. I have used the amendment process to still advocate and fight.

State Representative Jessica Benham

This is the next post of our 2022 primary election season series ‘Political Q&A’ with progressive candidates throughout Pennsylvania. Candidates can be anywhere in Pennsylvania running for any level of office. Please note that these are not necessarily endorsements, more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with the LGBTQ community, progressives neighbors, and others with an interest in Western Pennsylvania. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com. We welcome candidates at all levels of government across the entire Commonwealth

By participating, candidates are saying that they

  • must be an LGBTQIA+ ally
  • identify as pro-choice
  • must affirm that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that you accept the certified Pennsylvania’s election results

We first interviewed Jessica Benham during her inaugural run for her current office. Her election was both groundbreaking and hardfought – Jessica is the first out bisexual (or LGBTQ) woman to serve in the General Assembly from Western Pennsylvania. She is also the first autistic representative.

The first time I met her in person was at a fundraising event for regional animal rescues, held in her district during her first campaign. She was the only candidate there and she wasn’t just shaking hands, she had a full table and a genuine desire to interact with attendees, those who might vote for her and those could not. I was volunteering at the event and came barreling around a corner to find her team with smiles and answers to my questions. That was Saturday March 7, 2020. It was my last public engagement before we began isolating.

And it stays with me vividly, this memory of a local candidate showing up at a local event to help animals and the human beings who care for them. It was a moment of normalcy in the old way of doing things, but simultaneously a revolutionary act for Jessica to simply be there – a bisexual autistic woman running for a state office. It was like the old way of doing things smashed, however unknowingly, into the new way of doing things right on the precipice of the COVID-19 epidemic. And I saw it in that moment.

Read on to learn what Jessica has in mind for her next term in office.

I

Name: Jessica Benham
Pronouns: She/her
Office Held/Seeking: State Representative, District 36

How do you describe your identity?
I am a bisexual disabled woman.


All policy issues are LGBTQ+ policy issues, so certainly our community cares just as much about economic opportunity, the environment, public safety, and healthcare, among other issues, just as much as other group



Tell us about your district. What is a hidden gem most people might not know about? House District 36 contains much of South Pittsburgh, as well as the boroughs of Brentwood and Mt. Oliver. I often joke that the entire district is a hidden gem, because people from other parts of town won’t cross rivers to visit! I certainly encourage people to come and enjoy the incredible food this district has to offer. 

How has redistricting impacted your district? House District 36 lost the northern part of Baldwin borough, lost part of Mt. Washington, and a precinct in South Side. The district picked up the rest of Brookline and most of Beechview, as well as Arlington Heights.

Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region. How has your first term in office impacted that familiarity? As a bisexual person myself, I’ve been involved in LGBTQ community throughout the Greater Pittsburgh area, though frequently specifically through LGBTQ disability community spaces. For example, through my work at the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, the region’s only LGBTQ and Autistic-run Autism advocacy organization, we had partnered with groups like SisTers PGH to offer sensory friendly spaces at their events, so that Autistic people can be fully welcomed into LGBTQ spaces. During my first term, I’ve had the opportunity to advocate for the issues impacting our community in Harrisburg and have enjoyed hearing from LGBTQ people about their experiences.

Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for the General Assembly? How will you respond to those priorities? All policy issues are LGBTQ+ policy issues, so certainly our community cares just as much about economic opportunity, the environment, public safety, and healthcare, among other issues, just as much as other groups. However, there are ways these issues specifically impact us – like the fact that we legally can be denied employment, healthcare or housing because we are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Particularly, I’ve been a strong proponent of the PA Fairness Act and the PA Safe Schools Act, as well as legislation banning the so-called ‘panic defense’ and banning conversion therapy.

You were elected to your first term in 2020. Tell us about your accomplishments during this term. If reelected, what are your policy goals for your next term. In my first term, I worked hard to be incredibly present in my district and for my district in Harrisburg, bringing back nearly $4 million in state investment so far in my first term. Together with my team, we’ve also worked to bring back information about state government to the district, providing state services onside at senior high rises, participating in an Emergency Preparedness Day Fair, working with local teen centers to increase the resources they have to serve kids and teens, partnering with the South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace to make sure they were funded for gun violence prevention services, and bringing Liquor Control Enforcement and the PA Liquor Control Board to the district for a conversation about liquor issues and what we can do to address problem establishments. 

As a member of the minority party, it’s incredibly difficult to get legislative priorities to move in Harrisburg. In fact, so far, no bill prime sponsored by a House Democrat has been signed into law this legislative session. I have used the amendment process to still advocate and fight: for example, I sponsored an amendment to a bill that would have allowed the placement of cameras in the bedrooms of nursing home residents by the resident, their guardian, or someone with power of attorney. My amendment removed the provision allowing the person with power of attorney to place the camera and was unanimously supported on the floor because of my advocacy around significant privacy concerns. 

For my second term, I’m prioritizing addressing rising costs of living, while again acknowledging that if our party remains in the minority, we will have no control over what legislation receives a vote. I’m fighting for investments in our local businesses that struggled during COVID-19, a real living wage, paid family and sick leave, investments in childcare and other supports for working families, and investments in our public health infrastructure. We also need to fund workforce development, so that workers are prepared for emerging jobs and for jobs where we see current workforce shortages.

The threats of ‘religious liberty’ laws and exemptions target both LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. Pennsylvania has no law protecting marriage equality, second-parent adoption, nondiscrimination, or similar important rights. If SCOTUS overturns or waters down Roe v Wade and the ‘penumbra of privacy’ protecting us, what do you anticipate happening in Pennsylvania? If we elect Josh Shapiro as our governor, I know that he is committed to defending our rights, and I know that we will be able to sustain his veto. However, if we elect a Republican governor and the Republicans maintain control of both the PA House and Senate, we could see legislation passed significantly limiting our rights.

I don’t think Harrisburg has the will to move forward on Infrastructure funding. Convince me otherwise. If infrastructure were being solely funded through state appropriations, I believe you are right – we have seen no real political will from the majority party to move significant investments in infrastructure. 

However, with significant federal funding in play, I do think the political will exists to invest that in the Commonwealth. For example, the Republicans were already willing to create the mechanism for the Commonwealth to receive federal investments in broadband internet infrastructure. 

Seven transgender individuals, all BIPOC, have been murdered in Pennsylvania since February 2021. Five of those individuals were from Southwestern Pennsylvania and two of those murders have not been solved yet. It seems to me that community safety should prioritize finding violent murderers rather than interfering with school athletic
policies. Conversely, that the obsession with the school athletic bills while ignoring the unsolved murders sends a very clear message about the value the sponsors of HB 972. I realize the murder investigations are at the local level, but no one is even talking about them.
The prime sponsors of HB972 have shown a willingness to further marginalize Trans people, especially Trans women. Community safety should prioritize creating a world that is safe for everyone, including Black and brown Trans people. Rising violence throughout the nation needs to be addressed at every level of government – we need to take real action on commonsense gun reforms and invest in the educational and economic futures of our young people. And yes, at the local level, our local officials should, among other priorities, work to solve those murder cases.

There’s a clear need to actively create space for women, especially Black women and other women of color, in elected office AND on campaign and legislative staffs. These are issues of representation and realities. Tell us about your teams. On both the campaign and legislative fronts, I have hired diverse teams, including women, Black and brown people, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities. 


Voter turnout is a significant concern, especially for municipal/local elections. What advice would you offer to organizations and groups concerned with turnout in Western Pennsylvania? Voters need to believe in their core that their votes actually have an impact on their quality of life. When regardless of how they vote, life doesn’t change, motivating them to turn out is difficult. We need movements of people holding elected officials accountable, pushing good government reforms that make our legislatures actually work well, and showing people the actual impact that their votes can have. 


If we elect Josh Shapiro as our governor, I know that he is committed to defending our rights, and I know that we will be able to sustain his veto.


How can supporters get involved with campaigns while practicing social distancing and other protocols? I can’t speak for other campaigns, but for my campaign, there are a variety of volunteer opportunities available, some of which, like phone banking, can be done completely from home. 

Tell us about your endorsements.

Elected Officials

Brentwood Borough: 

  • Council President Dennis Troy
  • Council Vice President Harold Smith
  • President Pro Tempore Melissa Lenigan
  • Councilman Bob Pasquantonio
  • Councilman Steve Thomas

Unions

  • Pennsylvania AFL-CIO
  • EAS Carpenters
  • PA State Education Association
  • Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers
  • Pittsburgh Firefighters Local 1
  • Pittsburgh Sprinkler Fitters Local 542
  • SEIU PA State Council
  • Teamsters Joint Council No. 40
  • UFCW

Organizations

  • Young Democrats of Allegheny County
  • Steel City Stonewall Democrats
  • Sierra Club Pennsylvania

Finally, what are three reasons people should vote for you/support your campaign? The reasons that people plan to vote for me vary from person to person, but overall, the top three reasons seem to be in these broad categories:

  1. I’m fighting for educational and economic opportunities for individuals and local businesses, while working to lower costs of living and increase access to healthcare. 
  2. I’ve prioritized real investments in violence prevention and response in House District 36 and will continue to do so. I understand both violence and drug use as matters of public health and am working to invest in our hyperlocal public health infrastructure. 
  3. I’ve continued to be committed to protecting our environment, while also prioritizing workforce development for family-sustaining jobs. 

Please list your social media accounts and your donation links.

Thank you, Jessica.


To participate,

  • you must be an LGBTQIA+ ally
  • identify as pro-choice
  • you must affirm that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that you accept the certified Pennsylvania’s election results

Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here. Responses from this election cycle are listed below in the order they were returned by the campaign.

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