I was excited to see Governor Shapiro take office and announce that he would keep a kosher kitchen in the Governor’s Mansion. Most of the time, Jewish observances are mysterious and holidays are sort of an “also-ran,” just mentioned in passing when they have some relationship in time with Christian holidays, and people don’t really even know what they are. Jewishness seems to be a hidden sort of minority identity that isn’t discussed much.
This is the next post of our 2023 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.
I first heard of Abigail in spring 2022 when she initially ran for this office in the 2022 primary. I was intrigued that we had yet another groundbreaking LGBTQ woman in local office, to my understanding the first out Jewish person to serve in municipal office from this region (Swissvale City Council) and to serve as Council President. Now she’ll be the first out Jewish person and only Jewish woman to join serve in the General Assembly, following into the legacy of her predecessor, Summer Lee who repeatedly broke ground in this particular office.
Abigail’s commitment to municipal issues, especially environmental issues, has impressed me. Her Q&A lived up to my expectations and I hope you will read it and vote in the upcoming Special Election. Please note that I did invite the other candidates on the Democratic slate in that election to participate in our Q&A, but they have no responded. I’m really glad Abigail did.
By participating, candidates are saying that they
- must be an LGBTQIA+ ally, specifically supporting equality and dignity for transgender persons
- identify as pro-choice
- must affirm that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that they accept the certified Pennsylvania’s election results
Your Name: Abigail Salisbury
Your Pronouns: She/Her
The Office You Seek: PA State House District 34
How do you describe your identity? I’m the B in LGBTQIA+. I also was diagnosed with Asperger’s back when that was still what that diagnosis was called, and some studies have shown that women on the autism spectrum have low identification with femaleness. I don’t know if someone has come up with a word that encapsulates that identity, but that is how I have always felt. Some people might say the right word is “nonbinary,” but perhaps there is a more precise word. I’m not sure.
Tell us about your district. What is a hidden gem most people might not know about? District 34 spans over 12 boroughs and part of two wards of Pittsburgh, so it is very socioeconomically diverse. We have three different school districts and you will see everything from entirely abandoned blighted city blocks to million-dollar homes. My husband and I started out living in Wilkinsburg, where I first built my law practice, and we moved to Swissvale in 2015. There are a lot of gems in the District! I would encourage people to try out Swissvale’s new Indian restaurant, Bombay to Burgh, which was opened by my friend Gaurav Navin in late 2022. I’m there all the time because it’s halfway between my office and my house. He wants to bring a fresh, seasonal approach to his restaurant, and it’s amazing for vegetarians and vegans.
How has redistricting impacted your district? Redistricting changed the shape and composition of the district by making it more compact and diverse. The largest changes were the removal of Turtle Creek and Homestead, along with the addition of Wilkinsburg, which is now the largest borough in the district.
The demonization of LGBTQ people and culture is constant. I fear a Republican majority pushing through Constitutional amendments that would radically alter our landscape and take away rights that we thought were settled. We need these three districts to have Democrats in them so that we have a Democratic majority in the PA House and keep this dangerous Republican rhetoric from becoming dangerous legislation.
Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life? I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and it was incredibly taboo where I lived to even imply that someone might be LGBTQ. I don’t think we even used that term. The first time I knowingly encountered LGBTQ people was in college when I went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and even that environment was quite repressed in the early 2000s. I made a gay male friend who actually went back into the closet when he first got to campus because he had come out in high school but was unsure of how college would go for him as an openly gay man. He ended up joining a fraternity and then came out to them later. He was terrified of repercussions, but he felt that because they already knew him, they accepted him when he came out to them. I think that impacted me by making me think that if people just got to know others who were “different” first, before learning about their identities, they might be more accepting and less resistant to or afraid of interacting with LGBTQ-identifying people. However, as I witnessed female friends come out as lesbian or bisexual, I saw them being treated as sex objects. People didn’t seem to take them seriously, and I always heard people accuse them of doing it for attention from men. That impacted me strongly when I saw the different ways people perceived men versus women coming out. I also first learned the term “male gaze” in college.
How has your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region changed since you took municipal office? I was much less familiar with the issues relating to the transgender community before I took office. The conversation around anti-trans discrimination and particularly the way in which trans children are treated has become more mainstream, which I hear sometimes when I attend school board meetings. Council has had to design a new borough building since our previous one collapsed, and part of that involved a conversation about gender-neutral bathrooms. I’m not sure if that would have happened five or more years ago, but I’m glad it’s happening now. Our council’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee worked to encourage Swissvale’s first Pride Parade in 2022 (although we should not try to take credit for it, as Sisters PGH organized it) and to pass an ordinance that prohibited anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in housing and other matters earlier this year. I am really encouraged by their work.
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? Something I say a lot is that LGBTQ rights are human rights, and that I will always fight for human rights. We need to make sure that LGBTQ children are safe and welcome in schools and that we have solid anti-discrimination protections that are available to everyone, not just those whose cases are monetarily interesting to lawyers. The “gay panic” defense is unacceptable. Because Roe v. Wade was overturned and that case comes from the Constitutional right to privacy, there is always a possibility that the precedent for gay marriage could likewise disappear in an instant. We need to make sure that right is protected effectively at the state level forever.
You are running in a Special Election scheduled for February 7 to fill the seat vacated when Summer Lee was elected to the US Congress. That election will also fill other vacant seats in the General Assembly. In addition to ensuring your district is represented in the General Assembly, what are the other consequences of this Special Election – why is it important for residents in in the 32nd, 34th, and 35th legislative districts to vote on February 7, 2023? My first election was in 2000. That year, and every year since, I have seen the Republican party become more and more extreme. Just when I think that the rhetoric cannot possibly get worse, something else happens. Just this past week, we saw a proposal that would classify drag shows in Pennsylvania as sexual in nature so that zoning restrictions against prurient interests would allow them to be banned in many areas. The demonization of LGBTQ people and culture is constant. I fear a Republican majority pushing through Constitutional amendments that would radically alter our landscape and take away rights that we thought were settled. We need these three districts to have Democrats in them so that we have a Democratic majority in the PA House and keep this dangerous Republican rhetoric from becoming dangerous legislation. Next, we need to work on winning more seats in the PA Senate, but that’s for a different election!
Please give an example of how intersectionality has informed your council work these past years? Council typically had a traditional form of public comment in which people would attend meetings in person, give their names and speak for a few minutes on their topic of choice. I knew that it was not really giving a speaking opportunity to people who could not attend meetings due to a variety of reasons, such as childcare or other caretaking obligations, shift work, transportation restrictions, physical limitations, etc. What I did not think about – and I thank people for telling me this – was that some people did not feel that they could participate in council meetings because they took place in the same building as the police station and they were from groups that were disproportionately mistreated by the police.
I pushed for us to livestream meetings and we allowed live commenting during the meetings. I felt that this helped to foster a sense of community for those who could not attend meetings, and I would watch the comments to see if anyone needed to have an issue addressed or explained, to make sure it was handled in the moment. When I became Council President, I also allowed written public comments that I would read out at the beginning of meetings. This was an important element of allowing public participation after council chambers collapsed in March 2020, because we had to move to Zoom meetings.
Unfortunately, after my term as Council President ended (I chose not to seek it again so I could focus on running for state rep), written comments were no longer allowed and the livestream commenting feature was turned off. I have seen a sharp drop off in participation from the groups that had benefitted from those opportunities, and I continue to advocate for a return to previous practices (most recently at last night’s council meeting). I think that unfortunately there is still a misunderstanding that everyone has the same ability to participate, regardless of their identities and what goes along with those identities. Everyone contains multitudes, and one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work.
Please give an example of when another member of Council where you currently serve has persuaded you to change or adjust your perspective on an issue. I always felt a disdain for memorial objects like statues, headstones, plaques, etc. I tend to see them as functionless wastes of money that should be spend on living people. I was initially intensely opposed to having council spend money on a stone memorial for a beloved member of the community who had passed away, and I fought it hard.
I had a conversation with another council member and (this is going to sound like a breakthrough with a therapist) it came out in our conversation that I hated physical memorial objects because when I was 13, my father was too scared of losing his job to take time off from work, so he had a heart attack at work and subsequently died. His employer paid no life insurance or anything, but paid for the most beautiful headstone you’ve ever seen. I hadn’t really processed that feeling, so I was fighting the part of our community that wanted this physical memorial. After I understood what was going on with me, I voted to approve the funding for the memorial stone that everyone else wanted.
This past week in Western PA, an electronic billboard displayed a swastika among other hateful images and messages targeting Jews, the Black community, the LGBTQ community, women, Democrats, immigrants, and more. The only body that can address this is the state government which regulates (or doesn’t) billboard brightness in terms of distracted driving along state roads. No state official has agreed to take up this concern. Would you consider that an appropriate use of regulatory powers? I saw the news stories about this billboard and I found the pictures disgusting and hateful. I used to teach Media Law to undergrads at Pitt. It’s basically a First Amendment Law class. We talked a lot about state regulation of hate speech, as many of my students found that very interesting and it was part of the curriculum for the course. Without going into too long of a legal argument, I think that it would be possible to engage in this regulation of brightness because it is a time, place, and manner restriction.
However, someone could just as easily put the same content on a traditional printed billboard and the legislation would not have achieved much, since the same message would be getting out there. I found it interesting that the man who put up the billboard in the first place said that he removed the Nazi Swastika because a Jewish friend of his told him it was wrong and offensive. I tend to think that the answer to speech like this is more speech, rather than more regulations. It also goes to show that the more interaction that people have with people who are different from themselves, the more they start to understand the problems with their own views.
And that leads into another question. When researching the above situation, I learned that there are currently no Jewish women or nonbinary individuals in the General Assembly and just a handful of men. That’s an interesting juxtaposition with the election of our first Jewish Governor, Josh Shapiro. Would you be the only Jewish woman in the General Assembly? How does that representation speak to your experiences moving through the world? I think I might be the only Jewish woman in the General Assembly if elected. I’d be the only Jew to have served in the 34th District, as well. I have noticed a distinct uptick in antisemitism in recent years, and have dealt with it in my own life as well as on borough council, so I was excited to see Governor Shapiro take office and announce that he would keep a kosher kitchen in the Governor’s Mansion. Most of the time, Jewish observances are mysterious and holidays are sort of an “also-ran,” just mentioned in passing when they have some relationship in time with Christian holidays, and people don’t really even know what they are.
Jewishness seems to be a hidden sort of minority identity that isn’t discussed much. I find that most people have an iduea of what a Jewish woman looks like and I don’t look quite like what they would expect, so I hear a lot of antisemitic comments from people who think I am “one of them.” I tell them that I’m a Jew and it gets very awkward. I’ve heard it all, from people who sexualize Jewish women (the old “hole in the sheet” trope still gets brought up in what is supposed to be polite conversation) to people who assume I should have an easy time of fundraising because all Jews are stereotypically rich. We have quite a way to go with antisemitism in this country.
Your campaign website mentions environmental issues. Please describe your work on a local issue as a member of council that you could also address from the vantage of the General Assembly. This might not be the most thrilling issue to many people, but stormwater management is really important to me. On council, I worked with a professional geologist, Swissvale resident Dr. Emily Mercurio, and she helped me understand her mapping of the water permeability in the area so that I could see why we had so much runoff into the combined sewers when it rained (I encourage people to research combined sewers because it’s a disgusting situation).
We worked together to identify an ideal spot when Humane Action Pittsburgh offered to pay for a pollinator parklet in Swissvale, making sure that it would be located where it could absorb stormwater runoff. That project is underway now and when complete later this year, it will be a 12,000 square foot garden of native plants that will beautify the area, foster pollinator habitats, capture excess water, and provide all the wonderful benefits of trees!
In terms of working in the General Assembly, I would like to see tax incentives for removing surfaces that are impermeable to water (I removed the asphalt parking lot behind my law office when I saw Dr. Mercurio’s mapping work). Climate change means that we will have more rain than snow and that our ground will often be oversaturated, leading to sewage overflows, sewage backups into people’s basements, landslides, and other negative consequences. We need to incentivize permeable surfaces and provide municipal funding for improvement to stormwater management systems.
You humorously post about people calling you “Angela Lansbury” when you are canvassing. That’s hilarious. If you could send any Angela Lansbury character to the General Assembly, which would you choose? Novelist and crime sleuth extraordinaire Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote would be the ideal candidate, of course! She had a career as an English teacher before publishing her novels, so she would have valuable input on education policy. Her attention to detail would be impressive and useful in listening sessions and when drafting legislation. She even served as a member of Congress for a short while in the series! (I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house when I was little, and I have very fond memories of watching Murder She Wrote together and listening to the police scanner during commercial breaks.)
Finally, what are three reasons people should vote for you/support your campaign? I emphasize listening and constituent services. I will work hard to deliver on the PA Constitution’s promises of clean air and water. I fight for human rights.
Tell me about your other endorsements and supporters. I am endorsed by Victory Fund, Emily’s List, Represent PA, Allegheny-Fayette Labor Council, PA AFL-CIO, Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses & Allied Professionals (PASNAP), Pennsylvania Realtors Political Action Committee, Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania, the Human Rights Campaign, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) PACE, Clean Water Action, and more coming in all the time!
Where can readers find your campaign on social media?
Is there anything you’d like to add? Thank you so much for the opportunity to answer your very thoughtful questions!
Thank you, Abigail.
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- 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.
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