Historically, our state but also our country, has had a way of selecting future leaders that relies heavily on incumbents and leaders of the party seeking out their own candidates. I believe that this system has led to the disaffection of thousands of our constituents. We cannot rely on the systems of yesterday to choose our leaders for tomorrow.
Meet the Candidate
This is the first post of our 2024 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.
These Q&A’s are lengthy because there is a lot of ground to cover.
By participating in this Q&A series, candidates are saying that they
- are an LGBTQIA+ ally, specifically supporting equality and dignity for transgender persons
- identify as pro-choice
- recognize the 2020 election of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris
First to respond for 2024 is Makenzie White. She is running for PA State Senate District 45. I was struck by how much we have in common- both have MSWs, both held the same job at CHS albeit ten years apart, and her district includes both the community where I grew up (West Mifflin) and where I am currently staying (Brentwood.) We are also both disabled. But we didn’t meet until now.
I was impressed that Makenzie’s campaign reached out to me as soon as I announced this series. And her quick turn around time. Her answers are robust and thoughtful, the sort of candidate we should hear more from. She’s incredibly thorough, something I value in any elected officials. We cannot reeduce our communities to bullet points. Read on …
Name: Makenzie White
Office Sought: PA State Senate District 45
How do you describe your identity? I am a straight, white cisgender woman who lives with a disability. Professionally I am a social worker, public health professional, and small business owner. I am a resident of Brentwood and former resident of East Pittsburgh. I love camping and being outside and am also a big fan of rugby!
Tell us about your district. What is a hidden gem most people might not know about? District 45 is a diverse region that includes suburbs, rural, and urban areas all with concerns as diverse as their demographics. It is located completely within Allegheny County but excludes all parts of the City of Pittsburgh proper. It ranges from Plum and Monroeville down to the Mon Valley and then out to the South Hills and Elizabeth and Forward Township. One of my favorite hidden gems is Jo-Lynn’s Pizza in Liberty, definitely the best pizza in the district! I also really enjoy being outside and exploring the different parks in our area and the White Oak park is one of my favorites.
It is not enough to say we need to improve our air quality; we need to immediately address the life expectancy differences that Black neighborhoods disproportionately experience as a result of redlining and government policy.
Questions and Answers
There’s a lot of moving parts in Mon Valley politics this year. The PA 45th Senate Seat is up for grabs with the retirement of Jim Brewster. And the 38th House District is open as Rep Piscotta pursues that very Senate seat. How do you explain these shifts? One of the things the Democratic party is focusing on this year is how to obtain a majority in the State Senate. In order to do this it requires not only flipping three seats, but also holding all of our current seats. The 2020 election for this seat was difficult and the margin by which the party won was incredibly small. While the district has been redistricted since then, I think there is a lot of concern in the party about maintaining our position. Historically, our state but also our country, has had a way of selecting future leaders that relies heavily on incumbents and leaders of the party seeking out their own candidates. I believe that this system has led to the disaffection of thousands of our constituents. We cannot rely on the systems of yesterday to choose our leaders for tomorrow. In the fight to save our democracy, every single vote will matter, and it takes constant involvement and organizing within your communities, both during and after your elections, to keep people engaged with the political process.
You and I have two things in common – our MSWs from Pitt and our respective tours as Program Directors in MH Residential at Community Human Services. How do these histories prepare you for politics? Part of the reason I was interested in running for office was because we see a lack of educational diversity in our legislature—we don’t have a lot of social workers as elected leaders. I worked at Community Human Services during COVID and a lot of those experiences led me to run for office. Many of the issues my clients were facing everyday were things I couldn’t fix and they couldn’t fix because they were a result of poor policy or lack of policy on a whole host of issues. That job gave me a lot of experience working with individuals facing homelessness and substance use disorders and it taught me how harm reduction and housing first models are not only possible but are incredibly effective. I really believe my work as a social worker and in that setting is what would allow me to bring a diverse perspective to our legislature.
Pennsylvania has seen significant changes in our state representation, but the PA Senate still has 17 women out of 50 seats,while the entire State Legislature is made up of 27% women. Why is it important that the 45th Senate District send a woman to Harrisburg? To steal a RBG quote, “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough? And I say when there are nine”. Representation means true and full representation from the electorate. Whether it is 27% or 34%, it is not enough when women represent more than 50% of our population. There has never been a woman to hold this senate seat, and we only have one other Democratic woman senator west of the Susquehanna. During a year when abortion rights are on the ballot it is even more important we are sending women and those capable of giving birth to the legislature to fight for abortion rights and reproductive access for us all.
Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in Pennsylvania. While I am not gay myself, fighting on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community is an issue that has always been personal to me. My sister is gay, so I have seen and heard from her directly about many of the struggles members of the community face. While I understand that I cannot fully know what it is like to experience life as a member of the community, I have worked tirelessly wherever I can to be a steadfast ally.
When I was in high school I was an active member of my school’s Gay Straight Alliance and I was president of our peer mentoring program where I worked to help build inclusive spaces for everyone. As a social worker I now have the opportunity to create a safe space for people of the LGBTQ+ community in therapy and it’s something I pride myself on. I have worked with kids and their families who identify as transgender to help them understand what they want their lives to look like. Specifically, I have worked with parents of young children to help them ensure they are creating that safe space and environment in which their child feels like they can be truly themselves. I also offer the service of providing medical letters for those seeking gender reassignment surgery.
. I think part of increasing turnout is education not just of the issues but on understanding how different levels of government can interact differently on issues. When working with communities concerned about environmental issues, I have seen the most success with municipal ordinance changes but most people don’t realize the size of the impact local government can have on people’s day to day life.
Based on this, what do you understand to be our current top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for the General Assembly? How will you respond to those priorities? The issues facing the LGBTQ community permeate all aspects of public and private life, threatening access to health care, education, employment, and housing, while reinforcing a culture of violence and discrimination toward the LGBTQ community. This environment has become increasingly dangerous for LGBTQ youth (who make up 40% of homeless youth) and trans women of color (who experience the highest rates of violence). Without gender-affirming facilities available in all public spaces, trans people do not have equal access to participate in their communities, further marginalizing them. This is especially harmful to trans youth as it interferes with their ability to access a free public education, which is their constitutional right. When schools, doctors’ offices, and communities become less accessible to LGBTQ youth, the impact of violence at home becomes more dangerous.
Gender-affirming care saves lives and the ability to access gender-affirming care and treatment must be addressed in multiple settings to be truly effective. Requiring insurance companies to cover gender-affirming treatments like medication and surgery is a vital step in improving access to health care for trans people, but that is not enough. Trans people should not be required to prove mental competence to access gender-affirming treatment, especially considering the high poverty rates of the trans community and the small number of mental health providers who accept Medical Assistance. We also need policies that protect LGBTQ people from violence and discrimination across the healthcare continuum. Gender-affirming care should be required in every health care setting and providers should be held accountable for meeting these standards. Furthermore, we must ban Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (often referred to as “conversion therapy”) because these practices are abusive, unethical, unnecessary, and not evidence-based—even for “consenting” adults.
The threats of ‘religious liberty’ laws and exemptions target both LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. Pennsylvania has no law protecting marriage equality, ensuring second-parent adoption, preventing. discrimination, or similar important rights. If SCOTUS overturns or waters down the ‘penumbra of privacy’ protecting us as they did overturning Roe, what do you anticipate happening in Pennsylvania?
I believe these issues are the very reason we need to secure the majority in the senate and bring more women and progressives to our legislature. Since the overturning of Roe v Wade, we have been fortunate to still have abortion rights protected–but that is no guarantee. A small change in leadership could drastically change that. We need as a state to be able to codify in law protection for abortion rights to ensure that can’t be changed with a change in leadership. This is the same for protecting marriage rights, ensuring second-parent adoption, preventing discrimination and other important human rights. Securing the majority and holding the seats we have would at least allow us to protect Pennsylvanians through our own law if SCOTUS were to overturn any of these other rights.
One thing that is important to keep in mind as we continue in our fight on these issues is that we cannot be satisfied with simply electing any Democrat. We must ensure, where we can, that we are electing advocates, organizers, and those who have experienced first-hand the effects of bad policy decisions. We must focus on electing those who recognize the importance of not letting those with intersecting identities fall through the cracks. It is not enough to address air quality issues in Allegheny County, we must address the more than 20-year life expectancy difference between zip codes within the county. It is not enough to address the issue of abortion rights; we must also address the issue of black maternal mortality rates statewide.
How do you describe the impact, if any, of a Democrat controlled PA House? The democrats obtaining the control of the senate would have a very large impact especially on legislative agendas. Last year I had the opportunity to make contributions towards a public health and fracking bill that Representative Krawjeski’s office sponsored. This type of legislation could have never been received well if it weren’t for having the majority in the house. And that bill is just one example of all the work the house has been able to accomplish since having the majority.
However, as strong as a piece of legislation might be it doesn’t go anywhere because the Republicans have the majority of the Senate. We cannot even start to think about passing comprehensive abortion protections statewide without a Senate Majority. The people of our commonwealth have made their opinions on a women’s right to choose abundantly clear, and we cannot let a change in national leadership strip them of their bodily autonomy. In addition, a Democratic controlled state opens up conversations on the enactment of a livable minimum wage and a whole host of other issues.
Trans youth, indeed all LGBTQ youth, are under assault in our Commonwealth. Programs have closed in the wake of the pandemic. Schools struggle with bullying and book bans. Affordable housing is dear, discrimination is everywhere and legal in 75% of Pennsylvania. But the General Assembly is prioritizing the non-issue of trans girls playing soccer as the real threat.
I believe part of the reason the focus in the general assembly has focused heavily on the sports issues is because of lack of knowledge on other issues that the trans and LGBTQ youth are experiencing. If elected I would use my experience as a Community Organizer and Certified Health Education Specialist to educate my peers in the Pennsylvania General Assembly about the impact of legislative efforts on the LGBTQ+ community and promote the passage of legislation that protects the rights, health, and safety of LGBTQ+ people across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As a practicing therapist, I am particularly horrified by the continued use of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts as these practices are abusive, unethical, unnecessary, and not evidence-based—even for “consenting” adults.
I will use my public platform to educate and mobilize voters to use all of the tools available to engage with the legislative process outside of elections (i.e., writing letters of support/opposition to a committee, giving public testimony at legislative hearings). By engaging the local LGBTQ+ community in public advocacy efforts, I can help ensure that these policies are informed by the people who will be affected. This approach will improve the dialogue between marginalized communities and the officials who they elect to represent their interests.
I think it is essential that when our candidates are elected they do not stop doing the work that got them elected in the first place. Organizing for the rights of our neighbors and loved ones is not work that ends once you win public office. It will take more than voting and introducing legislation in this fight, our legislators must use every tool at their disposal in this fight.
Public environmental health in this district includes everything from fracking to air emissions to miles of freight train rails. While Plum and Clairton seem miles apart, they share a legacy of coal mining. How do you build district wide grassroots support around public health? As a community organizer, I became intimately familiar with the wide range of environmental issues across this district—from the injection wells in Plum to the well pads in Elizabeth, and everything in between (like the largest coke plant in the United States, Clairton Works). More importantly, I became familiar with these communities, their experiences, their concerns, and their priorities. I partnered with these communities to develop and advocate for policies that protect their health and safety.
I’ve worked with people of all political backgrounds because, at the end of the day, I truly believe that nobody wants their kid to have asthma. Nobody wakes up and thinks “let’s pollute our community today.” But everybody needs to put food on the table, and some of the best jobs in this district are currently in the fossil fuel industry, the leading contributor to increased rates of asthma and cancer across the region. The idea that we must choose between jobs and clean air is a lie, fed to us by an industry that maximizes profits by minimizing the power of workers. These workers don’t have the generational wealth needed to live, work, and raise their families somewhere else. And they shouldn’t have to make that choice—to lose their community or their life. The truth is, we don’t have to pick. We can have good, union jobs and clean air.
These communities share much more than generations of pollution, they share a history of labor organizing. We can build on that legacy by engaging every inch of the district, giving everybody a seat at the table, and building solutions that meet all our communities’ needs.
The Mon Valley regions you seek to represent were heavily, perhaps overly represented, in the number of dioceses with credible allegations and victims in the Attorney General Report on Sexual abuse in the catholic church – including some of my friends and neighbors. How will you continue to advocate for the victims and survivors on the state level?
The issue of sexual abuse and sexual harassment is deeply personal for me as someone who has been a victim myself. There are unfortunately bad people everywhere and the church is no exception. Whether it’s a church, an elected official, or a corporation there should be absolutely no cases in which we look the other way and allow individuals to get away with this behavior. As a therapist it is a priority of mine to advocate for victims and survivors. Something that is not well known is the Sexual Assault Counseling Fund in PA which provides up to $10,000 towards counseling services for individuals who have experiences sexual abuse in Pennsylvania. This is a huge resource but is often unknown by clients and therapists alike and I would work to make sure providers know this resource exists and that individuals are leveraging it. Other needed responses I see around this issue is training law enforcement and health professionals, reducing rape kit backlogs, and increasing the amount of community education programs especially on school campuses.
I grew up in West Mifflin in the 70s and 80s. It is almost a poster child for the impact of racism on the Mon Valley, including environmental racism, school violence, even literal segregated housing at least through most of my lifetime. We grew up in “the North and the South” parts of West Mifflin. Even now, it is actually divided in representation in the General Assembly between District 33 and District 38. How do you plan to address racial justice in your district?
West Mifflin, like many parts of this district, is incredibly diverse and the racial disparities run very deep. One very prevalent and clear disparity is the environmental injustice impacting Black communities throughout the 45th. There is a 20-year difference in life expectancy depending on your zip code and historic redlining has led to intentional zoning of polluting industries in the backyards of Black families who often were given no choice when looking for somewhere to live. There are a lot of communities fighting for environmental justice in this district and a priority is working on immediate improvements to their daily lives by improving the air quality and holding industry accountable so they can’t keep just paying fines while polluting the community.
This historic redlining is also still leading to the displacement of communities due to lack of affordable housing. We cannot begin to remedy the historic segregation of our communities without creating affordable housing projects for everyone. It is important to acknowledge that while affordable housing projects in Black neighborhoods are needed, their creation can lead to the reinforcement of segregation and, if it’s not affordable, it can lead to the displacement of Black families that lived there for generations. We must create affordable housing everywhere to address the effects of redlining and, where courts allow, prioritize the housing of Black families in these developments. We need to look at solutions like community benefit agreements to ensure a percentage of all units are for affordable housing and to work to integrate our neighborhoods especially in the suburbs.
In addition to environmental and housing issues, our system of mass incarceration is not working–and systemic racism has led to an institution which targets and unfairly imprisons people of color and puts a penalty on poverty. I believe in second chances; I believe that locking someone up and stripping them of their human rights is not only ineffective but inhumane. I believe that the war on drugs has been detrimental to so many people and has just led to further incarcerations for minor offenses while not addressing the root cause of issues around overdoses. Criminal justice reform is a cornerstone for addressing our racial injustices. This would look like the legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of small-time drug offenses, elimination of cash bail, and recognizing and utilizing a comprehensive public health approach to prioritize strategies that influence criminal behavior.
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 campaign team. My campaign team consists of nine individuals currently, seven women and 2 men. Two individuals identify with the LGBTQIA+ community and two identify as BIPOC.
There has never been a woman to hold this senate seat, and we only have one other Democratic woman senator west of the Susquehanna. During a year when abortion rights are on the ballot it is even more important we are sending women and those capable of giving birth to the legislature to fight for abortion rights and reproductive access for us all.
Voter turnout is a significant concern, especially for municipal/local elections. What advice would you offer to organizations and groups concerned with turnout in Pennsylvania?
I think voter turnout is something that is always a concern especially during non-presidential years. In my environmental work I have seen first-hand how much municipal and local governments really have more control in some ways of what happens in their communities but there is little education about that and usually a shortage of people running for local seats. I think part of increasing turnout is education not just of the issues but on understanding how different levels of government can interact differently on issues. When working with communities concerned about environmental issues, I have seen the most success with municipal ordinance changes but most people don’t realize the size of the impact local government can have on people’s day to day life.
In addition to education, we have seen over the last couple of elections in this region that candidates who really embrace a community organizing approach are incredibly successful. I believe communities want leaders who are going to show up every day, knock on their door, come to their church, and talk to them about what is going on in their lives and in their community. This personal approach is often missing but I believe improves turnout when people feel like they are valued and part of the process.
Endorsements, Socials, and Summary
Tell us about your endorsements.
I have been endorsed by Run for Something which is a national organization dedicated to supporting progressive young candidates running in down-ballot elections. Additionally, I have been endorsed by 314 Action which works to elect scientists and those with a STEM background to legislature and advocates for evidence-based policy solutions.
Finally, what are three reasons people should vote for you/support your campaign?
- I think we all know that abortion is on the ballot this year. Last year I had several close friends who had miscarriages and had to get DNCs or abortions. Every single time all we could think about was if we just lived in a different state or had different leaders they could have died. As a woman, protecting reproductive rights and keeping abortion legal is deeply personal to me and I will show up every day to fight for women.
- My experience as a social worker and community organizer makes me extremely qualified to bring a unique and diverse perspective to our legislature. I have spent my career working alongside communities to advocate for the change they need. As a healthcare worker and someone who worked in long-term care facilities during the COVID pandemic, I understand first-hand the shortcomings and gaps in our mental and physical health systems. I bring extensive experience in the non-profit and human services sector and a bold policy vision to address problems residents face every day.
- There is a lot of discussion about holding onto this seat, and yes, we need to hold onto this seat. But it’s more than holding onto the seat, it’s about bringing real and true change to the district. It’s about creating communities where we all can live, work, play and flourish together. It is not enough to say we need to improve our air quality; we need to immediately address the life expectancy differences that Black neighborhoods disproportionately experience as a result of redlining and government policy. It is not enough to elect politicians who say that they will fight for a woman’s right to choose, we must work to elect women to these spaces so we can fight for ourselves. And it’s not enough to say we need to improve our criminal justice system; we need a drastic change in approaching crime and substance use from a public health perspective that prioritizes harm reduction and housing first programming.
- Please list your social media accounts and your donation links.
Thank you, Makenzie.
Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com.
- 2024 Political Q&A with Makenzie White: What You Need to Know About This Candidate for PA Senate District 45
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