Candidate Profile: Jessica Benham
To say the past few days have been eventful, would be an understatement. Nevertheless, hundreds of incredible down-ballot candidates are still doing the work that matters — fighting to improve their communities and making sure that we have progressive officials in power up and down the ballot.
Take a look at some of our most prolific candidates in our new Candidate Spotlight Series.
Say hello to Jessica Benham, running for the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives in District 36. Jessica is the Director of Development for the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy (PCAA), a grassroots self-advocacy project run by Autistic people for Autistic people. Jessica’s election has made waves, as she and other young progressives in Allegheny County are working doggedly to shake up the status quo and bring about much needed improvements. Learn more about Jessica below!
Hi Jessica! Tell us, what inspired you to run for office?
For me, it was hearing people’s stories at these meetings that inspired me to run. I heard countless stories of the impact of flooding along Route 51 — ruining houses, preventing the development of a local business economy. I heard people decrying the lack of investment in water management infrastructure and concerns about construction making our hillsides even less stable.
My heart broke hearing family members describe the impact of substance use disorder on their families — the loss of a child, grandparents raising grandkids, rising rates of incarceration. I kept asking myself, too — how many more from my community are we going to lose to gun violence? How many more rallies, vigils, and marches to mourn children and teens? So I decided to run.
You mention a few concerns from the community, what issue do you think is most pressing for your constituents and how do you plan on addressing it?
The most pressing issue throughout the district seems to be a lack of water management infrastructure, resulting in flooding and landslides. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, various municipalities, water and sewer management authorities, community partners, and other organizations have worked to study and develop plans to address the impacts of past flooding and decrease the likelihood of future flooding, they deserve a partner at the state level who is willing to fight for the necessary funding to complete much needed infrastructure updates.
We hate to ask, but we have to: As a candidate running for office — with a primary less than a month away — how has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your campaign and your community?
COVID-19 impacts the campaign in an immediate way, where we’re rethinking the ways in which we engage in voter outreach. For the moment, the PA House Democratic Campaign Committee still recommends canvassing, with precautions like not shaking hands and using hand sanitizer between each door. If the outbreak worsens, we will likely have to pivot to phone and text banking.
I think about the impact on my community in a few different ways. Certainly, people are afraid — the virus can be deadly, and with no testing happening in Allegheny County yet, it’s hard to know who is contagious. Workplaces are encouraging people to work from home, but many of our most economically-vulnerable community members have jobs that don’t allow for remote work, like serving in restaurants or performing care work. One recent story that caught my eye was that Google was allowing employees to work from home, but not allowing their contractors to work remotely.
But another way that I think about my community is thinking about my role as a member of the disability community. When people first became aware of COVID-19, I heard people say that it wasn’t a big deal because healthy people will survive it. To me, this felt like my immune-compromised friends and my elderly relatives were seen as worthless. A healthy person might survive COVID-19, yes, but we all have a responsibility to take precautionary steps to not spread it to those who might not survive.
As you’ve been meeting with voters in your community, what is something new that you learned?
One story that really sticks in my mind: I was sitting down with one of the local borough councilmen, who happened to also be a volunteer fireman. I knew very little about the concerns and issues impacting volunteer firefighters prior to our conversation, but his passion for volunteerism and his deep understanding of the policy issues at stake was inspiring. By the time we had finished our conversation, I left with a well-rounded sense of the problems faced by volunteer firefighters — decreasing volunteerism, struggles to fundraise enough money to fund equipment, and concerns about resources to address mental health and trauma, among other issues. With volunteer fire departments in Brentwood Borough, Baldwin Borough, and Mt. Oliver, these are crucial issues for me to understand.
What’s surprised you the most about being a candidate?
I’ve been surprised most by the amount of people who are inspired by the history-making nature of my campaign. For me, what’s central to my campaign are the issues I’m fighting for — infrastructure, healthcare, workers’ rights, education, etc. And while what inspires people seems to be, in part, my motivation and passion for creating positive change, what seems to resonate most deeply with people is this: I’ll be the first openly Autistic woman elected to a state legislature anywhere in this country.
I do want my candidacy to demonstrate to Autistic young people that they can be leaders in their communities, and not just on disability rights issues and I want to demonstrate that Autistic people can not only represent other Autistic people, but that our experiences can be generalizable and relatable for all constituents. And yet, I’m continually surprised by the depth of emotion in the responses to my candidacy by Autistic people, their family members, and friends.
If you could change one thing in politics today what would it be?
I would change the role of money in politics. For state races in Pennsylvania, there are literally no limits on gifts from individuals and corporate PACS. I’d like to comprehensively reform campaign finance to limit campaign donations, address IEs, and limit campaign spending.
What song keeps you energized while canvassing?
Guante’s To Young Leaders: “What you say is more important than how you say it, what you do is more important than what you say, and what you build is more important than what you do, so what you gonna build today?”
What is one takeaway you’d like to leave your constituents with?
No one will work harder, fight more passionately, or care more deeply about the issues impacting our communities than I will. I intend to dedicate my time and energy to public service and look forward to being incredibly accessible and informative for my constituents if elected.
Final Question: What would you say to someone who is thinking about running for office someday?