Today at noon, Jessica Benham will be sworn into office as Pennsylvania State Representative for House District 36. She will make history as the first openly queer woman, as well as the first autistic person to win a representative seat. Jessica defeated A.J. Doyle (R) in the general election on November 3, 2020 receiving 63% of the vote. The seat was previously held by Harry Readshaw (D), who retired after 25 years in office.
District 36 is not historically progressive, making Benham’s win especially triumphant.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jessica about her victory and what it means for her, her constituents, as well as the LGBTQ+ and Autistic communities.
Pennsylvania State House District 36 consists of parts of Baldwin, Brentwood, Mount Oliver, and parts of the City of Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Arlington, Carrick, Brookline, Mt. Washington, Overbrook, South Side Flats, and South Side Slopes.
Jessica told me she never planned to run for office even though she has been passionate about politics and advocacy work since an early age. This was her first elective run. She felt compelled by her community to step up; to make sure they were getting the investments to thrive. They were her motivation.
Prior to elective office, Jessica was the Director of Development and co-founder of Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy (PCAA), a grassroots self-advocacy project run by Autistic people for Autistic people. PCAA is the only LGBTQ Autistic-led advocacy organization in the Greater Pittsburgh Area. She describes her work there as, “Incredibly rewarding”.
I asked Jessica if it was challenging to run as her authentic self in a district untypically progressive. “When I decided to run, I was already ‘out’ as my authentic self, so I chose to stay true to who I am”, she said.
In fact, Jessica believes her authenticity was one of the major factors in securing her victory. “People like it when they feel you’re being real with them.” When she began to campaign, she heard from a lot of LGBTQ and Autistic people, and their families about how much it meant to see someone like her run for office to represent their community.
Another contributing factor to her victory was her community-oriented focus. She attended meetings and spoke to people regularly. “People didn’t feel they were being heard”, said Jessica. “We deserve a government that serves the people, not large corporations, and not the richest of the rich. I ran on a platform of fighting for everyday Pennsylvanians.”
She also believes her clear policy platform was a motivating force behind the success of her campaign. “I think people were inspired by the message I brought of making sure we were fighting for healthcare, protecting our environment, ensuring that all of our kids had access to a high-quality education.”
Jessica said government failed working people and the growing adversity made people want change. “Covid didn’t create new problems, it exacerbated current problems.”
Jessica plans to get to work immediately on the policies on which she ran her campaign. Such policies include protecting public health, ensuring everyday people have what they need to thrive, correcting a broken unemployment system, making healthcare affordable for all, clean air and drinking water, stepping up against gun violence and the opioid epidemic.
One of her main goals is to make sure the voices of the people she represents are being heard and prioritized in Harrisburg.
Being both disabled and queer, Jessica feels she has a unique awareness of the things that impact those communities the most. “There are policy issues that are close to my heart as someone who is disabled and queer. Things such as access to healthcare and housing, which are a struggle for a lot of people. I believe that we advocate, and we legislate from our lived experiences. So as someone who has experienced homophobia and ableism, I know that many people in my district feel unheard.”
Jessica continues to receive messages from people who have been inspired by her accomplishments and the work she’s doing to lift our voices.