Can Erie teacher Kristy Gnibus school a tough GOP incumbent? Signs point to yes | Aryanna Hunter

Kristy Gnibus (L) a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania's 16th Congressional District at Standard Precision Manufacturing, Meadville, Pa. (Kristy Gnibus Campaign Facebook)

Why do you want to run for Congress when you have two little kids at home? Who is going to watch them when you are in Washington D.C.?

Aryanna Hunter (Capital-Star file photo)

What does your husband think about you running for office?

Aren’t you a little young to run for Congress?

That’s not the right kind of outfit you should be wearing. Your dress is too tight. You need a blazer. You really should straighten your hair…

The sexist comments and questions I heard when I ran for Congress in the 16th Congressional District back in 2012 were many. 

I was a first-time candidate, 29 years old, a mom of two little kids, and still having to work in order to help provide for my family.

But I was more than qualified for the job. By that time, I had served my country at war, held a Master’s in Business Administration, and even started my own small consulting firm. I knew the issues because they were personal to me having grown up in poverty, and I knew that I had earned the title of candidate. 

There is a new candidate in the 16th Congressional District in 2020. Her name is Kristy Gnibus. And when I hear her story it feels awfully familiar.

The 16th Congressional District covers different counties than the one I ran in eight years ago. It was redrawn in 2018 to include Erie, Crawford, Mercer, Lawrence, and part of Butler counties. It’s currently represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly.

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Now, I don’t know Gnibus. I’ve never met her. But I do follow her on Instagram. And I have to say I think western Pennsylvanians are hungry for someone like her.

Gnibus is 35 years old, a first-time candidate for public office; a single mom of two daughters, and a school teacher who’s pursuing her Ph.D. She’s often worked a second job to make ends meet. And she’s a cancer survivor.

With the issues our country is navigating right now of unemployment, sending our children back to school during a global pandemic, and crushing student debt, I am quite certain she could lead a region that is often forgotten about.

The 16th is a district that I think is going to be far more competitive than most political prognosticators would suggest. Now, I don’t really put myself in the camp to know more than those who make a living studying numbers and trends. But what I do know is that Americans are hungry for real, for relatable, and someone ready to stand up for people just like them.   

On one hand you have Kelly – who likes to think of himself as a person of color- because he’s white, and took up to $1 million in pandemic relief for his Butler County car dealerships.

Kelly, who was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, saw his toughest competition in the last few years in 2018, when former Erie County Solicitor Ron DiNicola came within 4 points of beating him, even though President Donald Trump won that district by 20 points in 2016.

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And then you have Gnibus, who is approaching this new way of campaigning in a real and authentic way.

I was prepping for my day one morning, getting kids organized and cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast when my phone buzzed, it said “Kristy Gnibus started a live video! Watch it before it ends!”

So, I did. I watched Gnibus take some time in her morning to answer questions from a handful of constituents and spend a few minutes connecting with people around how communities are navigating going back to school and why local school board elections are so important.

I see her “masked up” on the campaign trail connecting with voters, I’ve watched her connect with folks on Zoom, and using social media just being herself. It’s refreshing to see.

In a recent internal poll not only is Gnibus, still a relative unknown, campaigning amidst the Coronavirus within 8 points of Kelly, she is operating in a district that is more heavily Democratic than it once was, and Joe Biden is only trailing 4 points to Trump. And we haven’t even hit the Fall campaign stride.

Only two women have ever represented western Pennsylvania in Congress and a woman hasn’t represented northwestern Pennsylvania since former Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper lost to Kelly in 2010.

Here we are, a decade later, with an opportunity to add a woman to our congressional delegation, west of Harrisburg ,in a district that is far more favorable to Democrats than it once was.

 As we approach the end of summer and more people begin to turn to the election in November, I hope voters in hte 16th District  they see the same Kristy Gnibus that I see and cast their ballot for her. Now more than ever Congress could use a schoolteacher and a mom to help us navigate our way out of the mess we are in.

Opinion contributor Aryanna Hunter, of Pittsburgh, is an Iraq War veteran, author, advocate, and founder of What a Veteran Looks Like and #MeTooMST. Her work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.