In honor of Women’s History Month and the centennial of the 19th Amendment this year, the Capital-Star decided to follow up with the many women running for public office across the state.
Each week, look for a short Q&A with these women and learn a bit more about them and why they are running for office.
This week, we talk to Michelle Siegel, a Democrat running in north-central Pennsylvania’s 27th Senate District. She does not have a spring primary opponent, which means she’ll go on to face incumbent Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, the Senate GOP whip, who’s held the seat since 2004, in the November general election.
Q: Were you self-motivated or inspired by someone to run for office?
SIEGEL: “I was probably more self-motivated just because I was a youth leader and worked with children at a summer camp where I did musicals with them. I was teaching a youth group on a Wednesday one day after school and watching these kids playing, and I just had a moment where I just thought, ‘Is anyone besides me thinking of their future?’
As a youth leader, I think about helping these kids everyday of my life and I wanted to help more children. What better way to help children than to put policy in place that would make their lives better in the future.”
Q: Describe your experience running for public office.
SIEGEL: “I’m in a very red district. Running as a Democrat in this type of atmosphere is a different thing to navigate. It’s not easy. We’re just going to as many events, or anything we can see as possible just to get out there.
We volunteered one day, and that’s something we’re going to do more often. We, also in my campaign, have to break the stereotype of what people think a Democrat is.
So, ‘it’s a different type of campaign that we’re running here. It’s been eye-opening. I’m actually a bit surprised how there isn’t as much negativity as I foresaw happening, but again, I’m not running on an attack campaign.
I don’t live in a blue district. I can’t alienate Republican voters. I can’t come out there and roll out this very Democratic policy. I have to find a way to negotiate and have these conversations to get people to understand these policies in a way that doesn’t turn them off.
So, it’s a different type of campaign that we’re running here than someone in Philly or in the Harrisburg area would be able to run.
It’s been interesting, too because the person that I am running against hasn’t had an opponent since 2004. Most people don’t even know who their state senator is in this area because they just straight-party voted. I’ll introduce myself to people who don’t even know who it is. So, It’s just a very interesting dynamic that’s going on here.”
Q: Tell us about Senate District 27.
SIEGEL: “In my area, this is a district that has three out of five counties below the federal poverty line. Two of them are just hovering above it. It is a poor community and it is suffering from a brain drain beyond anything that I have really seen.
It’s getting concerning that there’s not a base coming up in the workforce that we need to sustain this area. If we don’t do something, i really, really worry about the economy in this area.
Even the chamber of commerce in this area agrees with the issue going on with brain drain. My campaign manager and I, we stayed in this area. We’re not normal. Most people went to school, and left and did not come back.
It’s not that there’s no jobs here. It’s that they’re not jobs that are drawing the base that we need. This is another big reason why I am running. This area, this district, is just hurting so bad and I’ve just kind of had it that we think of cities and urban areas in the commonwealth. There are good people here that need some help and I don’t necessarily think that their voice is being heard down in Harrisburg and that’s something that is super important to me.
I am a Democrat, but I understand that my neighbor is a Republican and they still deserve to have somebody down in Harrisburg who’s thinking about them. And I don’t think that that’s happening. I’m very concerned about what is going to happen to this area if we don’t have people buying homes, feeding into our property tax to pay for schools and things like that.
It’s a hurting area and they want something to change. We’ve got to have these conversations so they understand that changes down in Harrisburg – they might sound a little bit scary, but it’s going to be beneficial in the end.”
Q: What has been the most difficult part of running for office? The easiest?
SIEGEL: So far, I think the easiest thing has been finding a group, a network of people willing to help. I’ve been really surprised about that – how many people are interested to have somebody just run because nobody typically runs. So, I think my concern was, will we be able to find volunteers. There out there. So, that’s something that’s been easier than I thought.
Harder? It’s understanding that we have two counties in this district that do not have the infrastructure up that needs to be in place for a campaign. Part of our campaign has been going to these areas where there hasn’t been a Democratic presence. And I think a lot of the reason people are so red here is because they haven’t seen a Democrat here, in their face, talking to them.
So, it’s been a little bit hard to figure out how we get networked in those areas. We’re working on that, but that’s something I honestly didn’t even think about when I thought about running.
We’re working on it, but It’s a bit of a barrier that we have to overcome.
Q: If elected, what are your key goals?
SIEGEL: “I am an environmental science major. I am very concerned about the brine dumping and things like that that’s been coming out of Harrisburg. Making sure that there’s an environmental voice, also making sure that workers, at the same time, are not left out and that we find ways to negotiate that.
I am someone that really believes in pushing the workers bill of rights and making sure people have a voice as a worker in Pennsylvania because that’s something that’s been severely knocked over the last 10 to 15 years.
The other thing is education. We have got to fix the issues going on between public schools and for-profit charters. I know [Gov. Tom Wolf’s] budget does address some of that. And I think we need to get this stuff in place so we can fix these issues.
I’ve had conversations with people who are even pretty conservative in this area, and said, ‘… everyone just jumps to the conclusion that all the schools aren’t doing their job. Well, the problem is, the public schools aren’t doing their job because they’re not being properly funded.’
You can’t make lemonade when you only have half a lemon. It’s not going to work. When I start having those conversations with these people, I say, ‘Look, you’re property owners. You went in on an agreement when you purchased a house with the government here and said, My property tax is going to pay for our children to go to school in this area.’
And we were all fine with that. We assumed that was happening, but what has been going on in our Legislature is a complete defunding of our public schools to the point that we are ranked 46th in public school funding. Even in higher education, I believe it was 47th.
This stuff is just completely out of whack. Our state is putting priorities like funding fracking companies over infrastructure and public schools. To me, that’s unacceptable and something that I am desperately, 100 percent, trying to get that balance back that has been severely shifted.”
Q: What advice would you give other women who might be interested in seeking public office?
SIEGEL: “My advice is – and I do this everyday- try not to question yourself. I think it’s something that women do all the time. We don’t intend to do it, but we do. We’re constantly questioning ourselves. I do it everyday. ‘Can I do this? Is it okay?’ There’s been a couple of times that I can’t pick my kid up from school because I have a meeting, and you feel guilty about that. It’s always in your head – all the time. We have to realize that our voice is important and it’s needed in public office and we shouldn’t let anybody make us feel like we don’t belong there or question ourselves.
It’s something that I think a lot of women struggle with and I think it’s the reason why a lot of women don’t run because we’re always worried of that judgement we’re going to get.
I’m a young woman and I live in a red area and I don’t want to get sucked into conversations about abortion, but I shouldn’t feel bad about wanting to stand up and say, ‘You know, my rights matter, too.’”
Q: 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. What does it mean to you to be a female candidate for office a century later?
SIEGEL: “I think this is an historical and amazing thing. For me, it was white women who got the right to vote and a lot of women still didn’t have the right to vote, so i think we need to think of that. I am someone who believes in all women’s voices, so not saying that this is not super important, it is historical and it is amazing and we should be so grateful, but we can’t forget that there are still a lot of people who couldn’t vote at that time. So, I struggle with that a little bit, personally, because I am someone who wants all women to lift each other up and always think about that person that didn’t at that time. So, I just always think, ‘How does that person feel when we step up there and talk about this publicly?’ I believe in everybody’s voice and I don’t want that to be lost.”