Pgh. Rep. Sara Innamorato talks post-election goals and strategy; stresses importance of building trust with community

State Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

By Ollie Gratzinger

PITTSBURGH — State Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, became a politician because she wanted to be a force of good.

First elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ 21st Congressional District in 2018, the 34-year-old Democrat has been serving nearly 60,000 residents in Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas with a progressive platform including health care for all, women’s rights, environmental justice, and housing as a human right.

And after a contentious election year for many candidates, Innamorato was still able to outperform well-known politicians like U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, and President-elect Joe Biden in the parts of her district that overlap with theirs.

Innamorato talked to Pittsburgh City Paper over Zoom about her beginnings, future goals, and the importance of building trust with her constituents.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved in politics?

A: I grew up in an apolitical family, we didn’t really talk much about politics. I went from working in the private sector to working in the nonprofit sector and in that sector, I really wanted to be a force for good. Working in the nonprofit sector, especially in Pittsburgh, you see that there are a lot of really smart, really capable and really passionate, really overworked and underpaid individuals, and they’re trying to solve the world’s greatest problems. More and more, it’s almost like the privatization of our social problems is putting it onto this sector and the philanthropic community to solve [problems] like poverty, housing instability, and addiction, and really the only way we are going to solve those things from a systemic viewpoint is through policy change.

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I realize I didn’t really have a strong relationship or understanding of government at different levels. You kind of know what’s going on federally, and I knew our city elected officials, but I didn’t really know anything about the state House, or who was there, and what decisions those folks were making. I knew that that was shared with a number of people who I worked with in the sector. I was doing a program with Coro called Women in Leadership, and we had to do a project. The project we landed on was to uplift women in Southwestern Pa. Through our research and conversations with women in elected office, we realized that Pennsylvania is actually ranked 49th. It was this idea of equity and representation that got me involved, and then realizing it was really hard to find out what level of government does what, so we just worked on trying to make that information more transparent. That was in early 2016, so I say my great political awakening was a few months before everyone else’s, so I didn’t have that much of a head start.

Q: PublicSource has named you one of the “most progressive members of the state legislature.” Can you talk a little about the policies and platforms which earned you that title?

A: I think at the end of the day, I don’t know if it’s necessarily policies or platforms, but how we approach the role. I went into politics in a pretty organic way, in a manner of wanting to do good and wanting our public sector to focus on our shared public resources and uplifting all of that. The other thing that I noticed in diving into government is that people don’t trust the government. Typically when you’re like, “I’m in politics,” people go, “Ew!” There’s such a visceral reaction.

What I’m trying to do is bring my lived experience to the role. I grew up in this area. I’ve actually lived in the district my entire life, just in different parts of it.

I brought my experience of what it was like to have a father who struggled with an opioid addiction, and what that meant for our family — how it meant housing instability, how it meant I had to watch my mom who didn’t have more than a high school degree find a job that she could support two kids on.

It meant having to put myself through college without really understanding how to navigate that space, graduating at the height of our last recession in 2008 and finding a scenario where there wasn’t much opportunity, but now I had this cool new mountain of debt I had to deal with. It’s watching my family members work in the service industry and work hourly wage jobs and not having enough to support themselves, or really just having to work around the clock and not having paid sick leave, or not having insurance. I was living without health insurance myself when I started my own business.

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It removed barriers and said, “OK, that’s not a politician, that’s a human being. That’s someone who maybe I don’t agree with 100 percent of the time on ideology, but I understand that struggle, because it’s been my struggle too.” I think starting from that place is really important because it allows you to build that trust and then once you have that trust of people, you’re able to talk about things that maybe were foreign or alien or just non-existent in that individual’s mindset beforehand. I think a lot of it in the progressive mindset just has to deal with approach. It allows me to talk about things like our environmental agenda. It allows me to talk about things like a universal health care system. It allows me to talk about what fairness and equity looks like through policy making. It’s trust. It’s all rooted in that trust. To build trust, you need transparency, and I think a little bit of vulnerability.

Q: That same article said that as of Nov. 16, you’re outperforming Lamb in the portion of your districts that overlap — overwhelmingly white and suburban areas like Aspinwall, Etna, Millvale, O’Hara, Reserve, Ross, Shaler, and Sharpsburg. Out of nearly 25,000 votes in the overlapping district, you received 321 more votes than [U.S. Rep. Conor] Lamb, and 358 more votes than President-Elect Joe Biden. What’s your secret to success?

A: It’s a couple of things! One, it’s the advantage of not coming in; I was up for re-election, so there was that advantage. When we got into office, I knew … you don’t get 100 percent of the votes. That never happens. So it was about building trust with our office, really ingraining ourselves in the community, building that trust, helping people with their everyday issues whether it was a license issue or whether it was someone who is on the brink of homelessness and needed assistance. So we really span the spectrum in the casework that we deal with in our office, but it was always embedding ourselves in the community and letting that local community dictate the direction they wanted their neighborhood to go in. How do we get them the resources to do that, and how do we listen, most importantly? And so that’s really how we designed our office.

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When you look at the areas where I did get a higher vote count … it was the really working part of the district. In Sharpsburg, I got 5 percent more. Millvale, Etna. These are areas that people just haven’t been asked to engage in the political process. They’re very involved hyper-locally at the municipal level. But they just wanted someone who would listen to them and invite them into the political process. Especially in Sharpsburg. I lost Sharpsburg the first time I ran. It was the only area that I lost, so we really did have a focus on saying, “What is the need?” And we have the data to support it. The majority of households in Sharpsburg live paycheck to paycheck. When we talk about the struggle that exists right now for regular, average people, it’s all manifested there.

So I think a lot of it is, how do you talk to the things that keep people up at night? How do you make sure that their basic needs are met, and that they understand that the government’s role isn’t to rule their lives and dictate what they do everyday, but it is there to provide a basic and solid foundation so that people actually have the freedom to go off and live their lives in the manner that they want to.

Q: What are your hopes and goals moving forward?

A: Really, I think the broad goal of holding public office is to get other people who are passionate and smart and capable and most importantly have experienced the pain and barriers that exist in our society to see themselves in public office. Part of that, if not running for office, is to engage in a meaningful way and to actually be a citizen of our society. So we have really designed our office in the spirit of co-governance. So [I’m not saying], “This is my agenda for the community,” and rather saying, “What is the community’s agenda for themselves and how do I help enable that? And how do I also have enough respect for the people with the lived experience to designate that as wisdom and invite that into the policymaking process? How do I bring the experts in from academia? How do I bring the unlikely partners in to have this conversation?” And then how do I maintain humility to be like, “I don’t have all of the answers,” and that’s the first thing to recognize. So I have an agenda, but that agenda has been informed by the people who are impacted by those particular policies and pieces of legislation.

So looking forward, we have a vision. We should have an America, an economy, that works for everyone regardless of race, regardless of class, regardless of identity. It works for us all.

And most people want that. Most people are like, “Yeah, I want to be on the side that helps other people.” So you can get people around that vision, and then you start saying, “How do we break that down?”

Because you’re not going to get Medicare For All tomorrow. It just doesn’t work that way. But how do we lower the cost of prescription drugs? How do we make sure that people can afford life-saving insulin? How do we make sure that those people who aren’t currently covered under insurance get insurance? How do we make sure that CHIP is expanded so that children without documentation can get health care? There’s all these things that can move us one iota forward toward that vision.

COVID has laid bare all the inequities that have existed, and the systemic racism that has existed. How things have disproportionately impacted working class and poor individuals, the LGBTQ+ community, the disability community. Without separating all of those but saying, “If we can work together on these issues, we’ll be able to uplift folks.” So we’re focusing on housing, and trying to push policies that are housing-first. So that’s one of our primary focuses. We know that if we can prevent evictions, that disproportionately positively impacts communities of color, individuals without documentation, the LGBTQ+ community. It’s this marriage of talking about things that we don’t separate out, race and class and other identities, but rather we unify them.

We’re trying to do that with our housing policy, so right now it’s immediately trying to prevent evictions. We’re trying to put things in place that will soften the blow of evictions. How do we make sure that if you go through the eviction process that you actually have legal representation? If the eviction process starts, how do we make sure it isn’t reported to the credit bureau so that you can’t potentially be denied access to another housing opportunity or even a job? How do we find a statewide mediation program to even prevent landlords and tenants from going into that process? How do we extend the eviction moratorium because we have an immediate need?

Really, we’re focusing on that package with the recognition that we’re in this predicament because we did not have a housing ecosystem that said, “Our primary goal of housing is to house people,” as opposed to it being an investment opportunity for individuals. Because when you elevate that above the basic human need of needing housing, you get where we’re at right now.

We’re looking at social housing models, cooperative models, at supporting our community land trust. All these things that would make us more resilient if we do hit a [housing] crisis like that. We’re looking at environmental issues. Obviously we want to transition away from extractive industries and move beyond fossil fuels. We want to be energy independent, but we want to be so in a way so we’re not destroying our planet, we’re not destroying our communities, we’re not ruining the public’s health. This is about creating a space where we’re allowing for the little guys, whether its workers or communities, to be informed about what’s going on in their own backyards.

Q: Is there anything else that you feel like people should know about you, your platform, or the work you’ve been doing?

A:  One: Progressivism isn’t scary. When you actually take the time to break it down for folks, most people want to move forward. Most people are like, “Yeah, let’s get better,” not like “Let’s stay the same.” Most people want that dynamic movement forward.

Movements require people. No one should have to sacrifice who they are and rid themselves of their identity or the thing that makes them unique. And also, how do we move toward solidarity rather than siloing ourselves in these different corners and saying, “I’m going to cancel you because you said this particular thing,” rather than saying, “I’m a leader, and as a leader, I must have more patience and grace when it comes to helping people understanding how they fit into this and maybe how some ways that they approach certain things could be detrimental and hurt other people.”

Being a leader is also recognizing that I also don’t have all the answers, and I’m learning constantly and being corrected constantly and taking that with grace, as well.

It’s a hard balance, but I think we got to do it and make people feel welcomed. We’ve just seen that in Sharpsburg, where there was a human rights ordinance, and it failed. It didn’t pass. And then there was engagement with the community, conversation with the people who had voted against it, really getting people to understand. And then they just passed it last week!

It could’ve been like, “We’re not going to do anything,” or “We’re just going to call these people ignorant and exclude them.”

But it takes someone coming in who I think is personally impacted by it — which is unfortunate because they have to use their own emotional labor, but that’s what being a leader is — going and advocating. It’s so reassuring to me that there’s people that maybe don’t identify as progressive but are so willing to hear how they can make a more welcoming area for all people.

Ollie Gratzinger is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.