PITTSBURGH — A year to the day after Donald Trump was elected president, a group of Allegheny County women started a political action committee to support progressive female candidates in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The idea was simple: give female candidates the resources and connections that their male counterparts have enjoyed for years, and build a strong bench of women contenders.
Less than three years later, Women for the Future of Pittsburgh — deliberately abbreviated as “WTF Pittsburgh” — has raised more than $47,000 for women candidates, including state Rep. Sara Innamorato, who defeated incumbent Dom Costa in 2018; state Rep. Summer Lee, who defeated incumbent Paul Costa, and state Sen. Lindsey Williams, who flipped the Senate seat in the 38th District that same election cycle.
Of the 14 women WTF endorsed in 2019, 12 were elected to office.
“When we started a couple of years ago, the political establishment here was not too fond of what we were doing,” WTF founding board member, and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, told the Capital-Star. “Now that we’ve had some successes, they know we are a threat to be contended with.”
Wagner’s cofounders included Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett, Natalia Rudiak and Ashleigh Deemer, all of whom have been through the wringer of western Pennsylvania politics. Rudiak was a former Pittsburgh city councilor and Deemer ran to take over the seat Rudiak vacated, only to lose in the primary to Anthony Coghill, a Pittsburgh businessman with no political experience.
“When you look at the amount of progress in a short period of time, I do believe a lot of the changes have come from this side of the state,” Wagner said, adding that women have had a harder time breaking through in western Pennsylvania. “But we’re seeing that people understand the urgency of the situation.”
Erin Belitskus moved back to western Pennsylvania five years ago, coming from eastern Massachusetts where she notes she was represented by a woman at all levels of government.
“It was like a slap in the face, noticing there were just men in a lot of elected offices,” she said of her reentry to the Keystone State. She was excited to knock on doors for progressive candidates but found it frustrating. “And the interactions I would have with [incumbent candidates], it never felt like they really wanted me in the room asking questions.”
So Belitskus started donating to WTF Pittsburgh and joined the board earlier this year, determined to get more women in the mix.
“For so long a lot of these folks have not had challengers,” she says of western Pennsylvania’s politicians. “A lot of incumbent Democrats are like paper tigers, and we’re starting to see that as soon as they have a challenger mounting an actual campaign, with the resources needed, these folks are falling off. And they aren’t close races: women are winning by really big margins.”
Belitskus says she sees a major part of WTF Pittsburgh’s role as filling what was a political vacuum with a bona fide pipeline of qualified women.
Wagner remembers when she decided it was time to act on the idea for a female-centric PAC in western Pennsylvania that she had had for a long time. It was two days after Election Day 2016– when Hillary Clinton lost the presidency to Donald Trump and former Wolf administration official Katie McGinty failed to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.
An older woman said to Wagner, “I don’t think I am ever going to see a Pennsylvania senator female or let alone president for that matter, in my lifetime,” Wagner recalled. “It was devastating to hear that. That really was the trigger for me, to try to create something that was going to be sustainable for women.”
To be sure, Pennsylvania has a very long way to go before its legislature has even adequate female representation. The Keystone State has never had a female governor, or a female U.S. Senator.
But since 2017, it’s moved up from 49th to 40th on the gender parity list— moving from an “F” grade to a “D.” And the old-style politics that kept progressive women out of office– such as the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s endorsement process — are finally being criticized as untenable, Wagner noted.
”The fact this is all out in the open, and even had national news coverage is shedding light on something that’s been a problem for a very long time,” she said.
WTF Pittsburgh even fundraised off of the county committee outrage, sending a mailer to supporters with the subject line “The ACDC doesn’t support progressive women, but we do!” and noting WTF would “continue to provide financial support and guidance to progressive female candidates who are committed to disrupting the crippling political inertia in western PA.”
The group is planning a spring fundraiser for its slate of candidates in early April.
The challenge for WTF Pittsburgh moving forward, Wagner said, is to try to build on the momentum that female candidates across the country had during the 2018 midterms, and educating people about the ongoing lack of resources available to women candidates.
For instance, many people still don’t realize that fundraising behemoth Emily’s List won’t endorse women running against incumbent Democrats.
“You cannot put a dent in the proportion of women if you’re only going after open seats,” in western Pennsylvania, Wagner said. “Now that there are more women running, it’s highlighted how broken the system is. None of us is doing this for recognition, we’re doing it for the results. And so far we’re seeing results.”
Kim Lyons is the Capital-Star’s Pittsburgh Correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy.