The left-wing freshman Democrats who garner so much attention in Congress have a counterpart in the Pennsylvania statehouse—a group of young, progressive women who swept to victory in last year’s elections, upending the state’s political conventional wisdom. Now, the real hard work begins.
Sara Innamorato was elected last year as Pennsylvania state representative from Pittsburgh. A first-time politician backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, she defeated an entrenched incumbent, running on a platform of Medicare for All, affordable housing, environmental justice, and opposition to corporate power. Innamorato and fellow DSA-backed freshman representatives Summer Lee and Elizabeth Fiedler have attracted much media coverage as a symbol of a new vanguard of young, left-wing elected officials.
But what is the job actually like? Splinter spoke to Innamorato in Philadelphia about her election, her work in the statehouse, and the future of the Democratic party.
Splinter: Why do you think you won? What was it about the 2018 election that allowed candidates like you to defeat incumbents?
Sara Innamorato: You have to be the right candidate at the right time in the right place. That isn’t necessarily what the pundits are telling us it is, or the highly paid consultants. It’s people who understand their community. What was nice about 2018 and what helped our campaign was this shared rallying cry for change. But I only won because I was someone who was involved in the nonprofit sector, I worked in community development, I knew my neighbors, I knew the people who were trying to make the world a better place in our little slice of it, and really tapped into that. Those people who are working day in and day out in the nonprofit sector are overworked, underpaid, highly educated, passionate, and they’re often not invited to the political table where the real power [is] and systemic change can be made.
How big of a factor was DSA in your election?
Innamorato: I would say it was a helpful endorsement, but by no means was it the reason or the thing that propelled us. I think it was the thing that, after the election, gave us a lot of national attention, and we recognize and appreciate that. But we had a coalition of 20-plus organizations.
Since 2016, we seem to be in a moment when much of the conventional wisdom of politics is being overturned—not just by Trump, but by people like you. What’s causing that?
Innamorato: I think people are frustrated by their lives. If they are not suffering day in and day out, they are on the brink of suffering. They’re one diagnosis away from losing all of their savings and their home. If they lose their job or they can’t pick up an extra shift, they can’t make rent that month. People are working harder and harder just to achieve some semblance of normalcy. And it’s frustrating, because you do pay your taxes, and you’re like, “Where does this go? There’s still potholes in this road, I still have to work two jobs, I’m paying back my student loans, and now I have kids.”... It sucked under Obama, and it’s sucking under Trump. It’s kind of, let’s try something new. People just want to trust the person that they elect. Overall trust in government is at an all-time low. So when you have someone who knocks at your door, who is from your neighborhood, who understands the struggles that you’re going through and can relate to you on a human level, it doesn’t matter who you voted for for president. There is a strong bond that you can build...
People voted for Donald Trump and then voted for me, a democratic socialist. The problem isn’t running away from the word “socialist.” The problem is you don’t have a vision for how you’re going to make people’s lives better.
What’s the learning curve like when you’re elected as a politician? Is it a hard job?
Innamorato: Sure. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, there’s a lot of learning the ropes and the rules and parliamentary procedures. But at the end of the day there’s a huge support staff that exists in the Capitol that’s dedicated its life to public service. If you’ve dedicated your life to public service, you tend to believe in the power of government, so you tend to be on board with the platform that we put forth—which is pretty much saying that government should be the keeper of the commons for the people, they should be the protector. They should be in constant tension with corporations, because corporate interests shouldn’t be a factor when you’re designing public policy. It should be, how do you constrain that and make sure that it doesn’t damage people’s homes and people’s lives? ...
The way that our rules are built in the statehouse does not lend itself to any sort of bipartisanship. The agenda is almost entirely determined by the majority speaker. So my crazy social housing policy is not ever going to see the light of day out of committee. But there’s opportunities and windows to speak on the issues that we care about and that we’re fighting for, and you seize those opportunities any chance you get... I grew up in a solid middle class family with a dad who was college educated and had a good job. But he got addicted to opioids. He was prescribed them after a car accident, and his addiction spiraled out of control. I went from having this solid future to having nothing. That’s how delicate the working class lifestyle is right now.
Within the national Democratic party, you see a lot of spats right now between the establishment and the insurgents like AOC. Have you experienced that dynamic too?
Innamorato: There really hasn’t been barriers thrown up. There’s tension [with] people who have been there a long time. But also I’m finding some mentorship with some people who’ve been there quite some time. I wouldn’t say they’re like, “Yep! You’re the agenda we need to adopt.” But if I can consistently talk about how our investment in the fossil fuel industry is causing a public health crisis that we have not even begun to scratch the surface of, and how much that is going to cost us long term... you’re kind of the annoying broken record in caucus. But people start to listen. Their minds start to change. They start to ask questions.
If today you’re the broken record, how much to you think that you can shift the Overton window in politics long term?
Innamorato: I think we’re already shifting the Overton window. You’re one of 203 reps in the House in Harrisburg, but you have full autonomy over how you run your office. You’re given a lump sum and it’s like—go do it, run the office. So you can run an organizing office that goes out and knocks doors and educates people on legislation that’s passing and policies that are being put forward. We’ve built co-governing tables, specifically around housing affordability, because we’ve seen a lot of gentrification and displacement. So why not bring in tenants who have been displaced from the district, bring in nonprofit developers, bring in housing advocates and lawyers, and say: what are all the problems? What can we solve today? What can we solve tomorrow? And what’s our vision? And kind of create phased legislation but collaboratively with the community. That’s something that I don’t see done, at least in my brief experience in politics. I’d like to see that be prolific.
As far as long-term change, you never get what you don’t ask for. Even if my time is just spent writing legislation that is going to hold corporations accountable... it exists. It’s something you can organize around, it’s something you can talk about, it’s something you can get people excited about. It’s showing people that another world is possible.
What are your thoughts on 2020 in Pennsylvania?
Innamorato: I think what we have to look at is who’s running down-ballot. I think it would behoove all of the candidates who are running in 2020 to look at who else is gonna be on the ballot in the statehouse and on the municipal level, and have a shared narrative. I think this is what the Tea Party and the GOP has done really well in the past. The person who can do that really well is gonna be the person who floats to the top.
Have you seen evidence of any campaigns doing that so far?
Innamorato: Senator Sanders’ campaign has reached out a couple times. They seem to be very active in wanting to do that. Kirsten Gillibrand was just in Pittsburgh, and she’s out here, having these small meetings that don’t cost $5,000 to get in, but just—hey, can you bring people who are doing good work... she’s not someone I’m going to support for president, but mad respect for that.
Are you optimistic about the Democratic Party right now?
Innamorato: Um. [Long pause]. I wouldn’t use the word “optimistic.” I’d say that the Democratic Party and everyone in it is gonna have to have some really tough conversations. And they’re gonna be tense, and people’s feelings are gonna get hurt, but... if we are investing in a corporate and capitalist way of doing politics, we’re never going to be successful in regaining the majority of Americans under our big tent.