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Former Lawmakers Reflect On 'Frat Boy' Culture In Harrisburg

Courtesy of Chelsa Wagner and Lisa Bennington
Allegheny County controller Chelsa Wagner (left) and divorce attorney Lisa Bennington were first elected to the state legislature in 2006. At the time, they were the only women in Allegheny County's state House delegation.

Across the U.S. and in western Pennsylvania, women appear poised to post major victories in the 2018 elections. But two local women who once served in the state legislature said winning the election is often the easy part.
Divorce attorney Lisa Bennington remembers the excitement of her victory in 2006. She defeated 28-year Democratic incumbent Frank Pistella – in the same Pittsburgh-area district that 10-year Democratic incumbent Dom Costa lost to first-time candidate Sara Innamorato in this year’s primary.

"As a divorce lawyer, it was fun to see who was cheating on their wives. I would try to use that knowledge when I wanted someone to vote in my favor. Is that hardball?"

It wasn’t long, though, before her enthusiasm wore off.

“In Harrisburg, as a freshman, there is nothing to do,” Bennington said.

In a world where influence often turns on seniority, Bennington said she struggled to advance legislation.

“It just so happens, historically, that all of the men are the oldest people there because they’ve been there the longest, and they are the people in power,” she said.

Those men, Bennington found, were more inclined to mentor other men. And while Bennington said the "good old boys' club" was often where legislation thrived or died, she was not eager to participate.

“The culture in Harrisburg, among even the freshmen legislators with whom I was elected, was the men going out with lobbyists, having dinners,” she said. “I remember one evening after the dinner that I had joined – I was the only woman at the table – everyone was discussing which strip club to go to next.”

Bennington said her friendship with another female legislator from the Pittsburgh area, Chelsa Wagner, helped her to feel less lonely. At the time, Bennington and Wagner were the only women in Allegheny County’s 23-member delegation. (There is only one female legislator representing the county currently.)  

Now the Allegheny County controller, Wagner served in the state House from 2006 to 2012.

Like Bennington, she found it difficult to break into a culture she likened to the TV show Mad Men, with its depictions of misogyny, heavy drinking and other indulgences in the 1960s.

“I got frustrated a lot, and I did not want to go to karaoke night or the other events that were that kind of frat boy-type culture,” Wagner said.

Wagner now thinks she should have taken more time to get to know other lawmakers and to build goodwill with them.

But, she recalled an exchange she had with a legislative secretary who suggested it wasn’t that simple.

“She said, ‘I just want to tell you I’ve watched a lot of women come here and they get a reputation,’” Wagner recounted. “And I had no intention, [nor] did I ever put myself in those kind of positions. But I think it spoke to me in some ways - that, well, would going out at a karaoke night, or something like that, put me in a position that I otherwise didn’t want to be in?”

Bennington, meanwhile, said she found ways to use Harrisburg's boys' night-out culture to her own purposes.

“As a divorce lawyer, it was fun to see who was cheating on their wives,” she said. “I would try to use that knowledge when I wanted someone to vote in my favor. Is that hardball? Yeah, and it’s really dirty hardball. But you can’t go in [to the legislature] with some nice view of the world that these people care at all what you think about ... because it is cutthroat there.”

This cutthroat culture, Bennington said, is one reason she decided not to run for a second term in 2008.

Still, she and Wagner both said that with a critical mass of women – which they defined as 30 percent or more of legislative seats – the culture in Harrisburg could change.

Currently, 21 percent of state House members and 14 percent of state Senators are women.