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Former Brentwood councilor to challenge Benham in 36th House district

Stephanie Fox will challenge first-term state Rep. Jessica Benham in this year's Democratic primary.
Courtesy the Fox campaign
Stephanie Fox will challenge first-term state Rep. Jessica Benham in this year's Democratic primary.

Stephanie Fox, a former member of Brentwood borough council and one-time Congressional candidate, will be challenging state Rep. Jessica Benham in the 36th state House district.

“This is where I grew up, planted my roots, [and] raised my children,” Fox said of the district, which encompasses Brentwood and Mount Oliver while ranging across the city of Pittsburgh’s southern neighborhoods. “I know the neighborhoods, the streets, the grandmothers and great-grandmothers. And I know the people who have been moving in.”

Benham won the seat in 2020, as longtime incumbent Harry Readshaw retired. That victory added to a list of electoral wins for progressive-minded Democrats in the region. But in an interview with WESA, Fox said the district was missing out on investments that Readshaw, who served in the state House for a quarter-century, had been able to secure.

“The biggest thing is to make sure our district gets its fair share of infrastructure money to improve our roadways, bridges, buildings and the general aesthetics of our district,” she said.

Fox did not identify particular areas that would be top priorities for such investment. But she said her tenure on Brentwood’s borough council for more than a half-decade gave her a knowledge of government and an ability to forge consensus.

“I have the ability to get things done by working with all sides,” she said.

Fox works at a South Side nonprofit organization that provides advocacy and support for crime victims, and she is a survivor of domestic violence herself. That, she said, has given her special sensitivity both to women’s causes and to concerns about crime — an issue she said “I'm hearing from the residents more and more.”

Late last year, Fox announced a campaign for Congress in the race to replace retiring Democrat Mike Doyle. She has shelved her bid for that district, where the field of contenders already included law professor Jerry Dickinson, Squirrel Hill lawyer Steve Irwin and state Rep. Summer Lee.

Fox said she didn’t withdraw from that race for lack of traction but because she is so familiar with the 36th district: “These are the streets my kids grew up on and ran around on. The map is perfect for me. I mean, there’s family and friends all over it.”

The boundaries of that map have shifted as a result of a legislative redistricting process: The newly drawn district no longer includes portions of Baldwin, but it has added a swath of Pittsburgh’s 19th Ward. Still, while the borders have fluctuated, it has retained a central core that includes Brentwood, Mount Oliver and southern city neighborhoods, including Carrick.

Fox may draw some familiar supporters as well. Readshaw, for one, said that while he hasn’t formally endorsed a candidate yet, “I probably will be supporting” Fox.

For her part, Fox called Readshaw a “great legislator for the district,” citing his deep community ties and ability to bring state aid to the community. “We need somebody like him,” she said.

But she said she was less conservative than Readshaw on some social issues such as abortion and gun laws. She said that “I’ve always been pro-choice,” and that while she opposed efforts by local municipalities — including Pittsburgh — to pass their own gun laws, “The state needs to work together with local cities to come up with some better policies on assault weapons.”

Benham essentially won the heavily Democratic district in a four-way primarytwo years ago, taking 42 percent of the Democratic primary vote in a campaign buoyed by a coalition of progressive supporters. Readshaw’s favorite in that race, Heather Kass, finished a distant third amid criticism for social media posts that were supportive of Donald Trump, and a lawsuit she filed against the Democratic Party. (The first runner-up in that race hailed from Baldwin, which now lies outside the district.)

Fox said Benham and other Democrats who have supported criminal-justice reforms “have gotten out of step with … the negative view on law enforcement,” as concerns about violent crime rise nationwide. As a crime victim and someone who works on other victims’ behalf, she added, “I can't tell you how important law enforcement really is.”

Fox said her own approach to crime concerns would center on a public safety commission that would facilitate discussions between police and community groups on crime prevention and mental health concerns. Asked whether such discussions weren’t already taking place — Benham herself has convened collaborative efforts to address spikes in crime — Fox said she could provide more leadership from the state level.

Fox said her work with crime victims and on the borough council gave her a uniquely holistic perspective on such issues. Benham, she said, “does not have the background in law enforcement, victim service, trauma, economic development.”

For her part, Benham said she would be “running for re-election on a record of fighting for this district,” and said she had already amassed a number of accomplishments “that are rare for a member of the minority party, and especially rare for a freshman member.” She said she had redirected $3.4 million in state money to the district — money that includes investment in violence-prevention initiatives and a public-safety center for Brentwood, as well as park and infrastructure investment.

As for Fox’s suggestion that she was too critical of police at a time when concern about crime was rising, Benham called it “an interesting argument, perhaps based on things other Democrats have said.” She said her own approach to crime concerns had included a “virtually unprecedented” effort to bring together community groups, police and state liquor officials to address concerns about nightlife on Carson Street.

Benham said she was “excited for the opportunity to share my vision for the district, and what we’re doing to make that vision a reality.”

Fox says she too is ready for the debate.

“I'm going to put my service to use in my hometown and my home district,” she said. “These are my people.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.