State Rep. Harry Readshaw, one of the last conservative western Pennsylvania Democrats still standing, may be the latest to face a progressive female challenger.
Jessica Benham, an advocate for people with autism, announced her bid to unseat him Tuesday.
“I believe, from everything I’ve heard throughout my time attending neighborhood meetings in this district, that the district is ready for someone who is progressive and truly embodies Democratic values,” Benham said of her bid to challenge Readshaw in House District 36. “I don’t see those progressive values being represented by the current officeholder.”
The announcement came at a notable moment: On Tuesday, the state House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of House Bill 1066, which would punish cities like Pittsburgh for passing their own gun rules. Readshaw, who often allies with firearm owners, is a cosponsor of the bill. That's despite the fact that his district, which includes Carrick, the South Side and South Hills city neighborhoods, lies within a city that would be punished by the measure.
“It is not OK to vote in favor of making it easier for the state to sue municipalities for passing gun legislation,” Benham said.
A native of Bridgeville, Benham moved to the South Side Slopes in 2015, and says she’s been active in a variety of neighborhood groups since arriving. She’s also the co-founder of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, a nonprofit whose mission includes “developing autistic leaders and making sure autistic people have their voices heard on the policies that impact them.”
Benham says that if elected, she could well be the first openly autistic person elected to state office. A database maintained by the National Council on Independent Living lists no autistic office holders above the school board level. She says her advocacy role would bring a voice often omitted in Harrisburg. She cites a bill to bar abortion when a fetus has a Down Syndrome diagnosis -- a measure backed by Readshaw, who frequently votes against abortion rights. While the bill was ostensibly meant to value the lives of people with disabilities, Benham says, "those voices were not centered during the debate."
But Benham says that it's not just medical issues that require such a perspective.
“As a disabled person, I view these issues through a wide lens,” she says. Often, she says, issues that affect all residents are especially profound for disabled people, such as the flooding of Saw Mill Run.
“When we look at the ways in which Overbook floods,” Benham says, “we know that people with disabilities have a harder time relocating and evacuating.”
Benham hopes to become part of an emerging trend in Allegheny County. Candidates including state Rep. Summer Lee, state Rep. Sara Innamorato and presumptive County Councilor Bethany Hallam have toppled longtime incumbents in recent years. Other women are hoping for similar success next year against legislators like Adam Ravenstahl.
But Readshaw may be especially formidable. His family owns a funeral home in the district, and he’s held office since 1995. And he similarly faced a progressive female challenger in Erin Molchany back in 2014. Despite a spirited challenge backed by abortion-rights activists and others, Molchany lost by 20 percentage points.
Benham, who has launched a campaign website, is undaunted. She says that the district’s demographics have continued to shift leftward over the past five years, and that “The results of the 2016 election changed the perception of women running for office.”
She plans a formal campaign kickoff in November.