Aaron Anthony, his wife Lauren Kokai, two-year-old daughter Adelaide, and their long-haired cat Cyrus recently moved into a single family home in Anthony’s hometown, Shaler. It’s just north of Pittsburgh, along the Allegheny River.
“A hidden gem,” Kokai said. “There’s lots of kids running around, rugrats on bikes.”
Anthony, 34, once taught high school English, but now he’s working towards his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. He also plays keyboard in a band comprised entirely of teachers, and guitar in a band that plays mostly sea shanty music.
“Two bands is too many, right?” said Kokai.
But neither band plays too often these days. Lauren keeps the family’s calendar.
“Every single aspect of our life right now is different, or stressful or a little bit chaotic sometimes, but it’s just trying to stay balanced in all that and keep prioritizing,” she said.
Turns out, running for Congress is a lot of work.
Democrats need to win a net 24 seats in the 2018 midterm election to take back the House, and Anthony hopes to be one of them.
Pennsylvania’s 12th is recognized as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the state.
The state’s congressional map was last drawn by Republicans in 2010. The 12th is shaped like a hammer, with the handle out east as far as Cambria County, Johnstown and Somerset. It catches some of Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs, while leaving the less affluent riverside communities to vote with the city. Its hammer extends all the way to the Ohio border.
Democratic Rep. John Murtha helmed the area from 1974 to 2010. Incumbent Republican Keith Rothfus took over after the redraw four years ago.
Anthony has two registered Democratic opponents for the 2018 primary so far - Beth Tarasi, an attorney from Sewickley, and Tom Prigg of McCandless, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University.
Anthony joined the fray last December when a group of friends got together to talk about what they could do about their dissatisfaction with then-newly elected President Donald Trump.
“One thing leads to the next, and we came up with the idea that maybe the best way we could use our energy would be to focus all of it on flipping one district," Brandon Blache-Cohen said to potential supporters at a campaign event. "So all of our energy, all of our resources, all of our money into one district.”
Blache-Cohen, director of the service learning nonprofit Amizade in Pittsburgh, does communications for Anthony's campaign. The rest of the team moved to Pittsburgh from Canada, Seattle and San Francisco to volunteer. They all met on Semester at Sea 14 years ago.
“And we needed a candidate,” Blache-Cohen said.
They picked Anthony, went to his house and knocked on his door singing Christmas carols.
“We pitched the idea to him,” Blache-Cohen said. “He kind of laughed at us.”
They all went out bowling, had a few beers and “the next day, he called and said I talked to my family, I’m feeling the call to action, and I’m in.”
Now the campaign’s in full swing. Almost every day there’s some sort of meeting with stakeholders, other legislators or a fundraising event.
At a recent fundraiser, a house party in Squirrel Hill, he talks about his background, his family, and his current research as a doctoral candidate. He’s looking at how to predict the cost of college for lower income families – families he insists are less likely to take advantage of existing financial assistance.
“I share that not to tell you about my dissertation, because although it is really interesting,” he said, “I think it’s a lesson that carries over. It’s not just a matter of throwing more money at financial aid. It’s also a matter of making systems more accessible, and that goes beyond just college.”
His platform is pretty simple, and largely based on his experiences in a working family.
“We had a little leak in our roof, and it was going to be like, $1,600,” he told the small crowd. “But it’ll be $5,000 three years from now, which is something that is so evident in politics -- this short-sightedness of dealing with consequences once they pile up.”
He said his policy analysis work is carrying over in ways he didn’t imagine.
“If the reason I was studying education policy was to have an influence on policy, what better way than to actually legislate,” he said.
Event attendee Jacob Mirra said Democrats will have to rely on actual policy knowledge to win or keep seats. He said party support or being anti-Trump isn’t going to cut it in the midterms.
“It can’t be about money; it has to be about ideas,” the 24-year-old PhD student said.
The Anthony campaign said it’s confident about the prospects of their effort in part because the 2016 election brought out lots of new voters and small donors. But Mirra said the small grassroots group that he organized last fall is already seeing attendance declining.
“There was a lot more back in January around inauguration, but people have fallen off since then,” he said.
Nathaniel Yap is a stay-at-home dad living in Shadyside. He said his political enthusiasm hasn’t wavered, and the biggest impact he can have is to look outside his safe blue district in the city for districts that can be flipped. Yap said, like plenty of others, he contributed to special elections across the country.
Staffers say the Anthony campaign has already received contributions from nearly all 50 states.
“It’s so dorky and crazy that we know congressional districts and numbers now that aren’t your own,” Yap laughed.
He attended the gathering in Squirrel Hill to learn more about Anthony's campaign’s strategy before he decides to donate.
Yap asked Blache-Cohen: “I, myself, am guilty of living in a little bit of a bubble. What have you guys been doing to get out there and get to know the district?”
“All of us come from a service background," Blache-Cohen said. "Volunteerism’s really important to us, and we think public service is one of the best windows into a community.”
And the campaign says they’re organizing those service projects, like trail maintenance in Johnstown or working at the Westmoreland County food bank, to hear people’s stories and learn what issues matter to them. They say that work can break down party lines – and people across the sprawling hammer-shaped district will discover they have more in common than they think.
The gambit is not without troubling precedent.
Four democrats lost in four special elections this year trying to do the same thing as Anthony – flip a gerrymandered district.
“I don’t want to read another analysis of another way to split or interpret that election,” he said. “No matter what you’re looking for, you could’ve found someone saying it.”
He said time is on his side, and predicts further dissatisfaction with things like the Republican plan for health care might motivate people to look for something new and back him.
But he said he’s realizing why there aren’t more 30-something candidates. Running for office is a big sacrifice for his small family, he said, which shares one car and often relies on bus service. If he were working full time, he said it would be impossible to campaign.
“We’re running into time and time again, different barriers in place for someone who’s not independently wealthy or politically connected,” he said. “Without the social, political or financial capital, and trying to accumulate all those things at the same time, it’s a difficult battle."
Today I was very wrapped up on FEC financial disclosure forms. I’m very scared of doing something, just a little mistake that might get me disqualified,” he said.
Anthony said he’s experienced a bit of pushback from his family when he first told them what he was going to do.
“And I recognize it’s a little audacious to think ‘I can do that.’ It wasn’t an easy decision by any means and it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “It comes down to Adelaide, to our daughter, when we think about the world she’s growing up in.”
90.5 WESA will be following the 12th Congressional District. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, and efforts underway to change the process.
Editor's Note, 7/7/17: The story's tag about our ongoing coverage of the 12th District has been clarified.