Two years ago in Stockton, Calif., as the rest of the country was lamenting—or in some cases, celebrating—the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency, Michael Tubbs, at the youthful age of 26, was becoming the city’s first Black mayor.
Tubbs, who also became the city’s youngest mayor in history, was able to defeat an incumbent to claim victory that night in November 2016. Some called it an upset—but as time went on it became clear it was more like a sign; a new wave of political leadership by young, impressive, intelligent African Americans was on the horizon.
The Pittsburgh area is a prime example where local government is becoming younger and increasingly diverse. Look no further than recently-elected Pennsylvania state Representative Austin Davis.
When Davis was in high school, his extra-curricular activities included student council, the school newspaper and volunteering for local political campaigns. Despite what his degree in political science suggests, becoming a politician never was Davis’ aim. But with Davis being a lifelong resident of the Mon Valley, growing up and seeing the struggles of those around him inspired him to want to do something.
“I was always interested in community and public service,” Davis told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I just wanted to make a difference in my community and I just felt like younger people needed to get involved in government.”
Davis became active in a number of service projects in his community, at the University of Pittsburgh, and at one point, even served as an intern in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Post-graduation, he would accept a position as Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s executive assistant. Over the years under Fitzgerald, the young Davis would advocate for a number of issues, but he wondered if there was a way to do more.
Then, 35th District state Rep. Marc Gergely resigned. And not on good terms, either. Gergely found himself in the middle of an illegal gambling-machine scandal, and he resigned on Nov. 6, 2017. A special election for the vacant seat was to be held, and Davis jumped at the opportunity.
“I had been working in the county executive’s office for about six years and then the state House seat in my district became open…and I asked myself one question: how can I be effective?” Davis recalled. “Can I be more effective staying in the county executive’s office working on the issues I’d been working on or could I be more effective working in the House of Representatives?”
January 23, 2018 came, and Davis ran away with the election results, garnering 73 percent of the vote.
“There’s a lot of change in leadership nationally across the country in terms of older elected officials are moving on and retiring, and younger people are moving to fill the vacancies,” Davis said.
A district away, Summer Lee, like Davis, is looking to make a difference in the community she grew up in by running for the state House seat in the 34th District. The North Braddock native never expected to find herself running for office; she just wanted to encourage those around her to run.
“I was trying to identify and support other Black women who wanted to run for office,” Lee told the Courier. “I finally asked myself if I’m the person who I’ve been waiting for to step up. How can I ask others to do something I haven’t?”
Lee campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and has successfully helped organize a number of initiatives that would improve the Woodland Hills School District. She’s garnered numerous support from those such as Braddock Council president Tina Doose, and Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett. They’re 100 percent behind her, as she has begun her campaign against fellow Democrat Paul Costa for the 34th District House seat. Lee, 30, describes herself as someone who has always been passionate about social justice, which is why the Howard Law School graduate forwent a career as an attorney to focus on public service.
“I decided on this path…because I feel I can make a greater impact on my community (in the Pennsylvania General Assembly),” Lee said. “I can help one client or family, one case at a time or I can elevate my reach and legislate over countywide policy that changes the course of lives and community legacy.”
For Lee, what’s first and foremost is giving the voters of the 34th District a state representative that represents them. As a native, a Woodland Hills High School graduate and as a Black woman, she feels that voices like hers are often missing from local government. If she wins the Democratic nomination on May 15, then wins the November election, she hopes to advocate residents in ways she feels previous representatives have not.
“I am primarily a servant to the constituents. I am giving a voice to people who have never had a representative from their side of the tracks. A representative is supposed to rally for their constituents. (If elected) I will continue to organize and fight in Harrisburg and at home.”
Although many young and engaged citizens in Pittsburgh are gearing up to tirelessly advocate and reform the communities they grew up in, not every member of this new generation of leadership is from here. Such is the case with Garrett, Wilkinsburg’s newest mayor to take the throne.
The Akron, Ohio native originally came to Pittsburgh for higher education, but what kept her here was the chance to serve.
“There’s a lot of opportunities professionally but also personally and the chance to really make a positive impact in this region,” Garrett told the Courier.
For the 31-year-old, what started out as a Wilkinsburg Borough Council position while completing her master’s degree at Chatham University became a true commitment to Wilkinsburg residents. Garrett ran without any major endorsements and gained a reputation for finding allies and making the most of them. Thus, you could call Garrett a “resource” for the community.
“My role as mayor is to help the whole community and assist them to continue to be active citizens and to make sure they know their rights and their power as residents,” Garrett said. “When I first ran for office there was some stagnancy in the borough and the residents were invested in wanting to see it progress for the better. A part of the reason many people run for office is wanting to see change…being tired of the status quo, so wanting to see a change, wanting to see more representation of younger people, of minorities, of women just all the way around.”
Garrett officially was sworn-in as mayor on Jan. 2, 2018.
From Wilkinsburg, about a 15-minute drive towards Downtown Pittsburgh will land you in the historic Hill District. Pennsylvania’s 19th state House district is comprised of the Hill, but also Manchester, among other neighborhoods. That’s where you’ll find Aerion Abney, who has thrown his hat in the ring in this young, Black political renaissance.
“The Pittsburgh region is currently going through a serious paradigm,” Abney told the Courier. “It’s important that all residents have an opportunity to participate in this new Pittsburgh and I want to be part of ensuring that happens. I no longer want to see a Pittsburgh where some people are living like the Jetsons and others are living like the Flintstones.”
From serving on task forces, to having been a program officer, to founding his own annual community event, Abney, 29, has taken on many roles throughout his career. This will be his second attempt at running for elected office. Abney wants to use his various experiences to better the living conditions for residents of the 19th District.
“Social Work taught me to meet people where they are and in the 19th District, I believe we can do a better job of working in all communities to improve access to jobs, grow local businesses, invest in quality affordable housing, and fight for the best education for our youngest residents,” Abney said. “I don’t believe that running for office and being a social worker are that different—to me they are both helping professions rooted in advocacy.”
Abney is keenly aware of the existing racial and economic disparities in the city and particularly in the neighborhoods the 19th District encompasses, such as Hazelwood and Allentown. As he speaks with residents in the 19th District communities, Abney said they are concerned for their futures and the futures of their children. He feels he could advocate for the residents’ desire for change and their hopes for the future.
“Our constituents deserve representation that actually works for them,” Abney said. “I will raise expectations of our elected officials, be a voice for the people, and fight for them in Harrisburg. This is an opportunity to move people beyond their current conditions and enhance their overall quality of life.”
If voters and political scientists take nothing else from the past few years, it’s increasingly clear that the political landscape has changed. The candidates are younger, African American, and—not to be lost in translation—winning elections. The Pittsburgh area is no stranger to Black voices being heard, by those who are adults, and even soon-to-be adults. A week after the Parkland, Florida school shooting, a diverse group of high school students from Pittsburgh CAPA took to the Downtown Pittsburgh streets in hopes of curbing gun violence in schools.
There are young African Americans that are actively engaged on local school boards, such as Ashley Comans and Klara Brown in Wilkinsburg.
And Kevin Carter hasn’t even reached age 30, and he is a force to be reckoned with on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board.
“I don’t think we’re simply riding a wave, I think we are the water,” Abney said. “Us running for office is not the end, it is just the end of the beginning where more and younger Black and brown people will be fulfilling their purpose as leaders in our communities. We realize the implications of what can happen if we don’t take action now, and that type of future just does not resonate with people like us.”
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