We Interviewed Stephanie Walsh, Democratic Candidate for Senate District 38


Stephanie Walsh

Sam Bisno and Daevan Mangalmurti

This Tuesday, May 15, will mark the 2018 Pennsylvania primary elections, by which a slew of candidates will be chosen to represent their respective parties during the state general on November 6. One of the races in question is that of Senate District 38, along the southern cusp of which Obama lays. So, the Eagle took the liberty of speaking with both Democratic nominees about their qualifications and their goals for the position. If you or someone you know will be heading to the polls in two days, then by all means, keep scrolling.

First up is Stephanie Walsh. Individual topics are highlighted for reading ease. Our conversation with her opponent, Lindsey Williams, which involved the exact same questions so as to offer a direct comparison of the two, can be viewed here.

Sam Bisno: For anyone who is unaware, could you just tell us a little bit about the duties of a state senator as you see them?

Stephanie Walsh: Sure. The State Senate is part of the legislative branch of government. There’s the House and the Senate in Pennsylvania. Just like at the federal level, there are 50 state senators in Pennsylvania. You represent your constituents on laws that you vote on. You are available to them as a resource that they have to do interactions with the state, whether it has to do with driver’s licenses or benefits or anything of that nature. And you also are responsible as the legislative body for passing the state budget.

Daevan Mangalmurti: What is your occupation outside of running for State Senate?

SW: Currently, I am a public policy analyst. I have a master’s degree in public policy. I worked for seven years for the legislature in Colorado, where I was a budget analyst. We moved to Pittsburgh in 2008 and I worked for a small Pennsylvania-based consulting firm. Most of our clients are state government agencies or governor’s offices. Sometimes we work for county governments and we do things like efficiency reviews, budget reviews, strategic planning, organizing programs, best practices research – sort of a jack of all trades of helping governments run better.

SB: So what made you want to run for the position?

SW: I’ve always believed in the role that government can play in helping people advance and helping communities thrive. My grandparents were immigrants and my great grandparents worked in the World War II war effort. My mom was a public school teacher. My dad’s a veteran. And so they lived the American dream. They gave back to their communities. And so that’s always been something that I valued and it’s part of why I went into the field of public policy. In the back of my head, I knew I might want to run for office someday. The 2016 presidential election was a real catalyst. I was really disappointed in the tone of some of the debates and what we were hearing from certain people in that campaign and I felt there was a real threat to some of the things that I valued in government and in the public sector. And it was time to step up. I’m well qualified; my kids are a bit older now – more independent – and it felt like it was a really good time and a good opportunity. This seat is a really good fit for me because I do have a lot of state government experience and our incumbent State Senator is very conservative. I don’t feel like he does a good job representing our district.

DM: Could you briefly summarize your platform?

SW: I have a lot of things I value. I suppose my priority is environmental conservation due to my background there. I have an environmental science degree and started my career in that field, so I feel that there’s a real strong tie between environmental protection and public health that a lot of times isn’t really recognized in how we think about environmental rules and regulations. So I’d like to see us do a better job on environmental protection and promoting things like green energy. I’m also a former school teacher and have kids in school and so I really value the public school system and think we need to do more to invest in our teachers and in their resources so that we all public schools are quality schools so our kids have a good chance of getting ahead. And then I come from a background of public budgeting and I don’t think we can make headway in a lot of the areas that we that are important to us, whether it’s education or the environment or infrastructure or other programs until we get our fiscal house in order. Currently, Pennsylvania is one of the lowest ranked states in terms of our credit rating. I don’t know how closely you all follow, but for many years we have not passed a budget on time and there’s been a lot of partisanship and partisan bickering over budget issues. The process we use is a pretty flawed process. It is not the process most states use to pass the budget. So I think we really need to address fiscal responsibility so that we can identify the resources to invest in these other priorities.

SB: What have you found the campaign process to have been like so far? What’s been the most surprising aspect? The most challenging?

SW: I’m a first-time candidate, so it has been a huge learning experience. I spend a lot of time in meetings. Sometimes they are one-on-one coffees and meetings with business leaders or union leaders or elected officials. I also go to a lot of meetings of groups, like Democratic Party meetings or indivisible group meetings or community group meetings so I can talk to people and hear their concerns and their interests and introduce myself to them. I guess the surprising thing is that I’m an introvert and I’m actually enjoying it more than I thought I would. I was a little bit nervous, but it’s been a really great experience. People are very excited about change. They’re really excited to share their ideas. So it’s been a very very positive experience in that respect. Challenging? Fundraising. It’s the downside of politics. I am now a very strong advocate for publicly financed campaigns and campaign finance reform. I do have to spend a lot of time fundraising, but again, mostly it’s been a positive thing. People are receptive. They’re excited. I’ve been more successful than I had even hoped. But it is a big part of running.

DM: In your mind why are you the most qualified person for this job?

SW: There is one other person currently running for the Democratic ticket. She is certainly qualified. She has her own experiences but those experiences are pretty limited. She works for a union, so she advocates primarily for labor issues, which are very important. There are things that we pretty much agree on. But since I have such a broad background working in all different levels of government and all different fields – budget but also economic development, regulation, infrastructure, judiciary, criminal justice – I sort of can hit the ground running because I just have a lot of experience. I spend my days as a policy wonk so I do a lot of reading on these types of issues and I am pretty up to date.

SB: And so what does the path for you look like moving forward? What sort of steps are you taking as the primary draws closer?

SW: I’ve really been running since about March, building an infrastructure for my campaign – a website and databases and networking and a growing volunteer base. We did an official kickoff. I had over 200 people. It was great. There was an article in The Post because that about it that was also really exciting. A lot of work goes into building name recognition – direct mailing and that sort of thing as well as continuing to meet with people in groups. A little bit of everything.

DM: If you win the primary, will your strategies change as you prepare for the general election? If so, how?

SW: They will. I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I still have to take it one campaign at a time and this campaign currently is really about the primary. It will be different facing a Republican. The incumbent is also facing a primary challenger, so it’s not clear who will be the candidate on that side of the ballot. But the messaging will change and the targeting will change as well. But I have to win the primary first.

DM: Pennsylvania is facing a growing shortage of teachers in schools and funding remains a constant challenge. Charter schools are opening up, like the ones down the street. What is your position on charter schools and their success or lack thereof?

SW: I think there’s been a real mix in terms of how successful charter schools are. We have some that are really great and some that have had some really questionable success. And I would like to see them held to similar standards as the public schools, both in terms of the goals we set for students to meet and also in terms of how their employees are compensated and whatnot. We need to have certain standards, and it’s important, especially since they get public money, that we hold them accountable to standards.

SB: As in many other parts of the country, there is income inequality throughout Pennsylvania. Do you support measures like raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars per hour and making it easier for workers to form unions? If not, how do we fix income inequality?

SW: That is a huge problem. I think that it’s at the core of many other problems that we see in the country. I do support raising the minimum wage. I think it’s hard. We’re very low. We’re lower than all of the states that we are adjacent to. We haven’t raised it in ten or 12 years. It’s been a really long time. It’s hard to jump from seven and a quarter to 15 because you do have small businesses and that would be a very severe fiscal impact. So it would be good to have some sort of transition period. The Governor is currently advocating for jumping to 12 and then tying it to an index like cost of living or something. At least raising it to 12 and indexing it so it continues to rise and we don’t end up pigeonholed or pegged to something that stays stagnant as the economy grows. So I definitely support that. I definitely support the unions and the right for workers to unionize. I came from a union household. I was a member of the union back when I was a teacher. That’s really important. They really do a lot to advocate for workers and to advocate for fair salaries. They’re very valuable to everyday folks.

SB: What steps would you take to address the opioid crisis that’s currently affecting the lives of so many Pennsylvanians?

SW: That’s a tough one. I think that, as a state, we were very slow to respond to it. And there’s sort of two halves to the picture. One half is the prescription side. We need to get more physicians trained on alternative methodologies for pain management. We need to do more to either engage or somehow work with pharmaceutical companies who historically have done a lot to encourage prescriptions that may be in excess of what is warranted. And then there’s the treatment side. These types of addictions often take a year or more for people to really recover from. We haven’t invested in mental health and addiction facilities and infrastructure that can really help people. It’s not affordable. It’s not accessible. And so the other side is: How do we support folks? It’s not just treatment. A lot of times it’s child care; it’s ways to support them in housing and in work as they transition back into the community. Certainly, a lot more can be done. It’s going to require investment. This goes back to what we were talking about – the fiscal responsibility and how we invest in our priorities. Until we get the fiscal house in order, there’s no money to do things like this.

DM: A big part of your background is in the environment. Do you support fracking, and, if so, should the industry be forced to pay an extraction or severance tax? If not, how should we meet our energy needs?

SW: I would like to see us move away from fossil fuels and into more green energy. I participated in the Climate Reality Change training. It was here in November with Al Gore. The fracking that exists in Pennsylvania has really been under-regulated and not taxed sufficiently, so there’s certainly a lot we can do to have them pay for some of the side effects, the ways that they impact communities and our environment currently. Again, moving forward I would prefer us to see some investing in more things like green energy and renewable energy jobs. That’s the fastest growing sector of our labor force right now. Things like solar panel installation and wind turbine installation – those are really the jobs of the future. It really is in green energy. We had great leadership until the current administration. If you look internationally, other countries are now really taking the lead in this area. They have set really robust goals, along with the Paris Climate Accord, to transition away from fossil fuels in things like heating but also in things like transportation. The downside is that our current administration has moved away from that. The upside is that the world is driving us in that direction anyways. One way or another we’re going to be dragged in that direction. It would be better for us as a state to take a lead on it because if we drag our feet and try to embrace these old technologies for as long as possible, other states and other nations will get the jump on us and we won’t have the opportunity to take a leadership role and be a leader in those industries.

SB: If you end up winning the position, what will day one look like? What do you hope to accomplish right off of the bat?

SW: I think, again, that this issue of fiscal responsibility really needs to be a priority because we do have other things like the opioid crisis and the environment that we want to invest resources in. But the resources just aren’t there right now. So until we can straighten that out I’d like to see changes in how we draft the budget here in Pennsylvania. It’s this crazy system where, essentially, you make your wish list – all the things we want to fund. We pass it into law and then they go on vacation without any idea of how they’re going to pay for it. When I worked in Colorado – there and many other states have a similar system – there was some sort of nonpartisan group that set revenue forecasts and then the budget had to be tied to the revenue forecasts, so you’re not allowed to draft a budget without knowing how much money we really expect to come in. So even though projections always change, the budget is within the realm of the reasonable. So I’d like to see changes on that. And also there’s some good government things that we need changes on. We don’t necessarily require public hearings on bills that are being debated in Harrisburg. I think the public needs more access. We need more input from constituents. There needs to be more transparency. There needs to be more robust policies on ethics and sexual harassment. I think there’s a lot to be done in terms of getting our foundation laid and in terms of good government practices. Then we can go about passing legislation and regulations that make better sense for the state.

DM: To bring it back to where we are right now, if you could send one message to the youth of Obama, or the whole youth of Pennsylvania, what would it be?

SW: I love that question. I don’t have just one. I have three. So you can give me some slack. First would be to be kind. I feel like we have too many elected officials that have very vitriolic messages that really try to be divisive. That is not a way to live productively. That is not a way to make progress as a society. I think the large majority of people are trying to do the best they can for their families and their communities, and we need to treat other people with respect. That would be the first message. The second is to be savvy consumers of information. There are a lot of people that wrongly brand robust news stories and scientific facts as fake news, and there’s also a lot of junk news out there that is packaged to look like real news. It’s changed a lot over the years and it is much different than when I was your age. So I think it’s very very important to be savvy consumers of information so that you can make good decisions. The third would be to be engaged. The people that get active are the people that have a say in what happens. You are the next generation of leaders, and whether it’s politics or journalism or volunteer efforts or whatever careers you go into, there are many many ways that you can have an impact on communities and the people around you and where we head, and I just would love to see more engagement, particularly by young people, to have a voice. You see things differently. You have a lot of energy and it would be a welcome and refreshing addition to the debate.

SB: Thanks so much.

SW: Thank you, guys. That was terrific.

The Eagle would like to thank Ms. Walsh for taking the time to sit down with us. May the best candidate win!