Laura Ellsworth grew up loving Nancy Drew, the theatre and teaching — which all came in handy when she decided as an undergraduate at Princeton University to become a lawyer.
“You get to be a detective — you get to be a performer because you need to use your presence, use your voice, use everything you know to bring the team together and lead them — and you get to educate and be really smart, but also always learning something new and being able to simplify that and teach it to other people,” she said.
Now she is trying for another job — one that still requires her to represent people, but on a much larger scale. Ellsworth, a Pittsburgh-based attorney and master’s alumna from Pitt, announced in October 2017 that she is running for the Republican nomination for the 2018 governor race.
She was partly propelled to run for governor because she believes Pennsylvania’s politicians have proved inactive on issues like the state budget and aren’t transparent enough to their constituents on the work they do.
“We, as citizens and participants in democracy, have a right to understand the issues, have a right to see these issues and weigh in on them in real time in a meaningful way,” she said.
According to Ellsworth’s website, she wants to reward institutions of higher education that find ways to reduce student tuition “without adversely affecting the student experience” with better expense management. She also plans to develop two-year certificate programs designed for jobs that have a large number of openings in the market.
On the state budget, she has promised to follow deadlines, be transparent with the public and engage in a two-year planning cycle when it comes to creating the budget to avoid hasty last-minute changes. She also wants to develop “The Map,” a visual depiction of what she wants the state to look like like a decade from now in terms of infrastructure, energy, education and environment, among other areas.
“We ought to be driving toward [The Map] every day, and we ought to report back to the people of Pennsylvania and — every year — check in to see if we are making progress toward our goal,” she said.
She was also prompted to run because of the atmosphere of the 2016 election. Everyone she knew, both Republican and Democrat, was voting “against someone, not for someone.”
“That broke my heart for my son, for his generation, my country, and I wanted someone who would stand for something that people could get behind and believe in,” she said. “I want people who were disappointed by the experience of the last election to understand that there is value and purpose to them engaging.”
According to Ellsworth, she is qualified to be governor because as a leader of the Jones Day Pittsburgh law firm she has learned about how to work with government and the private sector and how to organize different groups of people around a common goal. She also credited her time at Pitt from 1980 to 1983 with helping her understand the importance of group action.
“Pitt brings in bright, brilliant, passionate people who want to get involved in their community,”
she said. “That collective harnessing and collective power of a community is something that I learned at Pitt.”
Ellsworth cited a philosophy seminar she had during her time at Pitt that shaped her views on the importance of sharing ideas. One morning, she and the other students in the class were all “out of it” and the professor, fed up with their unresponsiveness, slammed his book shut and reminded the students their job is to bring ideas to the classroom that he had not thought of before.
She said the students all sat stunned for a minute before each person began to talk about the text they were reading and how it related to each of their lives. They drew on their own experiences to come up with ideas the professor had never shared with them.
“It was the most stunning educational experience because I understood in real time that it simply wasn’t an opportunity to bring ideas to the table, it was an obligation,” Ellsworth said. “And that each one of us, by virtue of our personal life experience, brings something new to the table.”
She is now getting current students at Pitt involved in her campaign. Senior finance major Mia Gurganus was introduced to Ellsworth through her father, who is friends with Ellsworth’s husband. She described herself as starstruck after meeting Ellsworth for the first time.
“I told my dad when we left, ‘Oh my god, I want to be like her when I grow up.’ It says a lot about her, being that she is so accomplished in her work that you can walk away from the conversation noticing her charisma and how genuine she is,” she said.
She reached out to Ellsworth when she learned the attorney was running for governor and has since assisted her in attracting potential interns. Gurganus is expecting to work on Ellsworth’s campaign full-time when she graduates in April 2018.
“One of the big reasons why I like her as potential governor is because of how fair she is and how willing she is to listen to both sides and compromise, because that’s a huge thing right now,” Gurganus said.
Not all students support Ellsworth for the Republican nomination. Junior religious studies and Spanish major Noah Manalo, who is also an intern for another Republican gubernatorial candidate, Paul Mango, has compared the options and sees Mango as a better fit for leader.
“[Scott] Wagner has been in the race for a while and Ellsworth is recent, but Mango is the only one out there with a plan,” Manalo said. “That kind of showed me that he was transparent enough and already had it all written down and articulated exactly what he wants to get accomplished as governor.”
Ellsworth said she wants people in the community to become more involved in the local voting process — especially younger generations.
“I work all over the world, where I see people die for the right to vote. And I come back to this country, and it’s like midterm elections, where it’s like 20 percent of the people vote, and I want that to be different,” she said.
She said that for people to become more politically involved, there have to be candidates worthy of people’s consideration — not a waste of voters’ time.
“There are people who are working in our communities every single day, in our universities — you have to give them a proposition that is worthy of their time,” she said. “I believe that if you do, if you give them that proposition, they will come to the table and that’s amazing.”
Noah Manalo is a columnist for The Pitt News.