Grad student announces campaign for state House of Representatives


Ally Hansen | Staff Photographer

Jessica Benham, who recently got a master’s degree in bioethics and is working on her Ph.D. in communication at Pitt, is running for the District 36 seat in the state House of Representatives.

By Ashton Crawley, For The Pitt News

Most students spend their time between classes and jobs participating in a club, playing a sport or binging Netflix. Jessica Benham’s got a different pursuit — in between writing her Ph.D. thesis and serving as the director of development at the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, she’s running for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

Benham, who recently got a master’s degree in bioethics and is working on a Ph.D. in communication at Pitt, announced her campaign for the District 36 seat, which includes her own neighborhood of South Side Flats, as well as parts of Mt. Washington, Mt. Oliver, Brentwood and Brookline, in September. Her platform includes expanding access to health care for all, increasing funding for infrastructure and supporting labor rights. She plans to challenge 25-year Democratic incumbent Harry Readshaw in the primary in April 2020.

Currently, Benham serves her community as secretary for the Zone 3 public safety council. She was motivated to run for the House seat in part because she could provide a new perspective as an individual living with a disability. If she is elected, Benham will not only be the first woman elected to represent District 36, but also the first autistic woman elected to serve on state legislature.

“I think people feel more involved in politics when someone who looks like them is at the table. There has to be somebody who has a disability who is really leading those conversations,” Benham said. “As a woman with a disability, I think a lot about health care. I think a lot about accessibility. But I also think of myself as representing all the people in District 36.”

Benham will be the second progressive female candidate to challenge Readshaw, who tends to favor more conservative policies. The first, Erin Molchany, lost to Readshaw in 2014.

Among the goals included in her platform, Benham specifically wants to address issues relating to health care and social services for institutionalized adults. Without access to social services like appropriate health care providers, safe housing, employment programs and basic life skills training, many of these adults are never able to leave institutions and live independently.

“I think about the many people with developmental and intellectual disabilities who are still stuck in institutions, who have supposedly been granted the civil right of living in the community,” Benham said. “Yet the state will not fund the services that would allow them to do so.”

The district’s flooding problem is another concern for Benham, who wants to invest more in Route 51 to help prevent flood damage. The major roadway, which has been under construction since January in a bid to reduce its size, frequently floods with several inches of water and has to be closed down.

Benham’s campaign was recently endorsed by former District 4 City Council member Natalia Rudiak, who similarly focused on infrastructure during her time in office.

“Unfortunately South Pittsburgh is still left out of many region-wide and City-wide conversations about public transport, infrastructure and better housing,” Rudiak said. “I know that Jessica will be a champion to get these issues in front of the state legislature and in front of City and county leaders.”

As an activist, Benham has served as a disability rights and accessibility consultant on several pieces of legislature, such as Paul’s Law, which was passed in 2018 and prevents Pennsylvania hospitals from denying organ transplants to patients on the basis of their disability status. Her activism also extends into worker’s rights, as she serves as a member of the Pitt Graduate Student Union’s organizing committee.

“Union activism has a long history in the city of Pittsburgh, an important history. My desire is to go to Harrisburg and really be a fighter for union rights,” Benham said. “I don’t think I could ever be the kind of scholar who just writes about things. I have to be an activist. I have to be involved.”

Her campaign has already garnered support from City officials like Rudiak and from her own neighbors. Cheryl Kleiman, a civil rights attorney, is Benham’s neighbor and also the chair of Benham’s political action committee. Kleiman says that Benham has been extremely active in community meetings and town halls for years.

“She has this ability to be in seemingly many places and be present in them. There are very few community meetings that Jessica does not have a role in,” Kleiman said. “For years she has been invested in learning from and listening to her fellow community members.”

If elected, Benham will not only be the first woman to represent her district, and the first autistic woman in the country to be elected to legislature, but she will also be the first openly bisexual woman to hold a role in state legislature.

“The historic nature of her campaign is worth noting, but it’s also who Jessica is,” Kleiman said. “She has shown that she is willing and able to do the work and steps into the space and is a leader.”

With her community involvement and background as an activist, Benham felt like it was the right time for her to address her community’s needs by running for office.

“It wasn’t always in the plan for me. It’s definitely been a journey,” Benham said. “But here I am.”