Pitt alumna takes politics from SGB to the national stage


Photo Courtesy of Maggie Kennedy

Pitt graduate and president of Student Government Board during the 2018-19 academic year Maggie Kennedy poses with ex-Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

By Rebecca Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

During her senior year of high school, Maggie Kennedy’s father fell off a ladder while hanging Christmas lights — a $40,000 expense.

“He’s had four surgeries since then, lots of physical therapy, lots of medication,” Kennedy said. “He has a job and has insurance, but that fall still cost my family $40,000. That’s not money my family, or really any family, has sitting around.”

Kennedy’s support of universal health care, stemming from her father’s accident, is what prompted her to join Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign as an organizer in Iowa and then Illinois. Kennedy, a 2019 Pitt graduate and president of Student Government Board during the 2018-19 academic year, said she was inspired by Warren’s strong progressive policies and hardworking mentality.

“She was the candidate that was putting forward the most work, putting forward the most in-depth, comprehensive plans,” Kennedy said. “She was as close as I thought we were going to get to a perfect candidate.”

Warren, a senator from Massachusetts and former Harvard law professor, bowed out of the Democratic race for president on March 5 after not winning a single state on Super Tuesday and placing third behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in her home state. These losses followed her earlier defeats — Warren placed third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire and Nevada and fifth in South Carolina.

Along with supporting Medicare-for-all, Warren also champions free college education, canceling student loan debt, reducing carbon emissions and other policies that made her one of the most progressive candidates in the race. Kennedy said fighting for policy positions like these was so important to her that she had to participate in the 2020 election.

“When I was thinking about graduation I saw so many of my friends applying for grad school. I knew I couldn’t be on the sidelines for 2020,” Kennedy said. “This election was going to be so crucial that I knew that if I was doing anything but trying to elect Elizabeth Warren and defeat Donald Trump I would feel like I wasn’t doing what was right.”

Kennedy worked six to seven days a week over a six-month period in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area for Warren. She talked to Iowans over the phone, at their homes or at events her team organized and built a cohort of volunteers. She said she fondly remembers one volunteer, Meredith, who she nicknamed her “Iowa mom.”

“Every time I met with her for calls she brought me food,” Kennedy said “Toward the end she asked for my own mom’s phone number so she could get my mom’s homemade mac and cheese recipe so she could make it for me. It was really special what we built there.”

Other organizers noticed Kennedy’s ability to recruit volunteers. Raquel Sosa-Sanchez, a fellow Iowa for Warren organizer, said Kennedy had an ability to attract voters not usually included in politics. Sosa-Sanchez said in Kennedy’s first week on the campaign, she found a family of three with a baby who had a rare disease requiring her to have constant care and a strict vegan diet.

“Maggie found this family of three on practically her first week who were looking to have their voice heard on Medicare-for-all,” Sosa-Sanchez said. “It was so powerful to see Maggie empower these people who wouldn’t usually be out canvassing.”

Kennedy didn’t immediately start this work after leaving Pitt, though. For about a month after graduation, she didn’t have a job, which was stressful for her and even worried some of the administration at Pitt.

“It felt like everyone expected me to know what I was doing. So many people were asking me all the time, even higher up faculty like the chancellor and Dean Bonner,” Kennedy said. “I went home at first, and spent the month of May with my family, running, bike riding and I also watched the entirety of ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Kennedy started working last June for the Tax the Rich bus tour, a nationwide campaign to increase taxes on wealthy Americans. On the tour, Kennedy was responsible for setting up lights, sound equipment and taking inventory of supplies, which she compared to being part of a theater stage crew.

She said skills she learned from the tour — along with her extracurricular involvement at Pitt, including being SGB president, a resident assistant for two years and a Sexual Assault Facilitation Education peer educator — helped prepare her for her time as an organizer. Kennedy said working as an RA gave her a skill set particularly helpful as a campaign staffer.

“In Iowa, we hosted a lot of events ourselves,” Kennedy said. “From doing programming as an RA I knew how to plan a good event that is inherently educational, that could be seen as boring, as interactive and engaging.”

Casey Abramson, a friend of Kennedy and 2018 Pitt graduate, said Kennedy’s involvement in college makes her a role-model for current students and an excellent addition to the Warren campaign.

“She relentlessly fights for what she believes in, whether it’s students at Pitt or her country,” Abramson said. “She always does things for the greater good.”

Following Warren’s loss in Iowa, the campaign moved Kennedy to Illinois’ 16th Congressional district. Warren dropped out before the primary in Illinois, which will take place Tuesday. Kennedy said she will now vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., but she credits part of Warren’s loss to sexism in the election. She said she saw this sexism often when potential voters decided to support candidates they thought were “safer,” and usually men.

“Worrying about electability is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if you’re worried that a woman can’t win and so you vote for a man because of that then you are part of the problem,” Kennedy said.

Despite what Kennedy said she views as an underlying problem in American politics, she is excited for the future. She isn’t sure what her next career step is, whether it’s nonprofit work or issue-based campaigning on sex- and gender-based violence, but is insistent about young people expressing their opinions politically.

“Specifically for young women and nonbinary folks who feel like they don’t have place in this world or your voice doesn’t matter, it does,” Kennedy said. “Our ability to vote and be engaged is so new, and we can’t take it for granted.”