‘I knew I needed to move up’: Holly Hickling runs for magisterial district judge


Romita Das | Senior Staff Photographer

Holly Hickling is campaigning as an independent candidate for magisterial district judge for the West End of Pittsburgh in next Tuesday’s municipal election. Hickling works at the School of Pharmacy as a senior programs evaluation specialist in the program evaluations research unit.

By Katie Cassidy, Staff Writer

Holly Hickling had no intention of running for magisterial district judge prior to the May 2021 primary election. The election — in which Nicholas Martini ran unopposed on the Republican and Democratic party lines — sparked her concern for how the position would be occupied.

“If you’re not talking about the bias in the system, you’re not solving it,” Hickling said. “I didn’t feel comfortable with someone running without talking about those things.”

Hickling is campaigning as an independent candidate for magisterial district judge for the West End of Pittsburgh in next Tuesday’s municipal election. Magisterial district courts are the first level of the Pennsylvania court system and hear low level cases about matters such as traffic violations, civil disputes and misdemeanors.

Hickling works at Pitt’s School of Pharmacy as a senior programs evaluation specialist in the program evaluations research unit. Her specific focus is working to address opioid addiction in Pennsylvania and finding ways to reduce the stigma and deaths related to opioid use. She previously served as a community engagement adviser in the University Honors College for seven years.

Hickling said her role as a community engagement adviser allowed her to explore many community-related topics — such as the prison system and substance abuse — and keep a “pulse” on issues in Pittsburgh. She said mass incarceration and bias in the judicial system caught her attention during her time as an adviser.

“I had been reading a lot about bias in policing, and I even helped host mass incarceration conferences at Pitt,” Hickling said. “I was also gearing up for a career transition and I knew I needed to move up, but I also wanted to find a way to end mass incarceration.”

Hickling said running for office was on her radar, but not in a judicial capacity given her lack of a legal background. The primary election directed her attention to magistrate district judge, which does not require such experience.

“After the role of police, magistrates are the next stop,” Hickling said. “They are really important because they can set cash bail, and they have an incredible amount of power and discretion.”

Magistrate judges are not allowed to state their political platforms on specific issues, or which direction they would lean in cases. Hickling said her approach has been to address universal issues in her area that concern a majority, if not all, of the community.

“I hope to use the discretion of a magistrate to be compassionate, enhance equity and reduce bias, while improving safety in our community by addressing root causes of problems,” Hickling said. “I want to be a compassionate and fair judge who has the patience to listen deeply to all of the sides of a conflict.”

Hickling entered the race in July and immediately launched into campaigning. She said her team had little time to prepare and plan before “diving in and knocking on doors,” but relied on support from people with previous political experience.

“Some of my former students worked for Ed Gainey, so we were getting advice from them,” Hickling said. “One of my campaign managers worked on a ballot initiative, and we also tapped into progressive organizers.”

Cody Reddy, one of Hickling’s co-campaign managers, met her last December while working on a ballot initiative that aimed to ban no-knock warrants and limit solitary confinement. Reddy said he got “really excited” when he was asked to help out with the Hickling campaign because she exhibits the qualities of a good candidate.

“I don’t know how much better of a candidate you could get for someone who hasn’t run for office before,” Reddy said. “She has the characteristics you look for in a candidate — she’s charismatic, compassionate and knowledgeable. She is willing to learn and to admit when she is wrong.”

Saket Rajprohat, Hickling’s other co-campaign manager, met Hickling when he was an undergraduate at Pitt. Hickling was his Honors College mentor and helped him become more civically engaged in the community, including with FORGE at Pitt, a program for refugee support. Rajprohat said Hickling’s passion for community activism and the justice system makes her an ideal candidate.

“Holly wasn’t even considering running for this position, but when she saw the seat being taken without anyone standing up for it, she didn’t think it was right,” Rajprohat said. “Because of her genuine nature and her willingness to look beyond ego, she would make a superb judge.”

According to Hickling, her team prioritizes face-to-face interactions with constituents, which entails knocking on doors throughout her district every day of the week. Hickling said meeting new people and learning more about them has been her favorite part of the campaign.

“I’ve learned that you have to get in front of as many voters as possible,” Hickling said. “I’ve had a lot of great conversations with people who believe the way I do, as well as people who have helped me expand my worldview.”

Reddy said external support, specifically from “progressive powerhouses,” has been instrumental to their campaign and the headway they have made thus far. He said student volunteers from progressive Democrat Ed Gainey’s mayoral campaign and organizers from Slate of Eight have provided them with knowledge on data entry, campaign management and digital marketing. The Slate of Eight was a set of candidates running together for the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas

It’s not so much campaign coordination as it is people that know each other,” Reddy said. “It is really helpful to have people who were involved in mayoral races or people with extensive backgrounds when you don’t have that yourself.”

With the election drawing near, Rajprohat said the team is optimistic about the public support they have received. He said the community involvement in their campaign, such as active discussions with residents and increased volunteer support, is encouraging.

“There are ways to gauge the community and it looks as if this is going to be one of the most competitive races in Pittsburgh,” Rajprohat said. “I think the community has a genuine sense that we truly care, and we are riding that wave into the election.”

During the week, Hickling starts knocking on doors when she gets home from work and she spends all day Saturday and Sunday working on the campaign and talking to residents. Reddy said Hickling’s participation in this campaign is at a level he has never witnessed before and that her devotion to the campaign has been critical to her success.

“The amount of effort she has put in as someone with a family, who works full time, is out of this world,” Reddy said. “In my limited experience, just witnessing other campaigns, the amount of effort she puts in is not even comparable.”

Reddy also said “progressive powerhouses” have taken note of Hickling. Lisa Middleman, a candidate for the county court of common pleas with 34 years of trial experience, spoke at Hickling’s launch party. Reddy said Hickling’s personality, characteristics and the relationships she has established with friends and peers demonstrate her ability to serve successfully in the role — despite not having the traditional judicial experience.

“She has a really large following of people who believe in her and support the things she worked on,” Reddy said. “Realistically speaking, I don’t know how much better of a candidate you could get for someone who hasn’t run for office before.”