Q&A: Dan Frankel talks abortion, Pitt’s in-state tuition discount ahead of Tuesday’s midterms


TPN File Photo

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny.

By Rebecca Johnson, Editor-in-Chief

In Tuesday’s midterms, state Rep. Dan Frankel will be vying to represent the 23rd district in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. Frankel, the Democratic chairman of the Health Committee, has served in the House for more than 20 years. 

Because Frankel’s district includes Oakland, many students will decide whether to cast their ballot for Frankel or his only challenger, Jay-Ting Walker of the Green Party. Walker also ran for the seat in 2018 and 2020, securing 9% and 14% of the vote, respectively. Frankel doesn’t face a Republican opponent.

The Pitt News sat down with Frankel to discuss his policy platforms that impact Pitt students and other state races. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Q: Some Pitt students were concerned over the summer that Pitt would lose its $151 million state appropriation and consequently that in-state students would lose their tuition discount, due to debate in the state legislature over Pitt’s fetal tissue research. Is Pitt’s state appropriation something you’d look to protect, and if so how? 

A: I’m the Democratic Chair of the Health Committee. My counterpart on that committee is representative Kathy Rapp, and she is the majority chair, so she controls virtually the entire agenda. She is the chair of the so-called pro-life caucus, and so much of what she prioritizes is finding ways to attack reproductive rights. 

About a year ago, she wanted to do a hearing in the committee to look at fetal tissue research at the University of Pittsburgh. She did ask me for input as to people who might be asked to testify from our group, which I was grateful that she at least did that. So we did enlist a couple of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh. But she also brought in so-called experts to basically attack the University and its research. It was a sham hearing, with really questionable testifiers being used to attack the University of Pittsburgh and fetal tissue generally.

It’s going to be a recurring issue, unfortunately, as we go into the appropriations process that starts with the new governor’s budget message in February. Republicans will probably maintain the majority. So if Doug Mastriano would become governor, that would basically mean that the Pitt appropriation will be eliminated. 

We need Josh Shapiro to be elected. Josh Shapiro is a strong supporter of higher ed and basic ed. One of the people who attend the University of Pittsburgh is Josh’s daughter, Sophia. So, Josh Shapiro has a special relationship with the University, as well. So I think it’s really important that we make sure we have a Democratic governor who’s going to insist that the University of Pittsburgh gets its appropriation.

Q: Some students are concerned about potentially losing abortion access in Pennsylvania in the near future. Do you think abortion should be protected and if so how do you plan to help protect it while in office?

A: I’m the founding chair of the Women’s Health Caucus, and abortion rights have been attacked in every session I’ve been in the legislature. So my committee is ground zero for protecting abortion rights, and we will do that work. We’re going to need more this session. I mean, Josh Shapiro’s important. He’ll obviously be a champion of women’s reproductive rights and will veto any legislation that gets to his desk that tries to restrict women’s abortion rights. 

But Republicans have found a new mechanism to attack abortion rights. Senate Bill 106 is a constitutional amendment that basically would set the stage for banning abortion in Pennsylvania. The Republican controlled House and Senate passed Senate Bill 106 last session. We expect that it will come back to us maybe in January or February 2023, and I’m sure it will pass again, setting the stage to put that ballot initiative on the ballot for the May primary. Republicans want to put it on the May primary ballot, because it’s a municipal election cycle, and is typically the lowest turnout state election that we have in a four year cycle. 

We’ll have to really marshal enormous resources and voter energy to defeat that ballot measure next May, if it should happen. I know from my experience that the municipal election primary on the campuses gets very little interest and not a lot of voter participation, particularly from students. Students are going to be an absolutely vital part of the coalition that’s going to be needed to defeat that constitutional ballot measure. 

For our universities, I think a state that has an abortion ban becomes really a huge reason for prospective students to avoid coming to the state of Pennsylvania to get their education. And even as a parent, I don’t think I’d want to send my daughter to a state university in a state that has a an abortion ban. 

Q: In 2019 a bill you crafted meant to improve sexual assault reporting on college campuses — which requires that universities offer online, anonymous reporting options for students — passed. At Pitt, there was recently a reported sexual assault inside the Cathedral of Learning that’s left many students worried about a lack of protections while they’re on campus. Do you have any other similar legislation that you’re looking to push forward in the future?

A: One of the things I would probably look to do, as we get into the next session, is to sit down with our colleges and universities and see how they’ve implemented [the 2019 bill]. Is it effective and do we need to tweak it?

It’s extremely disturbing to learn about that story. I’m sure it’s not unique. On our college campuses, sexual harassment and sexual assault is often unreported. And one of the things we wanted to make sure is [the bill] made it easier for people to do that. We’re also trying to model a similar response to hate crimes on campus, because we know that’s something that also takes place.

Q: Can you talk about your stance on fracking?

A: I am not somebody who supports a complete ban on fracking. There is a necessity for a transition. But I am for enhancing the ability of the Department of Environmental Protection to be able to inspect, and regulate the fracking industry while we have it. And while we’re also making investments in renewable energy, so with that we have a transition at the end of the day. But to go cold turkey and to say we’re not going to use natural gas, until we’re able to build the green energy infrastructure, I think is unrealistic. 

Q: Why should students vote for you, and is there anything you’d like them to know before Tuesday’s election?

A: I listen to what’s important to our students, and try to reflect those values. And one of the things that comes natural to me is I think we’re all in sync. I don’t think there’s a lot of daylight between my values, my votes in the legislature and where Pennsylvania students are today.