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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Elevate Blog: Interview with Representative Jessica Benham

Elevate Logo - Campaign Training for People with Disabilities. Graphic features the US Capitol Rotunda.

Representative Jessica Benham is a freshman legislator in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing the 36th District. She is queer, autistic and has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic connective tissue disorder. Representative Benham is both the first openly LGBTQ woman and openly autistic legislator in the Pennsylvania State House.

Before Representative Benham ran for office, she was one of the cofounders of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, a nonprofit run by and for autistic people. Her work focused on ensuring that public policy reflected the participation of autistic people. The shift from fighting for autistic people to be heard to being a decision maker was a big change for Representative Benham: “being in a place where people have to listen to me is a change, but the ability to lift up the concerns of disabled people and provide people a platform from which to speak is a real honor.”

I sat down with Representative Benham to ask her some questions about why she decided to run for office, what her campaign was like, and advice she would give to other disabled folks who are considering running for office. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to run for office?

Honestly, running for office was not something I ever thought I would do. The first time someone suggested that I should run, I laughed at them. As more and more folks from my community asked me to step up and serve, they helped me imagine a world in which people could accept me for who I was. While of course I would face discrimination, stigma, and people’s bigotry and biases, the vast majority of people would see someone who would fight for them.

Why do you think it’s important for disabled people to run for elected office, especially those who are LGBTQ?

I think it’s important for our elected bodies to represent and reflect the population at large, so that means that those bodies like the Pennsylvania General Assembly should be diverse. That means that they should include disabled folks, queer folks, and Black and brown folks. It’s important because we legislate from our lived experience. Like a lot of folks from my community, I’m a working class kid. That background has helped a lot of folks in my community understand that I know what they’re going through. I’ve experienced hardship, and certainly, I also experienced ableism and homophobia, sexism, all those things. All those experiences give me a thick skin and also give me a determination to fight for folks who have been left out of the political process.

What was your campaign like? Were there any campaign practices that you had to adapt or do differently?

I think that it’s hard to tell, because campaigning this year was so much different from typical campaigning anyways [due to the pandemic]. So I think a lot of disabled folks with mobility disabilities have found that door knocking doesn’t necessarily work for them, but we weren’t door knocking anyways post-February. While I love knocking doors and that’s enjoyable for me, in many ways, all of my campaign activities became accessible to folks with mobility disabilities simply because we were doing everything from home. So I think it’s hard to tell.

I think that the perspective with which I approached campaigning is different. I don’t think that people should compromise their mental and physical health on campaign: candidates, staff, or volunteers. In the broader culture of campaigning, there’s the sense of you don’t care about your job unless you sacrifice all those things for it. I tried to make it clear to my staff that I wanted people to have work-life balance.

How would you like to see campaigns adopt some of these changes in the future?

In many ways, campaigning is a science of what typically works. It is unfortunately true that due to the time-compressed nature of campaigns that it would be difficult for all campaign activities [to change]. The playing field wouldn’t be level if one campaign chose to not door knock, for example, because we know face-to-face conversations are just so effective. And yet on the other hand, there is this troubling thing that campaigns do where they devalue certain kinds of voter contact. While broadly speaking, door knocking reaches the most amount of voters, it is not the most effective way to reach every voter, and that’s important. For some voters, calling or texting is most effective. In the future, campaigns should use every tool at their disposal for voter contact. I had some of the best times at virtual fundraisers, because we did fun things like Labor History Bingo. We wouldn’t have done that at an in-person event. It’s hanging onto some of those creative and clever things, recognizing that there is still a lot of power in virtual campaign activities, and not losing sight of that.

Do you have any advice for people with disabilities who are considering running for office? 

On the accessibility of campaigning, I think it’s helpful to find somebody who has the same kinds of access needs as you who ran for office to find out what worked for them. The other thing is to find folks locally who are able to take you under their wing. You cannot run for office just by yourself, so to have folks who hold elected office or who are union leaders, or who hold other positions of leadership in their community taking you under their wing is useful.

One of the things that is useful for being seen as a legitimate candidate is “being seen,” and being seen can be expensive. Finding folks who can facilitate that networking is critical, because it can be difficult to find the financial resources to attend events where you can meet other campaign donors. I think identifying groups of people who will volunteer for you is really important, and that means being an organizer in other areas, [such as] helping out on another grassroots campaign and meeting folks who were really good volunteers for that campaign. I was somebody who organized neighborhood projects. Folks who were willing to pull weeds with me at the neighborhood park would collect signatures [to get on the ballot]. Money is unfortunately important in politics right now, but it’s not everything. I would say it’s more important to have a broad base of volunteers than it is to have a lot of money.

Representative Jessica Benham, a young woman with brown hair wearing a blue face mask and blue coat, stands at a desk and raises her right hand as she takes the oath of office.

Jessica Benham is the State Representative in PA House District 36. Prior to her election, she was co-founder of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy (PCAA), where she had worked to ensure that individuals with disabilities are treated fairly in the legislative process. Previously, while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, she was involved in the effort to organize a union of graduate student workers.  Jessica is the first openly Autistic state legislator in PA and the first out LGBTQ+ woman in the state house. As a state representative, she has focused on fighting for fixes to our unemployment system, better access to COVID testing and vaccines, access to healthcare, a clean and healthy environment, fair funding for education, and LGBTQ and disability rights. 

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