Sara Innamorato did not think she was going to run for elected office. She thought she would talk other people into doing it. After all, says Innamorato, “I’m not a traditional candidate.” A democratic socialist who is open about her own family’s struggles with poverty and addiction, she may not fit the standard political profile. But when she finally recognized that she could be a candidate, Innamorato found that her different approach connected with voters who were frustrated with politics as usual.
Running last year against an entrenched Democratic incumbent in a Pittsburgh-area legislative-district primary, Innamorato built a different kind of campaign. She did not rely a consultants or standard talking points. She and her supporters knocked on thousands of doors. They listened. They built a campaign that talked about the real-life challenges facing working families—such as an asthma epidemic caused by bad air quality—and Sara Innamorato won an upset victory that shook up Pennsylvania politics.
This week, on Next Left, Innamorato speaks about the power of being open and vulnerable in politics. And about the importance of maintaining conversations with voters who might not agree with you on every issue—including the Trump voters that she won over.
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“These women were elected as democratic socialists. Now they’re trying to figure out what that means.” The Washington Post, Robert Samuels
“The socialists vs. the Costas: Upstart hard-left candidates challenge iconic old-school Pittsburgh political family,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chris Potter
“Two Socialists in Pennsylvania Just Won Victories the Democrats Can’t Ignore,” Mother Jones, Clint Hendler
“What the Media Got Wrong About Ocasio-Cortez’s Triumph,” The Nation
“A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke
“Run the World (Girls),” Beyoncé
This episode of Next Left was produced and edited by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our executive producers are Frank Reynolds, Erin O’Mara, and Katrina vanden Heuvel. Recording help this week from Avery Keatley. Our theme song is “Deli Run,” by Ava Luna.
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Introduction by John Nichols: This is John Nichols of The Nation magazine. Welcome to Next Left. This week we’re in Pittsburgh, asking some fundamental questions about our elections: What draws people into politics? What makes them willing to take on the entrenched status quo? What leads them to open up about their own stories of struggle and hardship? How does this openness break down barriers and get voters talking about fundamental issues?
We’re speaking with Sara Innamorato because she’s got a lot of the answers. Sara’s a newly elected member of the Pennsylvania state legislature, as a representative from the 21st state-house district. Last year she took on a senior legislator who was a member of one of the most powerful political dynasties in Pennsylvania. When this 32-year-old democratic socialist won, she provided a powerful indication of the dramatic changes that are taking place in the politics of Pennsylvania and the whole of the United States.
John Nichols: Sarah Innamorato, thanks for joining us on Next Left.
Sara Innamorato: Thanks for having me.
John Nichols: We’re speaking to you in Pittsburgh. A place where you’ve got deep roots. You actually said at one point that you had never voted in a Democratic primary for the legislature where the incumbent you took on [Dominic Costa] wasn’t on the ballot.
Sara Innamorato: Yeah: Since I had lived in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville, that had been my only choice.
John Nichols: So what made you decide that you were the right person? And that this was the right time to try and upend, really, the entrenched politics of the place where you grew up?
Sara Innamorato: Wow… how much time do you have? Cause it’s not a linear journey. I think that I’m a very nontraditional candidate. I never really saw myself entering the political space. I was, you know, working in the nonprofit sector and what I saw is that there are really smart, capable, passionate people who want to solve the world’s problems, but it’s an industry that is overworked and under-resourced. And more and more we’re saying, solve poverty, solve homelessness, solve the world’s greatest challenges—and we’re relying on charity to do it. So I saw that there was all this systemic failure and that really the only way that we were going to create change was not necessarily landing another grant, but creating policies and legislation that was going to fundamentally change the way our society and economy is structured. And that’s how I ended up getting involved in politics, really through that lens of helping people and wanting to make sure that the really smart and passionate people who gave a shit about people were the ones who were at the table making the laws.
John Nichols: So you’ve got deep roots in this place, you know the neighborhoods, and yet you don’t have deep roots in the traditional politics. You’re actually trying to take that traditional politics on. I’m interested in how it works when you go to the doors. Is it, in these days when so many people express so much frustration with politics, a benefit to be a newcomer?
Sara Innamorato: I would say it’s a blessing and a curse. You know, we were running with no name recognition, but I think when you run a state-level race and you’re from the area, you’re of the community—I was raised here, I was very involved in different neighborhood organizations and nonprofits in the area—so I had my own network to tap into that wasn’t necessarily affiliated with politics, which I think was really an asset because we knew that, in order to win our race, the numbers that we were going to get weren’t going to come from the people who were already coming out and voting because voter turnout was anywhere between 15 and 18 percent. So we knew the majority of people weren’t [voting] because they didn’t have a reason to go to the polls. And so we knew the name of the game was going to be engaging people in a new and exciting way. So we were a blank slate and we were able to build up our campaign on a vision that was very progressive and centered around the people in the communities that are here. And then kind of taking on the political establishment—you’re kind of the Kryptonite to everyone who makes a living off of politics. So no one really wants to go near you. So we really got to run the campaign that we wanted to run. And we knew it had to be rooted in grassroots organizing. It had to be about meeting people where they were at. It had to be about a bold vision, backed up with evidence and good policies, but really about making change because people are really out here, you know, suffering.
John Nichols: So tell me about your district.
Sara Innamorato: So it’s one of the most dynamic districts, I would say, in Pennsylvania. We have in the north where I grew up, it’s very suburban. It’s, you know, right outside of the city center. And then we have all these river towns where industry once was and they were hit hard when the steel industry left and big-industry manufacturing left the region and you had these very vibrant main streets that turned to blight. And you see this nice resurgence now. And it’s the same with the city neighborhoods that I represent. And there’s a lot of tension that exists between what once was and what it can be. And there’s a lot of really exciting investments that are coming into our area. Now all of these main streets are becoming thriving corridors. Vacant houses are being remodeled and sold. But along with that, if you don’t handle it correctly, if you don’t manage the government programs, if you just apply tax incentives and give them away to developers like candy, then you know you’re going to cause gentrification and you’re going to cause displacement and you’re going to cause fear and distrust. And that’s a lot of what we’re seeing here now is this tension between old and new.
John Nichols: You were running in a district that was feeling some stress and was feeling the impact of change. And I’m wondering if, as a young woman, new to politics, when you went and knocked on doors and when you talked to folks who’ve been in this district for a long time, was it perhaps because of the change that was going on that they opened up to voting for somebody that was a newcomer, because they had a sense that what they’d been voting for wasn’t working?
Sara Innamorato: Yeah. It’s very interesting because I think that if you had talked to pundits, you talk to the people who get paid a lot of money to do polling and analysis of what’s going on in politics, those people rarely go and knock on doors of regular households in southwestern PA. And we made it a point to talk to as many people as possible. We knocked tens of thousands of doors. [There are instances] I think that when you want to stereotype me or like build me out as like a, you know, a young woman who is progressive and she’s a member of Democratic Socialists and she has an asymmetrical haircut, that you want to assign me a following, which is like the new hipsters that moved into the gentrifying neighborhoods. [But] really when we looked around of who our supporters were, it was such a diverse set of people. You know, we definitely had people who were young and engaged in politics. We had families who had school-age kids; we had seniors who have lived there their whole lives, who had seen the change and just wanted someone who was going to fight for them. I had people who had voted for Trump and told me about why they voted for Trump and said, “You know, I just want someone who I can connect with and who I know is going to fight for us.”
John Nichols: That is a really interesting thing. The notion of a Trump/Innamorato voter.
Sara Innamorato: Yeah. Someone should study that.
John Nichols: Yes. Someone should study it. But, in effect, you did, right? You went out, you ran this campaign. When somebody tells you that they voted for Donald Trump and you were at the door, you’re… you’re trying to get their support, or maybe they are already engaged with your campaign and supporting it. How do you engage with that? How do you wrap your head around it and give them respect, and yet perhaps have a genuine discomfort?
Sara Innamorato: Yeah, and, I mean, you said the key word: “Discomfort,” right? When you go and you knock on doors and you have difficult conversations, it’s not about comfort, in the least bit. You know, I didn’t lead with asking about who they voted for in the presidential election. I introduced myself. I said, “Hey, I am fighting for health care for every single person. I want to make sure if you work 40 hours a week, you have a job that supports yourself and your family. I want to make sure that you can breathe clean air and drink clean water. What do you care about?” And people said, “I care about those things you just talked about.” And it felt like in some ways I was accepting confession where people would just volunteer that information. Like they would say, “I just… I’m… I’m… I like everything you’re saying. Also, I just want to let you know I voted for Trump, but I like immigrants” or “I don’t hate women” or, you know, it was like, “I voted for Trump and I also want to distance myself from his hateful rhetoric.” And then you really have to step back and be like, well, why did people vote for Trump? I absolutely think that he has nationally encouraged white nationalists and other racists to be emboldened. But I also think that there’s a lot of people who saw their lives, their family members, struggle under the Obama administration, and they were ready for a change and they were thinking about themselves and their family. And it’s really understanding the reason why. And the “why” is because politics have become so disconnected from the people it was designed to protect and serve. To build a movement, you need people, and if you’re going to have this purity filter that says “You’re not on my team unless you’ve done x, y, z,” if you’re not offering people an opportunity to do right and to connect with their neighbor, to build something that can actually work for everyone, then I don’t think you’re doing, you know, your job as an elected official and a movement builder.
John Nichols: It’s interesting that in a moment where people are making all kinds of choices that kind of break politics apart, that’s also a moment where a discussion about democratic socialism becomes possible. And you ran as a democratic socialist, in territory where there’s a very active chapter of Democratic Socialists of America on the ground. But yet you’re still kind of blazing some new turf for a lot of people. How did that discussion go?
Sara Innamorato: Well, I definitely didn’t lead with it. I led with what it means because the word “socialism,” even if it’s attached to the word “democratic,” is still very scary to a lot of people. So we wanted to make sure that every conversation started with values and policies and maybe led to “Oh, and by the way, this is democratic socialism.” And people will be like, “Well, if that’s what it is, then that’s what it is.” It’s much less scary when someone has taken the time to unpack what that means. Not so much in my race and the primary, but in the general election with other candidates, socialism was really weaponized. So when I was knocking doors—because even though we didn’t have a competitive general, we continued to knock doors and engage people—some folks would then… they saw the commercials or they were watching the news and would say, “Oh, you’re the socialist.” And I would just say, “What does that mean to you?” And most people can’t tell you; they just know that they’re scared, because they’ve been taught to fear that word. And they might throw out Venezuela; they might throw out, “You’re going to get rid of all the jobs” or “You’re going to take over all the companies.” And I said, “Can I tell you what it means to me?” And we’d have a conversation. And you know, even if people didn’t agree with me at the end, they really were at least neutralized in their opinion because, at the end of the day, that’s the faction of the Democratic Party that’s offering real solutions that are going to ameliorate the suffering of people today.
John Nichols: So I’m interested in this: You’re at the doors and you’re at community meetings, you’re talking to folks, they’re talking about voting for Donald Trump for president, you’re explaining democratic socialism, and somehow that conversation keeps going. It seems to me that, in your campaign, you found that maybe we’re not as divided as some people think, as some of our national media tends to suggest?
Sara Innamorato: I think that if you look at us, in terms of polling numbers we can be [divided], but that’s not how human beings work. You really have to get out there and have conversations with people. What I did, if it was delivered in any other manner besides face-to-face or small group contact, I don’t think it would have had the same effect, to be honest. I made it a point to be very vulnerable during my campaign, to really share my personal story and my personal struggle and connect with people on a human issue, and I think that how you change hearts and minds is you get to sit down and look someone in the eye and recognize your shared humanity. You know, I’ve done this with people who are very pro-gun or anti-abortion, and I felt that that it only works if you can sit face-to-face with someone and have that conversation. It’s never going to be productive if it happens in the comments section of a Facebook post.
John Nichols: When you talk about being vulnerable, you were very open about your own family story, about your own experience. You made a decision to be very open. What led you to do so?
Sara Innamorato: It is who I am, but it’s also supported by data, right? Like we have 30 percent of the population trusts government at this point. And when someone doesn’t trust you, it’s because you haven’t earned that trust. And I thought that, well, the fastest way for people to get to see me as a human being and to restore trust in our institution is to be transparent and be vulnerable and not necessarily be refined and buttoned up, but be real, and the realness is messy. And from day one I talked about my family story. Before I launched my campaign, I sat with my mom and I talked to my sister and I talked to my family and I said, “I’m going to be really open about this.” And we went through it, cause I just wanted to make sure that I was also not putting any undue burden or stress on them. And I wanted to make sure that I was honest and true to my own story. And I shared the fact that my father struggled with addiction—an opioid addiction, and alcoholism—and how we had to move from place to place during my teenage years. And what it was like to put myself through school and graduate in 2008, and not feel like there were any opportunities available for me, but there was a whole new mountain of debt that I had to pay off. And then, ultimately losing my dad to addiction and the hole that leaves. But also, the paradox that is having someone you love be an addict and cause so much harm to me personally, but also to my family, but also it’s still having that love. I think it… it does kind of prepare you for… for politics, in that sense. Which is just kind of a morbid take on it, but…
John Nichols: Well it’s morbid, but it’s honest that politics is tough and it touches on a lot of issues, and not many political figures choose to open up in that way. You also opened up about the fact that, in addition to this addiction being a part of your family story, there was also economic instability. And my sense is that we have very few political figures, particularly at the higher levels of politics, who talk about that.
Sara Innamorato: Yeah. We think that poverty looks a certain way, and we think that it is concentrated in Black and brown neighborhoods, that it’s chronically under-invested neighborhoods, that there’s a high crime rate. And while that is true and we need to address that systemic racism that has caused and exacerbated that poverty, poverty is woven into pretty much every corner of America, and it looks very different. One of the most earth-shattering statistics I ever got was that 60 percent of Americans have experienced poverty at some point in their life. That is the majority of Americans knowing what it’s like to not know where their next meal was coming from, to not fill a prescription because they couldn’t afford to pay for it, who are worried about losing their home because they couldn’t pay their rent or their mortgage one month. And that’s unacceptable. And if you haven’t experienced that then it’s really hard to legislate it away.
John Nichols: When you framed your own campaign, you talked about a new vision for the commonwealth, and you focused, interestingly enough, on some issues that came out of your own experience and out of your engagement with people rather than from a consultant.
Sara Innamorato: Yeah.
John Nichols: And you put right up front in your ad: poverty, asthma rates, and spending more on prisons than on schools. I don’t think those are the three issues that consultants tell candidates to run on. But you somehow figured out that those were issues that connected with people.
Sara Innamorato: Yeah, we talk about the amazing first-time candidates who ran on very progressive issues. It’s myself, it’s Elizabeth Fiedler out in Philadelphia, Summer Lee, who’s over in the Pittsburgh area as well. And we tend to focus on the candidates themselves. But I think one of the most impressive stories of our campaign is that we didn’t hire a single consultant. It was all people who maybe had some experience with campaigns but definitely weren’t bred from that industry. They didn’t come from the consultancy class. They were people who worked for nonprofits. They were students who studied social work. They were grassroots organizers. And I think that is something that’s really special about what we did, too. It’s not just about who I am and how we shaped our campaign, but really who was the fuel behind it. And it was comprised of regular people who knew the struggles of their neighborhoods and their families. So that’s what we used to inform the messaging that we went with, but also the priorities that we’re pursuing now that I’m in elected office.
John Nichols: And I don’t think many consultants who tell you to focus on asthma.
Sara Innamorato: No, no. But asthma rates in some parts of Allegheny County are twice as much as the national average. And that’s because we have some of the worst air quality. And when you just talk about climate change, it kind of falls on deaf ears. Or people are like, “Listen, I’m worried about how to feed my kids tonight” or “I can’t get them to childcare” or “I might lose my house. I don’t have time for climate change.” But when you say, “Climate change is caused by pollution, which is causing us to have worse air quality, which causes you to have to take your child to the doctor because they’re having another asthma attack, and you can’t afford your co-pay or the medicine because prescription prices are going through the roof,” you’ve then connected climate change in a very real way to their life. And we’re not necessarily doing our due diligence in the progressive movement to make these big ideas digestible to working- and middle-class families and illustrate it, helping to illustrate what tackling these big issues looks like for them.
John Nichols: You had a wonderful line in your campaign in which you asked people—I hope I’m quoting it right here—“Vote for me and I will fight the right fights.” And… and that’s a really powerful statement because the sense I think that a lot of people have about politics is that they vote for folks and these folks go off and they kind of move into this other world where they fight about whatever sometimes petty issue that arises in the moment. And that notion that you would go to the legislature and fight the right fights is powerful. Again, that’s not something that a consultant will tell you to say, but a very powerful message to convince people to maybe break with an entrenched incumbent and vote for you.
Sara Innamorato: Yeah, I think that the most frustrating part about now being in elected office is that it is really hard to fight those right fights, because you don’t set the agenda of what’s happening in Harrisburg at the moment. So there’s oftentimes where I feel like I’m just defending or trying to stop bad bills from seeing the House floor, and it’s really frustrating when you know that one in five people in Pennsylvania can’t afford to pay for their prescription drugs. But you know, we’ve named some bridges and we have a new state amphibian, and that’s kind of held up of like, “Look at this bipartisan support, look at this bipartisan legislation that we just passed [a minor bill],” and you’re like, “People are dying!” These are not the debates that we should be having. But what’s been good [is that] I, and actually most of our freshman class, [have] gone up to Harrisburg from a very different place politically and [we] ask a lot of questions. And I view that as my greatest asset right now. When lobbyists come to my door, when we’re in committee meetings, I’m just asking questions that I feel like this is what people in my neighborhood would ask if they were presented with this information in this way. And it’s really getting a lot of people to think about why they’re doing what they’re doing, to expose potentially kind of insidious intentions with certain bills. So, even if you can’t set the policy agenda, that doesn’t mean that you can’t create change in the culture that’s in the State House.
John Nichols: You may break up the whole lobbying business with this call to moral conscience to lobbyists.
Sara Innamorato: Someone today, a friend who is friends with a lobbyist, said that they texted him and said, “Oh, I’m nervous that Sara’s on this committee hearing today because she always asks my clients really hard questions. So I always make sure I doubly prepare them whenever they go into a meeting with her.” And I was like, that’s a good reputation to have.
John Nichols: That’s a fantastic reputation to have.
Sara Innamorato: The kind of reputation I want.
John Nichols: Well you’re doing it right, even if it is frustrating. Because obviously if they have to prepare for you, they might even learn something along the way. You made a breakthrough politically, defeating an entrenched incumbent that was noted, not just in Pennsylvania but around the country, partially because you’re a democratic socialist, but also partially because you and some other folks did have these breakthrough wins. Do you see this as something that’s going to keep on happening?
Sara Innamorato: I mean, it’s only going to continue if we continue to build power for working people and the people who have been marginalized and left out of politics for arguably generations or their entirety of the history in America. So it’s not going to come by us just sitting back and, you know, riding the blue wave; it’s going to take a lot of really hard work. It’s gonna take a lot of people going out and knocking doors, making sure that they’re inviting people into the political process. It’s going to take a lot of fund-raising from getting small-dollar donations and building PACs that are funded by people. It’s going to take us pressuring all elected officials at all levels to not accept corporate money or industry influence and also have them bring up the bills that would really have an impact on people’s lives. So it’s definitely possible to continue to elect more people like myself and the folks that I came in with this year. But it’s not without a lot, a lot of work. And I think the other part too is, you know, once we elect these individuals, once we elect progressives, once we elect people from working-class backgrounds, more women, more democratic socialists, what does it look like to govern? How do we redefine what the role of elected official looks like? You know, I’ve been connecting with other state representatives who are democratic-socialist members but also just other progressives, throughout the US. And how do we start to share ideas and say, “Here’s how I moved something” or “Here’s model legislation” or “What do you think about this?” Or maybe your statehouse has more resources so they can do the research that needs to be done and that can be shared. So there’s really this idea of collaboration and continual power-building to really push an agenda that’s making sure that we’re creating an economy where everyone can live a life of dignity.
John Nichols: Well, the corporations have the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC. So maybe you’re going to create the alternative to that.
Sara Innamorato: That’s the plan.
John Nichols: It’s a good plan. Hey, what’s your favorite political song?
Sara Innamorato: Oh my gosh, that’s a good question, I mean, I listen to Sam Cooke—“A Change Is Gonna Come”; we listen to, I don’t know, a lot of Beyoncé—something that would pump us up.
John Nichols: Beyoncé… Beyoncé comes up surprisingly often, or maybe not surprisingly—
Sara Innamorato: I mean, of course, you need that kind of energy, and need to feel invincible sometimes, and I think Beyoncé is a soundtrack that does that.
John Nichols: Thank you so much for joining us. You’ve been terrific.
Sara Innamorato: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.