State House candidate Michele Knoll and the momentum of female politicians in Pa. | Pittsburgh City Paper

State House candidate Michele Knoll and the momentum of female politicians in Pa.

Knoll is part of cohort that could drastically change Allegheny County's female representation in Harrisburg

State House candidate Michele Knoll and the momentum of female politicians in Pa.
Photo courtesy of Michele Knoll
From left: Michele Knoll, Summer Lee, Gisele Fetterman
In this election cycle, women voters prefer Democrats by a massive margin. According to a June Quinnipiac Poll, 58 percent of females support Democrats compared to 33 percent who support Republicans. It’s one of the largest gender gaps ever polled.

Combine that with polls saying women, especially young women, are more enthusiastic about voting in 2018 than in years past, and a potential wave is ready to crash in favor of Democratic female candidates.

State Rep. candidate Michele Knoll (D-Ohio Township) is not only trying to ride that momentum, she may have had a part in helping it form. Previously serving as an Avonworth school board member, Knoll had been mulling a run for the House District 44 (Moon, Sewickley, North Fayette) for a few years.

When she decided to run in 2017, she joined a growing list of female candidates that were looking to make inroads in Pennsylvania. Knoll says these figures inspired her and other women to run, despite lacking many institutional connections.

“Most of the people that have chosen to run are just regular women choosing to run,” says Knoll. “This year, the support has been strong for female candidates. That has not always been the case for female candidates."

The commonwealth is one of the worst states in terms of female representation. Only about 20 percent of the state House is made up of women.

Knoll says more women would drastically improve Harrisburg.

“We are good at multitasking,” says Knoll, who has worked as preschool, elementary school, and college educator while raising three daughters. “Statistically, women can work across the aisle more and bring more money back to their districts.”

She believes her personal experience and values will bring even more benefits to the legislature. Knoll says her experience in education and working with disabled students, some of whom are on Medicare, would be integral as a legislator. Medicare and education are two of the biggest chunks of Pennsylvania's budget.

In terms of Southwestern Pennsylvania women in office, things will be different after 2018. Sara Innamorato (D-Lawrenceville) and Summer Lee (D-Swissvale) have already defeated two male incumbents and are unchallenged in the general election. Three other state House seats are being vacated by men, and only women are on the ballot, including the 44th district, which pits Knoll against challenger Valerie Gaydos (R-Aleppo). And House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Marshall) is facing off against Emily Skopov (D-Marshall).

If Skopov were to upset Turzai, and a state Senate seat were to flip, Allegheny County would send eight women to Harrisburg in 2019. The county currently sends one woman, state Rep. Anita Kulik (D-Kennedy), out of 22 state House representatives.

Knoll is part of the 2018 class at Emerge Pennsylvania, an organization designed to help Democratic female candidates run for office in Pennsylvania. She says her collaboration with other female candidates at Emerge has helped her campaign.

“It puts you in the company of other women,” says Knoll. “It is a good way for us to collaborate.”

Emerge has been operating since 2015. The organization offers six-month training for Democratic women, teaching them about fundraising, giving stump speeches and campaign strategy. Emerge's Abigail Gardner says applications surged after Donald Trump was elected.

“We had like 30-40 people before, and then he won and we got another 100 applicants,” says Gardner.

Emerge has evolved into a significant force in state politics. Emily’s List, the largest pro-choice women Political Action Committee in the U.S., recently endorsed 20 state legislative candidates in Pennsylvania. Twelve of those were Emerge PA alums, including state Sen. candidate Lindsey Williams (D-West View).

“You have a story, you are perfectly qualified to run for office,” says Gardner of encouraging women to run. “We have an opportunity for a transformative year.”

Knoll is happy to be a part of the Democratic women running and participating with Emerge PA. But she also hopes, eventually, organizations like Emerge PA won’t need to exist.

“It is sort of a shame that this has to be a unique situation, for women to organize and run,” says Knoll. “If you are a qualified member of society, anybody should be able to run and win. It is a shame that we have to do something special to put women into office.”