Two weeks ago, Snapchat videos showed state Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-New Beaver) encouraging his 5-year-old son to smoke cigars and play the “f—k, marry, kill” game. State Republicans are calling on Bernstine to resign. He apologized for his actions, but is not resigning. And with one of his opponents, United Party candidate Johnathan Peffer, racking up several endorsements and a good amount of yard-sign support in the district, a competitive three-way race appears likely.
This opens up the door for Democrat Kolbe Cole, from Beaver Falls. Pennsylvania state House District 10 is historically Democratic, but Bernstine flipped it in 2016 as many of the more rural parts of southwestern Pennsylvania are becoming increasingly Republican. Bernstine won the district by 17 points in 2016, and ran no Democrat challenged him in 2018. But the district still has Democratic strongholds in Beaver Falls and Slippery Rock, a college town. According to political forecasters CNalysis, District 10 is now rated as Tilt Democratic, since Cole could win the district with a plurality, not an outright majority. This has brought some outside attention to a race.
Cole says her campaign is focused on leadership, and being an example to the youth of the area to show who may not have seen representation in local elected officials.
“I decided to run when I looked around at the leadership in our area and I didn’t see many leaders who represent our community and our area,” says Cole. “I have worked with youth to build and empower our youth, but their hope only goes so far. I want to ignite that hope in our youth, so that’s why I decided to run.”
Her campaign has focused on voter registration and informing constituents about their voting rights. She is also focusing on promoting the beauty and the assets of her district, which covers the former industrial areas of the Beaver Valley, as well as rural farming areas of Lawrence, Butler and Beaver counties. With this region struggling economically at times, it’s not always seen as a bastion of hope, but Cole says she wants to change that.
We have moved PA HD-10 from Lean R to Tilt D. We initially moved this seat from Safe R to Lean R when incumbent Aaron Bernstine (R) posted videos on his Snapchat story of him giving his 5-year-old son a cigar to smoke.— CNalysis (@CNalysis) October 20, 2020
“We have amazing parks and recreational areas,” says Cole. “We are really unique with a rural population and a section of somewhat urban population in Beaver Falls.”
Cole says, if elected, she would work to help these different parts of the district connect and innovate to solve some of the District’s issues. Beaver Falls, the largest municipality in the district, is considered a food desert. Cole says she wants to increase the connections between the region’s farms and towns like Beaver Falls.
“We have a city that is considered a food desert, but also we have a lot of agricultural land,” says Cole. “We need that disconnect be resolved.”
With the politics starting to tilt in Cole’s favor, the potential of her win would be historic. Rural southwestern Pennsylvania has never sent a Black legislator to Harrisburg, let alone a Black woman. If elected, Cole would join state Rep. Summer Lee (D-Swissvale) as the only Black women from Western Pennsylvania to win state legislative seats.
Cole acknowledges the historic nature if she were to win, but she isn’t focusing on it too much. And given the rightward shift of the district, a Democratic win would be a bit of an upset. Not to mention, a big get for the Democratic Party, which is just nine seats away from flipping the state House.
“I don’t think that race and gender should play a factor in leadership. Hopefully they respect that no matter who is leading, they are fulfilling their duty,” says Cole. “People want respect and dignity right now, more over party. I think [the election] is turning my way, people are looking for mature leaders. It doesn’t matter what party.”
One thing Cole wants to focus on his helping turn the tide on the district’s population loss. Like most areas in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and particularly Beaver and Lawrence counties, District 10 has been shrinking. Cole says she would like to see more state investment in the area, and believes fixing the educational funding formula can help school districts in the area. She hopes that can help lead to more innovation, and entice talented locals to stay, instead of leave.
Cole understands the pull to leave the Beaver Valley, because that is something she has lived through. When she graduated from New Brighton Area High School, she says the first thing she wanted to do was leave. She went to college in Youngstown State University, where she studied Criminal Justice, but then returned, knowing that she wanted to improve and fight for the area.
“I went to college in Ohio, but then I came back,” she says. “I want to make this the area that people can have real opportunities.”