Millennial Makes History With Big Win in Philly

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Martina White made history Tuesday night by winning a special election for a Pennsylvania House seat — the first time a Republican won an open General Assembly seat in Philadelphia in 25 years.

White, 26, became the 120th Republican in the House, part of the largest GOP majority in the state since 1958 and including a state Senate that increased its majority in historic numbers in 2014.

Down-ballot races matter. These elected officials are the most attuned politicians with whom average people ever interact; they focus on voters' core values, and are far removed from the harsher rhetoric of national politics.

White said politics was not in her blood, or even on her mind.

“It was not something we sat around the dinner table talking about,” the newly elected representative said of family conversations. “The only position I've ever won, I didn't run for, and that was captain of my field hockey team in college.”

The granddaughter and daughter of business owners, she was inspired by working as a financial planner and seeing middle-class families struggle to pay for kids' college educations or wrestle with how to build a safe retirement: “They weren't able to make the numbers work, time after time.”

White said she listened more than talked when she went door to door, asking for votes. “I went to over 3,000 homes,” she said, and “safe communities, education and infrastructure” were the top concerns.

Despite not deciding to run until December, she overcame Democrats' 2-1 voter-registration advantage, her own inexperience and the powerful Philly Democrat machine to not only win but to win by 14 points.

Her victory was no stroke of luck: Republicans have turned the tables on the one thing at which Democrats were really great — dominating local politics.

Now Democrats struggle to retain control of the governmental entities closest to the people.

Part of that struggle is over too many Democrats believing people want government to be the rescuer, rather than the facilitator.

The other part is the irreparable damage that the national party has done to local parties. The race-baiting, class-warfare and over-the-top environmentalist rhetoric since Al Gore's presidential candidacy has continued with John Kerry and Barack Obama, and slowly helped Republicans to win over traditional middle-class Democrats.

Republicans have figured out that voters tend to embrace a bottom-up populist form of governing made up of local elected officials; they have individuals like White, whose great skill is understanding that her community doesn't want her to act superior in any way but does want her to be a partner in finding solutions.

It is a formula that is winning Republicans a lot of seats.

They now hold a supermajority of legislative majorities, controlling 69 of 99 state chambers — the most seats they've held in nearly a century.

The bigger challenge for Republicans isn't worrying if they'll continue their sweep of local politics — they have no plans to take their eyes off the place where benches and presidents are made; their challenge is to share that secret-sauce recipe with the party's presidential contenders.

Conservatives who have won down-ballot since this sharp trend started in 2010 have won largely on solutions, not promises. They have appealed to the sensibilities of people in their communities, on both sides of the aisle, on issues important to people's daily lives: job growth, safe communities, education, taxes, security.

It's not that hard to expand those values to a national platform — if you have the leadership skills and the backbone to stick to what you believe, if you can admit to a mistake, can talk with the press in full and complete sentences, and aren't afraid to take a chance (as Martina White did) and leave everything on the field to win.

Yes, you will get “gotcha” questions. Yes, you will have social-media failures. And, yes, you will have to face up to such setbacks, preferably without running to a focus group.

But so what? If you can't sweat the small stuff, how can you expect to have the timber to be president?

“You have to be able to take risks in life sometimes,” White said.

Without risk, there is no opportunity. And opportunity always involves some risk.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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