Northwest Pennsylvania women train to run for office

Women can get professionals to help them run for elected office.

Did you ever think about running for elected office?

Kristy Gnibus, Lydia Laythe, Marci Mustello, Christal Lepak and Julie Slomski did more than think about it. They signed up for training in various programs, and they shared what they learned with the Erie Times-News.

The women named several entities that helped, but one most agreed on was Emerge Pennsylvania, part of a national program, started in 2002, that encourages and trains Democratic women to run for office.

Gnibus and Slomski, currently running for office, completed a weekend bootcamp in January while Laythe and Lepak attended weekend sessions for six months in 2019.

“It’s a true sisterhood,” said Slomski, 42. She is a former northwest regional director for Gov. Tom Wolf and is seeking the Democratic nomination in the upcoming primary for the state Senate’s 49th District seat, now held by Republican Dan Laughlin of Millcreek Township. She also previously served as chief of staff for state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, of Millcreek, D-3rd Dist.

“You hear advice from experts who overall help you polish your story. For me, it was the experience of learning from other women in statewide offices,” she said. She added that all women had the same struggle. “We have to focus on selling ourselves,” she said.

Fundraising, public speaking, marketing and other tools are among the skills Emerge Pennsylvania teaches.

And it doesn’t end there. The weekend cohorts, as they are called, continue to offer different webinars to help alumni figure out how to handle and change campaigns in the wake of how COVID-19 has forced candidates to alter strategies.

Slomski said the $385 training in Harrisburg included a “jam-packed weekend” that was empowering, and she shared ideas with her team when she returned home. “I would recommend anyone to do it. It included women who even told you why they failed and what they learned. I learned things I would never have known,” she said.

Slomski was also approached by E.M.I.L.Y.’s List to help with her campaign. “I talk to them every week,” she said.

The national organization was founded in 1985 by Ellen R. Malcolm, whose goal was to help “pro-choice Democratic women,” according to its website. The name is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.”

“E.M.I.L.Y.’s List is focused on flipping the general assembly this November, by electing strong women leaders like Julie Slomski, who will fight to bring real progress to the Keystone State,” said Ianthe Metzger, spokeswoman for the organization. “With a woman’s right to choose under attack and redistricting around the corner in 2021, it is crucial that we work to flip this seat from red to blue. E.M.I.L.Y.’s List will be providing critical political, communications, and fundraising support to Julie ahead of the primary and in the lead up to the general election in November to ensure that happens.”

Gnibus is a Democrat challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly in the 16th Congressional District. The McDowell Intermediate High School teacher shared some of her takeaways. “We learned how to be supportive. Men would be supporting each other – men typically do it all the time, but as women we don’t always do that. Part of the camaraderie shows us how powerful we are when we are supporting each other.”

Gnibus added that the group frequently holds Zoom conferences now that they cannot meet in person. “We get to talk about some of the struggles we face without face-to-face campaigning. We’re all going to be really good at social media,” she said.

For Laythe, 26, and Lepak, 48, the training was much more intensive – one weekend a month for six months in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg or Philadelphia.

Laythe was one of three people who ran for three seats on Washington Township Council, so she didn’t have to beat anyone to win the seat, but originally more candidates were on the ballot, and she wanted the education on how to run for office. She is the program coordinator for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants – Erie.

Participating in politics, she said, was a goal for her at a young age because she wanted to find a way to become more involved in her community that would result in larger scale change. She had become more involved in Erie County Democrats and had an interest in bringing youth and diversity to government in the Edinboro area. She first considered a school board position. “I attended the meetings, and they had a really good balance,” she said.

Washington Township Council skewed older with more men and one woman, Mary Jo Campbell.

During the training, Laythe was inspired. “It was amazing to learn about fundraising and how to ask for money. We, as women, really have to learn to be confident and assertive,” she said.

Lepak agreed and said she watched Laythe develop confidence.

“You could see her emerge – it was awesome – from this quiet and reserved person. This gave her that confidence,” Lepak said. “Those small races (Washington Township Council) are what helps the empowerment. I get goosebumps just talking about it.”

Lepak ran for Erie City Council in 2019 but lost in the primary. She is an instructor in general education at Fortis during the day and teaches leadership classes to children in the evening. It was her first time running for office. She admitted she went into the election “wanting to change the world” but knowing little about how to do it.

While she learned many skills during her Emerge Pennsylvania training, she was candid in why her campaign failed. “I was a one-woman show and couldn’t do it by myself,” she said.

She admitted that she had a team but they were strapped for time as she was, and she hesitated to bother them. As a mother of five kids with an elderly mother and two jobs plus a lot of volunteering on her plate, she took on too much. “I do do time management well,” she said with a laugh. “I’m glad I did it. And there is another spot on City Council coming up in 2021. We need more estrogen on the that stage.”

All four women agreed that some women in attendance at the Emerge conferences weren’t sold on running but were interested in helping others run and becoming campaign managers and support staff. “If I could do it, anyone could do it,” Laythe said.

Personal mentoring helps, too

Meeting for coffee and small gatherings of women thinking about running for office have been part of the empowerment process that persuades women to run on a local level, said Caitlin Handerhan, a board member for Emerge Pennsylvania and campaign manager for Slomski.

“A lot of women get started with a conversation in a living room,” she said. Handerhan was the campaign manager for Kathy Dahlkemper’s 2017 successful run for county executive in Erie County, and was encouraged to participate in Emerge by Dahlkemper.

What about Republicans?

In Butler County, Republican Mustello, a graduate of the Anne B. Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series, is serving her first term in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives after assuming office in May 2019.

Mustello, 49, is running again for the office and praised the program that taught her about public service 16 years ago. “I was actually in the second class in 2004,” she said. “The program ran from September to June and taught you how to run for office and get over your fears.”

The Anne Anstine program was founded by Anstine, a former member of the Republican National Committee. The series is an annual professional leadership program that includes monthly weekend trips to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Harrisburg for training.

Mustello, like many women who choose to participate in formal training, wasn’t ready to commit to running for office but was interested in serving as staff support.

Prior to running for office, Mustello worked for U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly and served as the president of the board of directors for the Butler County Humane Society. She also formerly worked for Phil English, an Erie Republican who served as U.S. representative for Pennsylvania’s 3rd District from 1995 to 2009.

She admits she had politics in her blood. “I got involved in 1991 when my older sister ran for Butler County recorder of deeds,” she said.

Mustello, Gnibus, Lepak, Laythe and Slomski are among the western Pennsylvania women who recommend professional programs that help women prepare for leadership roles in elected office.