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PA Rep. Lindsay Powell becomes the first woman of color to represent her district

The newly elected state lawmaker plans to focus on affordable housing and reproductive rights after winning her special election.

By Anna Gustafson - October 11, 2023
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Pennsylvania state Rep. Lindsay Powell.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Lindsay Powell. (Office of Rep. Lindsay Powell)

Placing her hand on a Bible held by her mother, Pennsylvania state Rep. Lindsay Powell broke down barriers at her swearing-in ceremony in Harrisburg last week.

Powell, a 32-year-old Democrat who is Black and Latina, became the first woman of color to represent the Pittsburgh-based 21st House District after winning a special election in September.

“I’m a Black woman who won in a majority-white district, and I don’t know any other legislators who have this dynamic,” Powell told the American Independent Foundation in a wide-ranging interview on Friday. “I think it says a lot of things about where we’re going as a party and as a country and making sure that you’re picking leaders who deeply have their heart in their work, no matter how they show up at your door.”

“I know that I come from a short, but proud, line of Black women who have been progressive leaders” in Western Pennsylvania, Powell continued, citing U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, who was elected Pennsylvania’s first Black member of Congress this year after serving as the first Black woman to represent southwest Pennsylvania in the state Legislature.

Powell also highlighted La’Tasha Mayes, who is Black and is the first out lesbian elected to the Pennsylvania House, winning her race last year to represent southwestern Pennsylvania’s 24th House District.

“I hope that folks watching this race who are contemplating either a run for themselves, who are contemplating getting more engaged with their community — starting that not-for-profit, starting that food drive, starting what have you — I hope that they can see this as an assurance that if you do right by the community, the community will do right by you,” Powell said of her special election victory.

Powell defeated Republican Erin Connolly Autenreith in the election, which was held after former state Rep. Sara Innamorato, a Democrat, stepped down in July to run for Allegheny County executive. Powell, who most recently was the director of workforce strategies for Innovate PGH, an economic development nonprofit in Pittsburgh, won with 65.38% of the vote. The election ensured that Democrats would retain their 102-101 majority in the Pennsylvania House.

Republicans hold a 28-22 majority in the Pennsylvania Senate, and the state’s governor, Josh Shapiro, is a Democrat.

“The House Democratic Caucus was excited to welcome Representative Lindsay Powell to the state House this week, who made history as the first woman of color to represent her district,” Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton said Friday in a statement prepared for the American Independent Foundation. “Representative Powell will not only be a strong advocate for the working-class families, students, and seniors she serves, but will also help our Democratic majority advance our legislative agenda, while being a check on the bad policies passed by the Republican-led state Senate.”

The election was the sixth state House special election in Pennsylvania since January, and Powell’s victory was “huge for Pennsylvania,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee spokesperson Abhi Rahman said. The DLCC works to elect Democrats to state legislatures across the country.

“It protects a one-person majority in the Pennsylvania House,” Rahman told the American Independent Foundation. “Having the majority in one of Pennsylvania’s two chambers is absolutely huge. … Her performance was even better than what [President Joe] Biden and [U.S. Sen. John] Fetterman did in that district. It’s huge for Democrats.”

Powell winning and Democrats maintaining the majority in the House will prevent Republican legislators from rolling back “fundamental freedoms when it comes to abortion” in “the biggest swing state in the country,” Rahman added.

Abortion remains legal in Pennsylvania following the June 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, but the health care procedure is banned after 23 weeks into a pregnancy. Powell said, “Something that I’m dogged about is making sure that we’re not just protecting that right [to abortion care] for Pennsylvanians, but for anybody else who wants to come to our state and receive the care that they need.”

Sworn in on Oct. 2 and now in her second week in the Legislature, Powell said her top priorities for this legislative session include securing support and funding for affordable housing in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, as well as to create what she calls “opportunity-rich” neighborhoods, or communities with access to housing, public transportation, affordable grocery stores, schools and more.

Backing these initiatives, Powell said, is crucial in a city that has lost about half its population since 1950 and where low-income and Black residents are leaving the area due to the drastically increasing cost of living.

“Gentrification is happening. … When it comes to low-income people moving out of Pittsburgh, and particularly when it comes to Black people moving out of Pittsburgh, I think there are two things happening: one, soaring rates of housing,” Powell said.“It’s getting harder and harder, no matter who you are, to find housing that’s appropriate. A lot of folks here are underhoused, where there are two bedrooms and they’ve got seven people living in them.”

“The second piece of it is, people are moving where the opportunities are,” Powell said. “It’s being able to walk to the grocery store, it’s to send your kid to a school where you feel safe, where you feel your kid is safe and that you can be proud of. It’s making sure that you can get to work because there’s a bus line there or you can bike to work.”

While there are neighborhoods she represents that have this, Powell said, “They’re inaccessible because it’s so difficult to find housing here.”

“Right now, Pittsburgh and the surrounding municipalities are truly dealing with a housing crisis from not having enough housing stock to meet our needs,” the lawmaker continued. “The prices are increasing tremendously. Market-rate housing is as high as it’s ever been. Lots that you could get in the neighborhood maybe 10 years ago for a few thousand dollars are going for $80,000, $90,000, $100,000. It’s been wild.”

Powell also noted that housing prices and accessibility have been affected by “a lot of private developers taking land that would be frankly best suited for workforce and affordable housing.” 

Powell said that the city of Pittsburgh owns 16,000–18,000 vacant parcels” that emerged as the area’s steel industry collapsed and residents left . The new legislator said she hopes to secure state funding for organizations that turn blighted properties into space that’s beneficial to the community. For example, the Pittsburgh Land Bank currently has pending the sale of a vacant lot slated to become a community green space and farm.

“Our land bank here in Pittsburgh is barely holding on. The county land bank here does a great job, but they’re severely underfunded to do the work that they need to do,” said Powell, who added she hopes to include financial support for first-time and diverse business owners as part of the city’s revitalization work.

A focus on affordable housing and economic development — two top issues cited by voters — comes after Powell spent years heavily involved in public policy in Pittsburgh. After receiving her master’s degree in public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Powell went on to work for the city of Pittsburgh as the assistant chief of staff in the Office of Equity of Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto.

Powell, a New York City native who has also worked as an aide to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, both Democrats from New York, said access to affordable housing has long been one of her greatest passions.

“If we’re talking about ways to diminish the income gap and disparities between neighbors, owning your home, having an asset that you can leverage, is one of the easiest ways to start to gain wealth and gain generational wealth in America,” Powell said. “These are the conversations we should be having and screaming from the rooftops. It shouldn’t be a far-fetched dream for someone to buy a house in Pittsburgh. … It should be an easily accessible dream.”

“We know that for our residents who are making minimum wage, which still in Pennsylvania is unfortunately $7.25, or who have union jobs, that are making decent wages — and we’re talking $20, $25 an hour — these folks still can’t make our neighborhoods home and so clearly have an issue with affordability with just being low and rent being, quote, ‘too damn high,’” Powell said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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