It’s remarkable in 2018 that a state with 12.8 million people and 20 members of Congress could have zero women representing it.
Welcome to Pennsylvania, the state with the largest all-male delegation in the country.
That depressing statistic may change after this year’s midterm elections. A couple of male congressmen have resigned in the Keystone State after being caught up in sexual misconduct scandals, and four more are retiring at the end of this year. As elsewhere around the nation, a slew of impressive women have stepped up to compete for those open seats, motivated by the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump’s presidency.
Democrats are especially excited about Chrissy Houlahan. In late January 2017, just after the first Women’s March, EMILY’s List sent a generic fundraising email to its 3 million members asking for a few dollars to help elect female Democratic candidates.
Most people just clicked the button in the email prompting them to donate. But Houlahan, a 49-year-old mother of two from Devon, Pennsylvania, hit “reply” and attached her resumé, hoping someone in D.C. might notice her and help her figure out how to run for Congress.
Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, inner-city teacher and successful businesswoman, had spent the days after Trump’s election comforting two distraught family members: her 25-year-old daughter, who identifies as queer, and her father, a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor who fled Poland as a child. Both were terrified of what the election meant for people like them.
“My dad, this Holocaust survivor and naval officer ― a pretty tough guy ― was crying, worrying that people like him who came to this country with nothing to offer would still have the opportunities he was allowed,” Houlahan told HuffPost. “That was the beginning of thinking I needed to do something.”
Houlahan’s email did catch the attention of a staffer at EMILY’s List, who passed it up the ranks of the Democratic women’s PAC. The powerful fundraising group immediately picked her as a viable challenger to the incumbent congressman from Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District, Rep. Ryan Costello (R).
“She’s got this incredible resumé,” said Julie McClain Downey, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List. “We were like, ‘Is this some sort of joke? Yes, of course we’ll help you run for Congress.’”
Houlahan is a political strategist’s dream candidate. She studied engineering at Stanford, aspiring to become an astronaut, before becoming a captain in the Air Force. She taught chemistry at an inner-city public high school in North Philadelphia through Teach for America, and served as chief operating officer of a successful basketball shoe company and Springboard Collaborative, a nonprofit that supports childhood literacy. Her policy priority is health care, “making sure people have what I believe is access to a human right.”
If Houlahan defeats Costello in the 2018 midterms, she’ll bring some much-needed diversity of perspective and experience to Pennsylvania’s delegation.
“It’s not just that it’s all men― it’s all men who are lawyers, for the most part,” Houlahan said. “We have people with one skill set representing us.” (Actually, seven of them are lawyers, but a majority are career politicians.)
Six Pennsylvania congressmen are not seeking re-election this year, which has created a real opportunity for women to penetrate the old boys club in a heavily gerrymandered state. (The outgoing lawmakers include Rep. Pat Meehan, a Republican, who is resigning after having sexually harassed one of his staffers, and Rep. Tim Murphy, an anti-abortion Republican who allegedly urged the woman with whom he was having an affair to terminate her pregnancy.)
“In the last year, it has become abundantly clear that it is no longer acceptable to have women shut out of leadership positions,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, who has endorsed two women so far in Pennsylvania.
EMILY’s List is already fundraising for Houlahan and Christina Hartman, an international nonprofit leader who is challenging incumbent Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R). The group is likely to endorse more women candidates in the coming months, which may include former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Nina Ahmad, who is running for Rep. Bob Brady’s (D) open seat, and Navy veteran Rachel Reddick, who is challenging Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R). Jess King, another Democrat running for Smucker’s seat, has been generating grassroots excitement with her progressive populist campaign.
These are only a handful of the women running. Laura Quick, a single mom and UPS package car driver from Lebanon County, is running for the seat being vacated by Rep. Charlie Dent (R). Most of these Republican-leaning districts, of course, will be difficult for a relatively unknown Democratic woman to flip. Houlahan, however, has a very strong shot of winning.
Pennsylvania’s 6th District, despite having obviously been drawn to give GOP candidates an advantage (Houlahan likens it to a spiked dragon), broke for Hillary Clinton in 2016. EMILY’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are funneling resources this year into districts that favored Clinton but are currently represented by Republicans, and Houlahan’s early fundraising numbers have been very strong thanks to the support of those groups. The resistance movement has also given Democrats like Houlahan new momentum this year, as evidenced by the massive, unprecedented wave of women running for office and getting involved in politics who have never done so before.
Republicans are nervous about Houlahan. National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Steve Stivers called her race against Costello a “bellwether” that could predict how the party fares nationally in the 2018 midterms.
“If [Democrats] win in Pennsylvania against Ryan Costello, they’ve got a shot to take the majority,” Stivers told Politico last summer.
Houlahan hopes not only to win, but to bring other women with her to represent Pennsylvania in Congress.
“I feel bullish,” she said. “It’s important that there’s not just a token woman or two representing Pennsylvania, but that we really get that critical mass to change the course of history.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly indicated Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Brady is a Republican. He is a Democrat.