The Phoenix in Conversation with Pennsylvania State Representative Jennifer O’Mara

Swarthmore College’s representative in the Pennsylvania State Legislature, Jennifer O’Mara, came to campus on Friday, May 3, for an interview with The Phoenix. Below is an edited transcript:

Daniel Perrin: First of all, thank you so much for being here. To start, how did you begin in politics and what was the path that you took to get to where you are now in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives?

Jennifer O’Mara: I first ran for office in 2018. And, it was a different district back then because of redistricting. I was running against an incumbent in a district that I was unlikely to win. At the time, I was 27, and had no real political experience besides voting and being vocal on social media. I like to think I was an educated voter, but I wasn’t an active political person. But I felt very frustrated by the 2016 election, and I felt like neither side was running a campaign about why you should vote for them. It was more about why the other side was bad. 

I’m from Delaware County and I lost a parent when I was young. We were a working class family, and we relied on public services, public education, student loans, and all those things to get to where I got. I felt like we needed people in politics who understood that and who were trying to bring a different perspective into these policymaking rooms. But, I also didn’t think I was going to win. And so I was going to run a campaign with new people — I mentioned earlier, my campaign manager was graduating from Swarthmore — and we were going to try to do things differently because they hadn’t been winning in our district. So why not try something new, where we reached out to voters, we knocked on doors, we told them our story, and we asked for their vote? I ended up winning by 500 votes, a little over one and a half percent. So it was by no means a mandate… enough to get to Harrisburg, but also enough to tell me that my district was pretty split, and it was my job to try and win everyone over. Whether I could or not, that’s what I was going to try to do.

DP: What was your experience like before entering politics? 

JO: Before I ran for office, I was in graduate school and working at the University of Pennsylvania. I went to West Chester University, after graduating from Interboro [High School] here in DelCo. At West Chester, I studied history and education. I graduated as a certified social studies teacher for grades seven through twelve in 2011. It’s hard to believe this now, but at the time, there were no teaching jobs. So I had to figure it out. My mom had another kid, so there was also no room. So I went to work at Penn. I was working in development, which just happened to be the job I could get. I was overqualified and underpaid. I took advantage of their program to go to graduate school and was working at a pizza shop and running a small cleaning business. When I ran for office, I decided to stop the cleaning business and the pizza shop job. I had just graduated from graduate school, but I still worked at Penn the entire time. I quit my job the day after the election.

DP: It’s been a pretty tumultuous era of both national and state politics in the five years you’ve been in the PA House. How have you seen your personal priorities shift in that time, and how have you shifted your approach to work?

JO: That’s a great question, because I got sworn in January 2019. It’s now 2024. We’ve been through one, and now another presidential election, a global pandemic in my first term that we obviously did not see coming, and a lot of other tumultuous national issues. In terms of my personal issues, my perspective has shifted in that I’ve realized that, in a lot of ways, government has to be very responsive. You may think you’re going to go to Harrisburg and work on this issue. Well, all of a sudden your state is shut down, the economy is halted, and people are dying. Now you have to become a public health expert, and completely learn a new subject that you’re voting on the next day. So I’ve realized I need to be really flexible and nimble and always willing to learn. I’ve definitely woken up to the fact that I don’t know everything, and I have to rely on my staff. 

I went into it with very rose-colored glasses thinking that I was going to come into Harrisburg and change the world. I do think, in many ways, just existing in Harrisburg as a 28-year-old woman did shift things there. But at the same time, I’ve been humbled in many rooms because I realized I still have much to learn and that’s still true today. My priorities are going to shift based on the needs of my community and the needs of the state. But then, the same thing I did when I ran is what I still do, which is allowing my personal life to influence the things I pursue. For example, I talk a lot about mental health issues because I lost my dad to gun suicide. I talk a lot about gun violence because it impacted my family. I talk a lot about public schools. And now I’m a new mom and I had a kid through IVF. Suddenly, I’m talking a lot about that and that’s relevant. The way someone framed it to me this week is: “I’ve had experiences that have sucked and I want to make them suck less for other people.” And a lot of times, I stumble upon problems in my own personal life that I have the unique privilege to try to address at the state level. But, I’ve also come to realize that I can’t fix everything and there’s different levels of government and we all have different purviews and that can be challenging sometimes, but I’m lucky that the state does allow me to touch a lot of different policies.

DP: What issues would you say take up most of your time these days? What are you working on most?

JO: Personally, I have been trying to advance a few pieces of my own legislation. Next week, I happen to have three running in the same week. It’s exciting. The first one is House Bill 98, which is the Equal Pay Act in Pennsylvania, and will mandate equal pay among genders in our state. It’s hard to believe we’re not there in 2024, but we’re not. House Bill 1615 is a bill that would put energy efficiency standards on commercial appliances. So you see that ENERGY STAR sticker on that fridge right there. We would do that on commercial appliances. There’s a whole list of appliances that this will apply to like dishwashers, fridges, and things like that. And House Bill 1632 is a bill to amend the worker’s compensation system to cover post-traumatic stress injury for police, fire, and EMS. Because I learned that my dad was not unique and that if you’re a first responder, you’re more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, and about 30% of the workforce is impacted by mental health issues. And, they don’t have this benefit because of, in my opinion, a bad court decision in the early 1990s. So we’re trying to correct that and that bill has been the most time consuming. Both those 1600 ones have been big, because we’re trying to bring together coalitions of people that are opposed to the bill, and make changes to move them to neutrality or even support them, but coalition work in Harrisburg can be challenging and it’s certainly time consuming.

DP: What do you see as the chances for those bills, and what approach do you take to getting things done in a big legislative buddy?

JO: The 1615 bill for appliances passed with bipartisan support. I have a bipartisan sponsor. I really think it’ll get out of the House with at least some bipartisan support. It won’t be none, But it’ll go to the Senate and I am afraid that may follow a trajectory of some of the other bills that have developed a pattern, which is that I pass them out of the House and then they go to the graveyard of the Senate, like my ERPO (Extreme Risk Protection Order) bill, for example, that passed last March, and still hasn’t moved. I’ve sent a number of bills to the Senate that are sitting there. 

If we can get the Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) bill out of the House, on the other hand, I feel like there’s a really strong chance that the Senate will take it up. They’ll probably change it further with their own amendments, but it’s kind of an example of how I approach topics. I try to find bipartisan support, and if possible, bicameral support, and so for my PTSI legislation, I introduced it in the House and a Republican member introduced it in the Senate. And that way, we have both chambers working on it. Two different caucuses engaged on different sides of the aisle, and there are stakeholders that will speak to the senator in a way that they won’t to me and vice versa. So we have been trying really hard to bring everyone together. We even had a meeting for the PTSI bill where, on one side of the table in a large conference room sat all the stakeholders for it, and on the other side, all stakeholders against it, with staff and attorneys in the room and members like me to try and have the hard conversations. It’s not always easy, and it’s also not always possible. But if we’re going to pass meaningful legislation that has a chance to pass both chambers, it’s necessary that we find compromise.

DP: Building on your work in the house, you’re assigned to the transportation committee, and have put work into bills on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). Tell me a little more about these bills and your work on transportation policy.

JO: So I’ve been on the Transportation Committee since I first got to Harrisburg, and prior to getting to Harrisburg, I rode SEPTA for eight years getting to and from the city. Where I moved in DelCo was somewhere I could walk to a regional rail station from. I grew up riding the L to visit family and the bus to get to the Convention Center, like I’m used to the system moving us. Since I’ve been in Harrisburg, I’ve been very concerned about the funding mechanism that we have been using for SEPTA. We were basically requiring the Turnpike Commission to make quarterly payments of millions of dollars to our public transit fund. And it was a 2012 to 2022 program and when it sunsetted, which it had no chance of not, there was no plan for how we were going to fill the gap. The pandemic came along, and in some ways provided us with a brief reprieve with federal funding, because of the Cares Act and the IRA, and some of the bills that were passed before and since President Biden has been in office sent relief money to systems like SEPTA. But, that money is gone now. And now we’re at the time where we must do something about it. 

So I serve in Harrisburg as the Chair of the Southeastern delegation. So in the Democratic Caucus, I represent members for the four collar counties, and SEPTA is the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. I feel like we have a responsibility from the suburbs to step up and support the city of Philadelphia in pushing for more funding from the state. So we have been working in conjunction with the Philadelphia delegation, the board at SEPTA, the Governor’s Office, the City of Philadelphia, everyone’s engaged together trying to convince, frankly, the Senate Republicans that we have to fund public transit. The way we’re trying to do it is by increasing the allotment from the sales tax revenue that we collect, basically giving a larger chunk of the pie to all public transit authorities. So SEPTA will get more, but so will every other authority across the Commonwealth. We’re not going to increase taxes, we’re just changing how we divide it up. And we’ve passed it out of the house now twice. So we’re waiting for the Senate, but we’re trying really hard to paint the picture to our Senate colleagues that this investment isn’t just going to help Philadelphia. Because unfortunately, there is that false narrative that’s been created of, “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” which is often used against us on why we should not send more resources to our biggest city.

So yes, we’re trying to really build this narrative and back it up with data that shows our region, which is only 5% of the geographic land of the state, produces 42% of the economic output with 30% of the population. And SEPTA has contracts in more counties than I can count, and enormous ones. Millions of dollars of investment go to counties all across the Commonwealth from SEPTA. So we’re trying to paint the economic picture because I’ve learned that’s a lot of the way we move the needle in some rooms.

DP: You’re a strong supporter of public schools, as is Governor Shapiro. But with that being said, Shapiro has drawn some controversy for his support of more conservative school choice policies. I’m wondering what you think Pennsylvania Democrats can do to find common ground on this and improve public education with some of these divisions that are at play in the state party?

JO: I’ve had personal conversations with the Governor that this is a policy issue that we both agree and disagree on. We agree in that we both recognize, and I do think the Governor means it when he says, “We must make the largest investment in public education that we’ve ever made, because it’s only a down payment on the inequity that has been created.” So that’s where we agree. I have been a hard no on the voucher program that has been put on the table since I’ve been in Harrisburg, and I was last year during the budget. And I will continue to be, because I feel like the creation of that kind of program is going to be what destroys the public education system. Because it may start small, but it will grow. I have been someone who has supported — because it’s been a part of our education code — EITC and OSPC programs which are programs that currently take public dollars and put them into private schools. But there’s various reasons that we do that and we hear from our constituents that they utilize those dollars at private schools in Delaware County, and they still pay their property taxes so they feel like they have that right. So I think we have a fair compromise on the table, which is that if you continue to fund the EITC and OSTC funding and make this large investment on public education, there’s no reason to create, in my opinion, a new voucher system. Pennsylvania Democrats just have to stand united and continue to. We did last year when it came up in the budget. I think everyone thought the House Democrats would fold and not stand united and they would come to us and say, “Look, the Governor made a deal and you guys had to pass it,” but that wasn’t the case. I worked with other members to create a list of members that said hard no to vouchers, and it was more than half of our caucus. And I think our leadership took us very seriously and we did not bend and we have to continue to do that. But now, you can tell that there’s definitely a fear in the air because stakeholders are engaging us, and collecting sign-on letters of commitments not to support vouchers, and having protests in City Hall, and across the state. I think if public education is your issue, pay attention to this budget cycle.

DP: Shifting the focus to things that are especially relevant here at Swarthmore in this moment. At the state level, you have little power over American foreign policy. But, across the country, college campus encampments and protests have been interfered with and tensions have been escalated by police arrests, violence, etc. What do you think about this response? As the state representative for Swarthmore College, what do you hope to see happen as students and administrators continue to respond to the violence in the Middle East?

JO: Anytime we look back in history, and we see college students protesting and police responding, it’s never good. I feel strongly that students have a right to exercise their First Amendment rights, and if they’re protesting peacefully, then there’s no reason to interfere using police violence. It’s been really hard watching it because I have been that protesting college student in 2008 and before, so I have been there. It is also hard because Swathmore is a private college. So I have even less say on what happens on campus than if it was a public college. I have been watching and at least here, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but the police told me there hasn’t really been much involvement between the police and the students protesting. (Editor’s Note: this reflects the situation as of May 3, when this interview was conducted.) I’m very glad to see that because I feel like it’s hard to justify using police violence against students that are basically children. I mean, I don’t mean to call you children, but you’re under the age of 21 in many cases, and we decide you’re not allowed to smoke cigarettes. So why are we using police violence? It’s even worse to see grown adults coming onto campus and engaging in violence with college students, which I’ve seen happening. And I hope the media reports that for what that is, which is grown adults coming onto campus to fight with college students. So I hope that Swarthmore continues to be an example of how we can do this the right way, or at least allow students to do this the right way.

DP: Keeping on the topic of police, but with a different angle. At times, it seems like you may have broken with some other Democrats and been in support of some policies that are considered tougher on crime. What is your approach to these policies? Why have you backed them in the past and what is your larger approach to criminal justice, especially in a time of falling violent crime rates across the country?

JO: Before my district shifted, I was in a position where my personal values didn’t always line up with what I believed to be the majority of my district’s. And it wasn’t just criminal justice votes, because there were a few of those that were harder than others, but also around COVID-19, there were times I broke against the Democrats to vote against some COVID-19 stuff. I try really hard to listen to my constituents. When they reach out to us, we keep track of who we hear from, what their position is — not their politics — but where they live. This is what they’ve said. And there have been a number of issues where I felt pretty strongly that that was what my district vote would be. It’s changed though, since my district has changed. This is based on knocking on doors, but I also do polling surveys, not just on me and how I perform, but also on the policies that people care about. And I have a lot of events to hear from people. But now my district has changed and so my voting has changed. I now represent a district that more aligns with my values, which has been a great experience. A few of them that the ACLU and I didn’t agree on, had to do with suicide, and how you charge someone if they are believed to have aided and abetted a minor in suicide. That was one that really sticks out in my mind, because the ACLU and I were not on the same page. And that’s always a hard position to be in, as someone who has what I believe to be democratic values. But I lost someone to suicide, and so I was more sensitive to that. I really try to vote the way I believe my district wants me to vote. There are a few things like women’s choice, being pro-choice; I campaigned on that issue. I got elected on that issue. Being strong on trying to reduce gun violence, that’s another one. But in my communities, you also hear from people about wanting to reduce crime, and it’s something that people talk a lot about. 

But now that we control the agenda, it’s also nice because we are trying to push more of a pro-criminal justice reform agenda and that has been a change that we sorely needed in Harrisburg. I also don’t serve on the Judiciary Committee. I wish I did, but I don’t, and so I could probably talk to you more about what our agenda is in terms of the House Democrats, right, but I don’t serve on that committee, and that committee is very busy and very active. But we have most recently been focused on violence prevention bills like my ERPO Bill, more commonly known as Red Flag Laws for example. The Democrats were mad at me on this one. We were trying to pass it through the House with bipartisan support. And it was really important that we did that because we were going to lose at least one Democrat. So we needed a couple of Republicans or the bill would fail. The way we got Republicans to agree was we amended the bill to make it a felony if someone uses a Red Flag against someone maliciously, or is found to be doing it to mess with a job or like, going through a breakup, and it’s used against them. This is the fear. So that was the compromise that we made. We worked with [Philadelphia progressive District Attorney] Larry Krasner’s office to get them on board, and stay neutral on the bill, which let the progressives to still vote for it. And it allowed us to gain at least three Republican votes. So, we ended up losing a Democrat but still passing it. So some of my colleagues were upset with me, but when you explained to them that we had to try to build consensus, and move something that we thought would meaningfully pass, that was our compromise. So it’s hard sometimes!

DP: You’re also assigned to the Labor and Industry Committee. Tell me about your work on this committee and the approach that you’ve had there.

JO: I got on that committee in 2021. And the reason they put me on it, at the time, was because my office had handled, nearly the most, if not the most, unemployment cases during the pandemic. That happened because I had good relationships with a lot of the local unions, so they’re coming to my office, both in-state residents and out-of-state residents who worked in Pennsylvania, but didn’t have a State Rep. in their state to call to help them with Pennsylvania unemployment. We had thousands of cases. So I got put on that committee to explore the unemployment system, which we’ve had hearings, and we’ve tried to get them additional funding, but it’s still a much larger problem that we’re working to address. I also have worked on legislation on that committee, like the equal pay bill went through that. I’m working on paid leave and paid sick leave through two different pieces of legislation. I’ve co-sponsored one and am the prime sponsor on the other. Before this session, we were just on the defense on that committee, constantly going to vote against bills that would put workers at risk, it was the most political committee during the pandemic.

Now, though, it’s become a place of really pushing more of a pro-worker agenda. So it’s one of my favorite committees, and because they made me subcommittee chair on the unemployment compensation committee, I just started the conversation of putting together a workgroup of union stakeholders but also economic stakeholders — The Chamber [of Commerce] is interested in being part of the part of the conversation — and then some staff from labor industry to kind of figure out how we’re going to deal with unemployment. It’s not like we’re in an immediate crisis with unemployment. Where we are at is that if another type of crisis hits, where workers are suddenly forced into the unemployment system, it would be like COVID-19 all over again, so we’re trying to prevent that from happening. I look at that committee as a real opportunity to try and help working people in our state.

DP: As a follow up to that, a lot of people at Swarthmore, and in young, progressive circles around the country are very passionate about labor organizing and unions, especially in a time when unions are kind of seeing a resurgence in some places. What is your approach to these movements and these updates and developments and how do you want that to play out in Harrisburg?

JO: I’m super excited about it because I was in Harrisburg when the Janus decision happened, and there was a lot of fear that unions would die out, but the opposite impact has happened. My dad was a union firefighter. We relied on his union when he passed away. My mom became a union school bus driver. So I had lived experience of why being in a union was better for a worker that wanted that option. When I got to Harrisburg, I started the student debt caucus. It led to a lot of conversations in Harrisburg around student debt, but also a real push to help high school students. We’re here at Swarthmore, where kids obviously made a choice to come to college. I went to college. But there is definitely a movement to push people to have options that don’t saddle you with an enormous amount of student debt. And I think unions really present that option. My cousin is in local 420 right now, and my brother is in high school, and we’re trying to show him these apprenticeships. We have an apprentice fair every year where we bring unions all together and invite high school students and their families, and even eighth graders. So I’m excited about it. Pennsylvania still is a union state, so our labor movement is strong and when our unions oppose a bill, they can usually kill that bill, as they should. I mean, PSCA was really crucial and fighting doctors. SEIU has been crucial in pushing for a living wage increase. 

So I’ve been a proud ally to unions, and I’m going to continue to be. I really am excited to see that — like there’s a Starbucks in Media that’s working to organize. It’s just exciting to see it growing. And frankly, here in DelCo, we’ve been working really closely with the nurses union around what’s happening in the healthcare system. It’s beneficial for everyone. Unions aren’t just looking out for themselves. They’re trying to improve their entire community. So I’m excited that young people are following up.

DP: We’re in the midst of what’s shaping up to be another tight election year. What are your thoughts on how Democrats need to campaign in order to take back the Pennsylvania Senate, keep the majority in the House and keep the state for Biden?

JO: I think Democrats need to be out there, touting the things that we have accomplished, especially here in Pennsylvania. We have a long list of priorities that we’ve sent to the Pennsylvania Senate that we can show: if we had a Democratic Senate, these things X, Y, & Z, would have happened. We also have done some really good things in the past few years. Property tax and rebate is something that was big. The child care tax credit was a huge win. So there are big things that we can go to our voters and show them. 

I think, though, at the Biden level, they need to focus on voter turnout amongst Democrats, make sure we’re motivated, and we’ve heard from them. Don’t take anyone for granted, we still need to run field programs. And we need to reach out to moderate Republicans. They exist in our state. I know they do because they voted for Nikki Haley, even though she was no longer technically in the race in April. And so I’ve been encouraging the Biden campaign to reach out to those Haley voters and win them over, but really the field is just going to be the key and making sure everyone knows what’s at stake.

DP: So building on that, there have been tensions within the Democratic Party for a while now, between the young progressive movement and some of the old guard. This is all around the country, at local, state, and national levels. What are your thoughts on this tension? How can the Democrats continue being a big tent party? What do you hope to see as the party finds its new way in this decade?

JO: I think it’s definitely a real tension and not even just age-wise, it’s sort of like the newly-activated, and the people who view themselves as activists versus the people that are in politics. When I came to Harrisburg, I was definitely an activist. So for me, I felt like I was constantly building a bridge between the two. I think we have to collectively paint the picture of what Democrats stand for, not what we’re all against. Especially right now, right? We stand for public schools. We stand for democracy. We stand for women being able to go to the doctor and have whatever they need to happen happen to them. The primary elections are a place for us to hash out our political differences within the party. The general election is a place for us to come together to, unfortunately, have to support democracy and to fight against what I think is the biggest threat to America. If Donald Trump wins, I’m truly terrified for so many reasons. So I really think we have to just accept that there’s going to be times when Democrats disagree with each other and that’s okay. We can hold each other accountable. We can push for change, but we can also come together to stand up for our democracy. We did it in 2020. And I think we have to do it again now.

DP: Many Americans have become dismayed or turned off by the political process and some of the polarization and infighting that happens in both national and state level politics. This has caused extreme polarization and in many cases, conspiracy culture that is very dangerous. What do you see as your and other Democrats’ role in addressing this? What changes need to be made by politicians both in how they campaign and how they govern, and how they talk in the face of these cultural political challenges?

JO: We have to first be able to talk to each other. And I don’t just mean progressives and moderates. Democrats and Republicans need to be willing to sit down in conversations and spaces that aren’t in Harrisburg, and have conversations. Like we’re allowed to debate. As Democrats, though, I do think it’s important for us to continue to educate voters, to continue to build consensus, and to try and lead by example of what a functioning party in charge can do, versus what a dysfunctional party does. Like in D.C. how many times have they tried to get rid of the Speaker of the House? Meanwhile, we have one Speaker here by one vote in Harrisburg, and we still have managed to pass a pretty well-rounded agenda with mostly bipartisan support. Democrats need to own our messaging, we need to not become the Republicans just because we want to win, and continue the infighting, continue disparaging the media, disparaging each other, using this negative language. I believe in positive campaigning. I really tried my very hardest to only run positive campaigns. But our campaigns shouldn’t be inward either. When Democrats are campaigning, campaign for everyone! Statewide Democrats should keep going to counties, and show people that you’ll show up where they are and meet people where they are even if they aren’t expecting you there.

DP: What advice do you have for Swarthmore students wanting to get involved in politics either while they’re still in college, or throughout their careers after college?

JO: I would definitely tell students that if you are frustrated by the system, that’s more of a reason for you to get involved. I didn’t run for office because I thought that Pennsylvania was doing great. I ran for office because I thought Pennsylvania needed to change, and I still do, or I would just walk away. So if making our country better, because it has a lot of room to grow, is something that you care about, then getting involved in politics is the way to do that. Yes, there’s room for professors, and there’s room for activists, and those are important stakeholders that move the needle. But if you really want to see change, electoral politics is the place to do that, and government and policymaking is the place to go. You don’t need to be the elected official or the candidate. There is a job in government for county planners, for graphic designers, for data analysts, for policy writers, for researchers, for writers, there’s a job for everyone, and our country will only get better if people who care about it work to change it.

DP: Any last thoughts for the Swarthmore community?

JO: Congratulations to all the seniors and make sure you get out and vote this November. Thank you.

1 Comment

  1. I’d like to commend Daniel Perrin for his insightful interviews with Jennifer O’Mara and Naomi Klein. Both had depth and substance. They provided informative contrasts. O’Mara explained the nuts and bolts of seeking change in the real world. Klein served up ample portions of her favorite abstractions about colonialism and intersectionality and so on. Keep ’em coming.

    Dan Crofts
    Spouse of Betsy Maxfield Crofts ’63
    Southampton, Pennsylvania

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