Throughout my childhood, and into my adult years, I had always been interested in the history of my hometown and the surrounding region. I was raised by my grandmother, Irene. She taught me to care about my hometown; and, especially to care about people, and their progress. Now, at twenty-six years old, I am serving as the 20th Mayor of the City of Monessen, Pennsylvania, in the United States. I won both the Primary Election in May, and the General Election in November. I was installed as Mayor on January 2, 2018.
Monessen is a small city, south of Pittsburgh, with a history that fits the rest of the American Rust Belt region. The rust belt was known in the last century for its communities that produced steel, processed coke, and mined coal and other materials. As the twentieth century closed, factories closed too, and that reality faded into a memory.
Over the last thirty year, Monessen has not figured out what the solution should be. I like to say, Monessen ”doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up”. For a city that is only 119 years old, it continues to be a struggle, because industry was our only major employer. It was our identity.
The lack of a major employer has caused numerous issues for our small city. It has brought about a decrease in revenues, an exodus of population, a lack of opportunity for youth, growing infrastructure issues, and lack of development. It has put additional problems on our population, including apathy and hopelessness, which have been exacerbated by the growing opioid epidemic that is plaguing Southwestern Pennsylvania.
I don’t believe this is the end for Monessen — far from it. Never before, in recent history have we seen so many people and organizations, both inside and outside of Monessen, who are willing to volunteer and bring innovative ideas to our city. Monessen still has industry, and we have room for many other opportunities as well. As I sit here writing this, I continually glance out of the window of my new office at city hall. Through the blinds, I can see the smokestacks of ArcelorMittal, one of the only remaining remnants of Monessen’s industrial past. This plant is active, and produces coke, which is a product used in steel making. In learning from the past, I know that relying on one industry is not viable; especially, for a city in the twenty-first century, where a global economy rules.
We have other assets in Monessen. In addition to ArcelorMittal, we have a plant that is one of the largest aluminium recycling facilities in the region. Both of these bring much-needed jobs to our city. We also have a small post-secondary school, called Douglas Education Center (DEC). DEC houses some typical associates programs, like cosmetology, but also the more unique film program and special effects and horror make-up program, named after George Romero and Tom Savini, respectively. This school attracts students from across the US. We have parks, a library, a heritage museum, and a boat launch with access to the Monongahela River. Our struggle continues to be: getting people to our city; getting them to stay; and helping to remove the negative stigma that Monessen and other similar communities face.
I decided to run for Mayor because I believe in my city and its people. Running for this position is something I had considered doing since high school. Admittedly, I did not think it would be until later in my life; however, right now felt like the right time. I didn’t agree with the direction national or local politics were going, and I felt it was necessary for me to do something now, as opposed to later.
Throughout the campaign, which began in February 2017, with me collecting petition signatures, I was met with a lot of excitement, but some resentment as well. At first, as I was campaigning for the May election, against the incumbent, people took me less seriously. My team focused on connecting to as many people as possible and letting them know I was serious about the endeavour, and the incumbent did the same. It was not until after I won the May election, by about 70 votes, that people took me more seriously. In a city where there are many more democrats than republicans: this meant that I would be the lone name on the ballot, because the incumbent had lost, and at that point, no one else was planning on running.
A few days after my victory in May, the one-term incumbent, who was 80 years old, announced that he would ask people to write his name in at the polls, in the November election, despite losing. If he could get more people to do that than the people who would vote for me the traditional way, then he would win and retain his seat, despite his loss in May.
After this, my team took the situation more seriously and I was able to get help from various regional and state political groups. So many grassroots people helped knock on doors, make phone calls and pay for advertising. We tried to get my name and my campaign platform into every household in Monessen. This carried on all summer. My opponent’s team began to take more drastic measures. They preyed on people, using fearmongering to get them to believe that the incumbent was the better candidate. They put out negative posters of me and tried to spread lies, and get reactions out of me on social media. They even tried dragging my friends and family into it. Most of these people were older adults, who continually said that I was ”just a kid”, when ironically, they were acting like kids themselves.
This carried on, but I chose to stay positive and focused on the issues at hand; continuing to meet and connect with people both in Monessen and in the region. I was fortunate to have won the November election by about 400 votes, and Monessen experienced a 40 per cent voter turnout (the average is about 22 per cent). This was something that was unusual for an election that did not include national or state candidates (such as president or governor).
This leads me to my final points. First off, it is crucial for people to get out and vote, no matter their age, party affiliation, or otherwise. It is even more important for young people to vote, and for us to do our part to education young people about the political process before they are of voting age. This is beneficial because they will know what to expect, and they will care a bit more, because they will understand the process.
I also feel that it is important to encourage caring and professional people, especially young people, to run for office. If candidates truly care about issues, and are genuinely involved in the community, and are relatable to the community, that is half of the battle in encouraging people to go out and vote. Voters need to find hope and inspiration in candidates and in elected officials. If nothing else, that is something that I hope to bring to my city, and to anyone else who will lend an ear to listen.