“The deck is really stacked against you when you’re not running as an incumbent,” Lauren Lareau said. Her opponent has a tenure as entrenched in suburban Pennsylvania as a Girl Scout’s cookie–selling route.
Lareau, a Penn graduate, is running as a Democrat for the PA House of Representatives in her home district, Bucks County. She’s running against fellow Penn graduate Frank Farry, who has held the seat since 2008. A Wharton degree–holding, Pennsylvania–bred, lawyer–slash–fire chief, Farry has a glib, orthodontic smile and a popular reputation in Langhorne, PA.
Bucks County defies the blue city/red Pennsyltucky dichotomy that boils down Pennsylvania politics—it supported President Obama’s first term, but not his second, and voted for the current president by an uneasily thin margin.
“People are pissed,” Lareau said of her neighborhood. "People are angry that Trump is doing what he's doing. He's definitely inspiring the blue wave with every tweet he sends out."
The seat she’s running for, in District 142, has been occupied by a Republican man almost every year since 1969, when the current election system began. From 1969 to 2006, the seat was held back–to–back by a father–son duo. After their 37 dynastic years (before the son paid a ten–thousand–dollar sum to settle a claim that he had violated the Pennsylvania Ethics Act) a new challenger—a Democrat—held the seat for one year in 2007, before he was replaced by Farry.
“When I started looking into his record, I thought, ‘he seems like a nice guy on the surface,’” Lareau said. “Initially, I thought he was a moderate Republican—and we could use moderate Republicans—but at the end of the day, he’s not a moderate Republican.”
Lareau, whose central issue is education reform and funding public schools—Pennsylvania ranks 47th in the country for state funding offered to public schools—opposes Farry’s support of charter schools and vouchers. Her political fervor was galvanized by the 2014 closing of her son’s small public school, Oliver Heckman Elementary, due to lack of funds to complete costly renovations. The decision to close the school left her district without an elementary school and was widely unpopular in the neighborhood. After the deciding vote, the Bucks Local News reported that the majority of Heckman supporters left the auditorium, “with one loudly shouting, ‘Evil!’”
Among the spurned parents, Lareau vowed to have more influence over her local education system.
“I’ve had the realest struggles any politician has had to deal with,” Lareau said. “The struggles I’ve faced as a single parent certainly help me relate to most other people in my district who are dealing with their own struggles.”
Lareau earned a master’s degree in education from Penn, where she studied human development. Her status as a single parent, private tutor, and student have taught her how to be resourceful.
“It informs my sense of the budget because I’m really good at squeezing things out of a really small budget,” she said. “My skills as a single parent make me quite adept at figuring that stuff out.”
No longer a baby, her almost–fifteen–year–old son canvasses with his mother and attends fundraisers with her. “He’s actually been helpful to my campaign,” she says. “We’re a good team in that way.”
Lareau is part of the wave of women running for office—at all levels—for the first time in 2018.
Men and women still take different paths to office. “Men show greater nascent political ambition,” political science and gender studies Professor Dawn Teele said, “and women’s decision to run is usually more relationally embedded and issue–oriented.”
And it’s not just women: “There’s a blue wave of candidates in general.”
Lareau is a part of this wave, even though it isn’t always popular in Bucks County.
“Where I’m from, you need to be a Republican to get things done,” Lareau said. “A lot of people are registered Republican just for the sake of doing business.”
Lareau said that the county office will respond to other Republicans more readily because “they’re corrupt bullies who only help their own.” She has met card–carrying Republicans who only vote Democrat for this reason.
Farry, her opponent, is a Republican, but it’s debatable if he’s gotten much done while serving as Bucks County’s representative. Since assuming office about ten years ago, Frank has passed just one bill. It was a proposed ban on plastic bag bans.
“A ban on plastic bag bins?”
“Plastic bag bans.”
When local municipalities were debating banning plastic bags to reduce waste and litter, Frank passed a bill that would block the townships from prohibiting plastic bags. The measure was vetoed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, scuttling Frank’s plastic utopia and keeping his number of enacted measures at zero.
While he wasn’t passing legislation, he managed to find time to offer legal representation to attest to the safety of building a garbage incinerator in a nearby neighborhood, while he was in office (yes, it’s legal).
Farry hasn’t faced a challenger in two terms, since 2014. Lareau is determined to change that.
“He’s somehow simultaneously intimidated by Lareau and doesn’t take her seriously,” Dan Brady, Lareau’s campaign manager, said.
She has personally knocked on 2,000 doors while canvassing. Her campaigners have volleyed postcard–writing, phone–banking, and text–banking campaigns to combat the political apathy that sustains the same election winners year after year. Lareau said she “would love to debate Frank, but there isn’t enough money in the starved ecosystem of local politics to stage one."
Recently, Lareau got an email from someone who wrote that in ten years, Frank Farry had never knocked on their door—until this election.
Farry himself was canvassing on foot, door–knocking.
“That must mean I’m doing something right,” Lareau said.