| Erie Times-News
When Kristy Gnibus decided to run for public office, she made a list of the challenges in her life that government has helped or hindered.
“I wrote down all of the things in my life that have been affected by government. And once I got done with that list, I realized that the majority are federal issues,” Gnibus said.
“I survived cancer on Medicaid. I had the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program for my children while I finished college. I had food stamps before I got my teaching degree,” she said. “All of these programs, I have experience with. It was very clear to me at that point that (I want) to serve at the federal level.”
Gnibus is the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District. She will face Republican incumbent Mike Kelly, of Butler County, in the Nov. 3 general election.
A single mother of two teenage daughters, Gnibus, 36, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2004 while she was a student at Mercyhurst University and pregnant with her first child.
“I was only 20 years old, navigating health care, going to school and trying to prepare for parenthood,” Gnibus said.
Gnibus teaches at McDowell Intermediate High School and has worked part-time as a bartender and sometimes drives for Uber to make ends meet. She’s currently on sabbatical leave from teaching while she finishes a doctoral degree in organizational leadership and learning at Gannon University.
Gnibus said that those health and pocketbook experiences are part of her resume for public office, and that she decided to run after a meeting with Emerge Pennsylvania, a statewide organization that seeks to encourage, train and elect Democratic women.
“That meeting inspired me and made me realize that my experiences are my expertise and that I’m 100% qualified to do this,” Gnibus said.
The bedrock of her platform is ensuring access to quality, affordable health care.
“It’s the biggest concern I heard even before the pandemic,” Gnibus said. “And now there’s this illness to worry about, when so many people have lost their jobs and insurance related to employment.”
Gnibus also advocates for affordable and accessible education and workforce development programs, for collaboration and civility in government and for bringing new voices to Congress. Though a record number of women serve as federal legislators in 2020, the number is still less than 25% of the total.
“When you look at what women have done and still do in society, we’re the caretakers. We make sure things come together. We have a lot of the responsibility for our children and for making sure food is on the table,” Gnibus said. “I think when we’re not bringing women to the table, we’re missing their perspectives on a whole slew of issues.”
Constituents ask Gnibus if she will be able to survive in 2020-style partisan politics.
“I’m asked about that and if I think I can handle it, and that this is a nasty place to be, in politics,” Gnibus said. “I’m a high school teacher and the mother of teenage girls. I can handle it.”
Politicians should be role models, she said.
“It’s about remembering who’s looking up to you, especially young people and especially young girls,” she said. “I think it’s important to be factual and to call out my opponent on things he has done or not done, but there is a way to do that without name-calling or being inappropriate.”
Gnibus is sharing her message on the phone, online and in person in small-group events.
“We’re doing whistlestop tours and publishing where we will be so people can come and ask questions,” she said. “We’re also doing literature drops door-to-door. If people are there and want to talk, we’re certainly doing that too.”
The bulk of her campaign through the pandemic is online, in virtual town halls, Zoom happy hours, Q&A sessions on Instagram and virtual “Pajamas & Politics” parties.
Gnibus talks to voters daily via phone and social media.
“The thing for me is to engage with people, not just host things and say, here I am,” she said. “I’m asking questions, and a lot of times posting on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter and asking constituents questions: What’s most important to you about this?
“I’m even asking simple things, like, if I’m going to New Castle, where’s your favorite place to get pizza, so that I feel like I’m actually talking to you, and am.
“I manage my own social media and have conversations with people every day. When you look at elected officials’ posts on social media, it’s often very clear that it’s not them, that it’s a staff person writing on their behalf,” Gnibus said.
Taking on a political incumbent hasn’t been easy. Taking on a five-term incumbent like Mike Kelly can be like rolling a boulder uphill, though Kelly won his fifth term in Congress in 2016 by just 4 percentage points over Erie lawyer Ron DiNicola.
The boulder is rising, Gnibus said.
“I think we’re significantly far up that hill,” she said. “I feel that in this past year I have met more constituents than the current incumbent has in his whole time in office. I meet with people every single day virtually or in distanced meet-and-greets. Before COVID, I went to all the county fairs and meetings every single day, and I’ve kept that momentum up.
“People want someone who shows up for them. I think that makes all the difference in the world,” Gnibus said. “It doesn’t matter what ticket you’re on. What people want now is someone who … is showing up for the everyday working person.”
Contact Valerie Myers at [email protected].