The 2022 Pennsylvania Forty Under 40
A statewide list of young changemakers from Erie to Easton.
This year’s edition of City & State’s Pennsylvania Forty Under 40 is a record-setting one: It received more nominations than ever before, both in terms of potential honorees and people participating in the nomination process. And thanks to that participation, the profiles you’re about to read feature up-and-comers hailing from across the commonwealth, both in terms of geography and ideology.
Whether it’s the leader of the state’s Young Republicans or the point people for the two highest-profile Democratic statewide candidates, lobbyists or grassroots activists both treading the same floors of the state Capitol, these standouts all share a common drive to improve fellow Pennsylvanians’ lives through their words and deeds. These profiles were written by City & State staff and freelance writer Hilary Danailova.
While some 20-year-olds are pondering college majors, Robert Arena, the Republican National Committee’s Pennsylvania data director, long ago committed to Republican politics. “The RNC is my version of college,” said Arena, who is on hiatus from Muhlenberg College. “I've learned more there than I've learned anywhere else in my life – direct campaigning and data experience, and you can't buy that.”
The Brooklyn native was schooled in fiscal conservatism early, watching his working parents crunch the monthly household budget. At Muhlenberg, Arena got involved with the college Republicans, which led to an internship with the Pennsylvania GOP and stints as a campaign field organizer in Pennsylvania and Georgia. Last year, as executive director of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, Arena spearheaded a mail-in ballot program and a data-driven approach that doubled fundraising numbers while racking up countywide election victories in traditionally Democratic territory.
Currently vice chair of the Lehigh Valley Young Republicans, Arena is focused on drawing more Gen Zers into the GOP – and getting them to the polls. “My generation inspires me,” Arena said. “In my lifetime, I want to see the 18-25 age group, the future of our commonwealth and country, being over 50% registered and voting Republican.”
The high-octane Pennsylvania real estate market is buoyed by experts like Courtney Box, a Realtor Association certified executive and an association services manager for the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors. Box guides five local realtor associations in Western Pennsylvania, where she is in charge of strategic planning, leadership training, fundraising, administrative affairs and advocacy.
“This industry affects so many people,” said Box, 36. After studying corporate communications at Elizabethtown College, she worked in business development for a few years before finding her niche in the nonprofit world. Prior to joining PAR, Box served as the membership coordinator for the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association, where she oversaw recruitment, expanded the sponsorship program and advised state pharmacy schools.
Box has spent seven years growing an industry group with more than 35,000 members, an affiliate of the National Association of Realtors. During her tenure, PAR has tripled the number of local realtor associations it manages to nine; added staff; and expanded its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
“Owning a home is the American dream,” Box reflected. “What we are advocating for – fair housing, equity rights for all homeowners – is what most people aspire to.”
Equally passionate about the commonwealth and its food – pretzels in particular – Alex Baloga cheerleads for both as head of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, where he has worked in various capacities since 2013. “Pennsylvania is the unofficial snack food capital of the world – a really great place to be both as a big snack aficionado, and someone who works for the food industry,” he noted.
A dyed-in-the-wool Pennsylvanian from Harrisburg, Baloga was drawn into politics and advocacy early on. He worked as a campaign fundraiser and a regional field manager for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and honed his lobbying experience as an associate with Greenlee Partners.
At the PFMA, Baloga heads an industry group that represents 800 companies, 4,000 stores and 250,000 employees. He has steered his membership through trucking and labor shortages, supply chain hiccups and inflation, while trumpeting pandemic-era successes like online ordering and click-and-collect purchases.
The statewide expansion of pharmacy services and beer and wine sales in retail stores “has been a huge success,” added Baloga, who is a member of the Food Industry Association Executives Board of Directors. “We've been able to overcome challenges and continue to provide the services and goods people are looking for.”
Growing up in central Pennsylvania as the daughter of a lobbyist, Lauren Barr says she saw firsthand “how local and state governments are the most directly impactful, with the most tangible effect on our lives.” Barr is now a lobbyist in her own right, leading the energy and regulatory practice at the Bravo Group, a Harrisburg firm.
The 39-year-old finds satisfaction from the relevance her advocacy work has to Pennsylvanians’ daily lives. “Pennsylvania energy, and the industries it supports, involves everyday things we take for granted – flipping on a light switch or buying a bottle of water,” she noted.
Barr has been focused on government and policy since high school, and acknowledges the crucial role of mentors in her success. “I had the benefit of learning from my dad how to effect change and operate with integrity,” she said, adding that a series of “extraordinary women” provided inspiration as well. “Ours is a field in which women used to be underrepresented,” Barr reflected. “So I feel strongly about mentoring others to pay forward the guidance I’ve received, and the example that’s been set for me.”
If the personal is political, as the saying goes, state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro’s career is illustrative. Bizzarro, a Democrat who has represented the 3rd District in Erie County since 2013, is a childhood leukemia survivor who has championed funding for cancer research and treatment – something for which the Pennsylvania Society of Oncology and Hematology named him Legislator of the Year in 2020. Bizzarro received the same honor in 2016 from the Humane Society of the U.S. for overhauling the state animal cruelty code, inspired by his experiences as a volunteer and adoptive dog parent at Erie’s Anna Shelter.
“Helping my neighbors is very important to me – not just with legislation in Harrisburg, but with nitty-gritty things like PennDOT troubles, or applying for affordable prescription drug coverage,” noted Bizzarro.
The Erie native credits his work ethic to a stint in his grandfather’s restaurant. “I learned never to take shortcuts on what matters most: serving the public,” he recalled. Later, he worked as a victim/witness advocate and services coordinator for Erie County. “That role showed me the daily struggles and injustices so many live with,” Bizzarro said. “Standing up for them is what inspired me to run for office.”
Not too many people can say that they have been the president and CEO of an organization for almost a quarter of their life – but Jessica Brooks-Woods isn’t like most people. In 2013, a 30-year-old Brooks-Woods took the reins of the nonprofit organization Pittsburgh Business Group on Health, where, as she puts it, she has “led efforts to improve health care value, access, equity, and quality on behalf of employers.”
In the years since, Brooks-Woods has expanded her organization’s offerings to include o, equity programs to narrow health care gaps in communities and COVID-19-related initiatives to adapt to a changing landscape that includes the loss of organizations that didn’t survive the pandemic. “We have partners that are no longer there,” she says, “so we have new contracts in place for our biggest value programs and we’re diversifying to ensure we’re able to add value for smaller businesses that really took a hit during this time.”
Brooks-Woods says that she is right where she belongs. “I’ve always seen myself in health care – from middle school,” she recalls. “We had to do a career exploration project – it was between being a judge, a neurologist or a cardiologist – so health care was always bubbling to the top!”
Carolyn Cavaness has been preaching for 25 of her 39 years. This fourth-generation clergyperson and New Jersey native is the first woman to serve as pastor of 120-year-old Bethel AME Church of Ardmore.
Cavaness has also made a mark as a community activist, championing local after-school and nutrition programs. Her political involvement dates to her time at Barnard College, where she served as student government president. Cavaness also worked for then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and for now-state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins of New York, a groundbreaking Black politician whom Cavaness counts as a mentor.
In 2018, she spearheaded South Ardmore’s first community garden; the church now manages 13 gardens and helps tend several dozen more, promoting nutrition access amid rising inflation. “Folks in the African diaspora have always had an attachment to the land, and we want to instill that in future generations,” the pastor said.
Cavaness is proud of her work bringing communities together, including as a board member of the nonprofit Interfaith Philadelphia. “The mobilizing I’m doing in Ardmore has been a kind of merging of worlds,” she reflected. “The political, nonprofit, ministry – it’s all coming full circle.”
Philadelphia is a city that can boast more than three centuries’ worth of firsts – including Saleem Chapman. Chapman is the inaugural Chief Resilience Officer of the City of Philadelphia, where his mandate is to gird both the city’s government and its residents for the coming changes wrought by global warming. “Any of the issues that the city currently has – whether you’re talking about housing affordability or economic development – will all be impacted by climate change,” he says, adding that his role “is to look across government to think about not only the risks … but also the opportunities that are available and then try to leverage our existing resources to … mitigate against those risks.”
Chapman, who has been involved in public service since receiving his master’s degree in public administration from Penn State, says that an early commitment to social and economic justice issues led to his focus on environmental justice as a career. “The thing that really gets me up every day,” he explains, “is that I believe climate change is going to force us to rethink everything about our society from social systems to economic systems to environmental systems. And to me, it’s an opportunity for us to align our stated ideals with our on-the-ground realities.”
While Arielle Chortanoff’s communications degree has come in handy during her career as a government affairs specialist, she envisioned using her degree in a different field.
“I wanted to do news broadcasting – but then I realized I had absolutely no on-air experience,” she recalls.
Instead of finding herself in front of a camera, Chortanoff has spent years behind the scenes, working to, as she puts it, “monitor and track legislation” that directly impacts her employer, Independence Blue Cross, and its ability to conduct business in the state. “I engage in conversations with legislators and kind of educate them and share with them information on how what they're doing will impact or change our business,” she explains, adding that she also works to improve such legislation for insurers and their customers.
Chortanoff, who grew up on a farm in northeastern Pennsylvania on a road named after her mother’s family, has had what she terms “a truly rewarding legislative experience,” this session, which included bringing state confidentiality laws up to HIPAA standards and working on health equity-related issues. “Right now, we treat people in silos,” she says about approaches to mental health and physical health, “and we want to integrate that – and we think that this is a way to get there.”
Cassandra Coleman was a politician before she was old enough to drink. Now the executive director of America250PA, the commonwealth’s planning organization for the U.S. semiquincentennial in 2026, Coleman got her start in high school as a junior council representative for Exeter Borough. Coleman then became borough mayor at age 20, filling her late grandfather’s unexpired term – and earning a mention in Oprah Magazine’s segment “Women Who Defy Age.”
After launching her own political fundraising agency, Coleman helped manage Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2014 campaign before serving as the governor’s special adviser and director of a 28-county regional office. “I already knew the importance of engaging local communities,” observed Coleman. In 2018, she received the Leo Distinguished Alumni Award from her alma mater, King’s College in Wilkes-Barre.
At America250PA, Coleman aims to engage all Pennsylvanians with more than a dozen historically-focused programs, from guided walks to arts events and a podcast. There’s even an America250PA coloring book for kids like Coleman’s 7-year-old. “We want to get even the youngest Pennsylvanians talking about this milestone,” Coleman explained. “I look forward to showing my son, the way I was shown by my grandfather, how important it is to uplift your community.”
Sean Crampsie has a personal stake in the advocacy he leads on behalf of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, where he is director of government relations. A first-generation college student, Crampsie studied at Bloomsburg University, one of the 14 state-owned universities he represents throughout the commonwealth.
“I went to public schools, so I understand how important it is that we get funding right in this state so every student has an opportunity to succeed,” Crampsie said. At APSCUF, Crampsie has lobbied for increased state funding for higher education, tuition affordability and campus workers’ rights. Crampsie previously advocated for K-12 public education at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
These are fights for which Crampsie has trained since a politically active childhood in Whitehall. “I remember hanging door hangers for my uncle’s countywide campaign, knocking on doors, going to events,” he recalled. Today, Crampsie is a two-term member of the Carlisle Borough Council, where he spearheaded a landmark nondiscrimination ordinance.
“I took on debt, but I’ve been able to use my degree to advocate and talk about how debt affects students,” Crampsie reflected. “My life experiences brought me directly to where I am today.”
Gov. Tom Wolf’s right-hand woman is a 36-year-old named Elena Cross. A fixture in the administration since the transition, for which she served as senior advisor, Cross served as Wolf’s deputy chief of staff before assuming the top post last year.
As the governor’s most senior counselor, Cross helps manage two dozen cabinet agencies that report to the governor’s office and plays a key role in every major state initiative. Recent highlights include the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine rollout and pandemic response: “It’s been interesting answering an international problem that everyone’s facing in some way,” she noted. Cross is especially proud of the state’s Workforce Command Center, a collaborative effort to address barriers to work in the commonwealth, and her work on the governor’s annual budget negotiations.
Cross was “bitten by the politics bug” during the 2004 election cycle, when she helped register voters on the Penn State campus. Electing Democrats and advancing Democratic priorities have been her mission ever since. “I always think about, what is government’s role – at the state level versus the federal and local government – and how do we help with the resources that we have?”
Sherrell Dandy, a new associate at Kline & Specter, always wanted to be an attorney. By high school, her success on the mock trial team convinced her “that I had enough talent,” said Dandy, 36.
A few years later, that talent was apparent as she scooped up graduation awards from Drexel University's Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Recruited to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, Dandy tried dozens of major felony and homicide jury trials and served a year as an assistant U.S. attorney in Roanoke, Virginia.
But Dandy had had set her sights on Kline & Specter ever since law school, when Andy Stern, a noted trial attorney at the firm, spoke to her class. “I thought, that’s not the first step on the ladder, but I’d love to follow in those footsteps,” recalled Dandy.
At the firm, Dandy plans to concentrate on personal injury cases like that of a young man killed by a drunk driver in a hard-to-prove pile-up accident, a highlight of her public sector years. “I’m seeing so many communities adversely affected by violence in our city, and others not getting the medical care that they should be receiving,” Dandy observed. “There’s gratification from providing justice for them.”
As a public policy strategist for the Triad Group, Megan Dapp specializes in grassroots advocacy across industry sectors from health care and energy to education. In nearly four years at Triad – and before that, over a decade at the Bravo Group, another Harrisburg lobbying firm – Dapp has worked on issues as diverse as health and prescription access programs, an important victim's rights law and the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2008.
Dapp, 39, fell in love with policy as a summer college intern at the Pennsylvania State Senate, where she worked on constituent services for the Senate Republican Caucus. (She remains involved with her alma mater, Dickinson College, currently serving on its magazine's editorial board.)
After serving as state advocacy director for the American Heart Association, Dapp realized that she wanted a broader role than was available with lobbying. In her latest roles, she gets to “elevate diverse voices,” she explained, as a strategist and advocate. “Public policy affects everyone,” Dapp elaborated. “Bringing diverse stakeholders together, sharing all those perspectives, playing a role in facilitating conversations – that’s what keeps me excited about what I do.”
As a high school student in McKeesport, Austin Davis attended a community meeting and noticed two things: One, he was the only Black person. And two, he was the only resident eager to discuss a recent incident of gun violence.
That experience – and watching Barack Obama become the first Black president – prompted Davis, now 32, to be the change he wanted to see. After interning with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he served as a senior adviser to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. When his state House seat opened up in 2018, Davis ran and won, becoming the youngest and the first Black person to represent the mostly white 35th District. This fall, he hopes to make history again as the first Black lieutenant governor – he is running alongside Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Josh Shapiro.
In office, Davis has spearheaded his district’s largest revitalization investment in decades, creating 30 units of affordable housing and adding more than a half-dozen Main Street storefronts. He also secured $3 million in funding for gun violence reduction, the issue that first spurred him to political action.
“Gun violence has happened in my neighborhood, it’s happened to people I know,” Davis said. “It’s personal. And that’s a good example of why representation matters.”
Cathryn Easterling was once "the kid who wanted to be involved in every after-school program." Now 35, Easterling brings that energy to her role as Erie office director at Bridgeway Capital, where she has helped facilitate $27 million of capital investment in Erie County since joining the firm in 2020.
“Community development is done by slow, intentional change to policies, mindsets and culture,” Easterling observed. That ethos informs her work at Bridgeway, which invests in underserved communities through equitable access to financing for small businesses, local development organizations and nonprofits.
Fresh off her previous role as a community development coordinator with Aetna, Easterling facilitated Bridgeway’s financing for the Erie Center for Arts & Technology Jameson School of Nursing. She’s also overseen two cohorts of the Erie Minority Owned Business Accelerator, a nine-month program for minority entrepreneurs – people like Easterling’s own mother, who succeeded with multiple businesses despite significant obstacles. “Dreaming big was expected in my family,” said Easterling.
Now, Easterling models perseverance for her own four children. She also chairs the board of the Youth Leadership Institute of Erie and volunteers as director for Hyperlink Sports, a sporting events group with a community outreach program.
Politics is a profession as well as a family and community framework for Kristen Farry, who directs policy and government relations for Wood Services, a non-profit health management and advocacy organization. Farry met her husband, state Rep. Frank Farry, while lobbying at the firm helmed by former Gov. Tom Ridge.
“Our careers are complementary,” explained Farry, who is also a member of the Langhorne Borough Council and chairs the board for the Lower Bucks County Chamber of Commerce. “We each understand what the other is going through – the unpredictable schedules and the late nights.”
Farry’s childhood and college years were spent near Harrisburg – a political science major at Lebanon Valley College, she interned at the State Senate – "so it was easy to get bitten by that political bug," she recalled. She then held a variety of political roles, including as director of legislative affairs at the Pennsylvania Insurance Department.
At Woods, she worked on a successful statewide grassroots campaign against proposed disabled facility closures. Woods’ mission, serving those with intellectual disabilities, “is an issue near and dear to my heart. I had a cousin who had an intellectual disability,” Farry noted. “I feel like I'm advocating for people that can't advocate for themselves.”
George Fernandez started Latino Connection with a broken laptop, a girlfriend’s credit card and a hotspot stolen from Highmark, his previous employer (they know, and are fine with it). Seven years later, Latino Connection – which advises businesses on effective engagement with Hispanic communities – boasts $5 million in annual sales and contracts throughout 18 states, including most counties in the commonwealth.
“I’ve always been surrounded by an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Fernandez, 33, whose single mother brought her children from the Dominican Republic to Harrisburg when Fernandez was 8 years old. Young George fried empanadas for his mother to sell, and sold his sister’s books door to door when they were short on the rent.
“The challenges my mother went through are the background for what I do today,” reflected Fernandez. After college, as a bilingual benefits educator with Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Fernandez saw the futility of handing out English materials for a Spanish-speaking, often illiterate clientele. Latino Connection aims to bridge the cultural gap between health care companies and a Hispanic demographic that, if current trends hold, could make up 25% of the commonwealth’s population by 2030.
“We’re reaching people like my mother,” Fernandez reflected. “So this doesn’t feel like work. It’s more like a mission.”
You might say that Jezree Friend was born into a leadership role: He's the oldest of 10 children and the first in his family to graduate from college – though, ever the role model, not the last. “I was like the lead duck, helping all the baby ducks,” Friend said with a laugh.
Now 31, he’s a father of three himself, and – since leaving the U.S. Army – a passionate beard advocate, having been singled out for his facial hair by former U.S. House Speaker and fellow beard aficionado Paul Ryan.
Friend grew up in a trailer park, but his horizons expanded when his third -grade teacher assigned the class to write to the governor. “The governor wrote back,” Friend recalled, “and it turned out he was also from Erie!” If he went to college like the governor did, Friend figured, he might also have a political future.
Today, Friend leads outreach for the Manufacturer & Business Association, lobbying on behalf of 3,000 mostly midsize businesses across 54 Pennsylvania counties. He spearheaded statewide health plans for members and helped create the Western Pennsylvania Legislative Reception, among the state’s largest lawmakers’ gatherings.
Friend still lives in Erie County, where he hopes his pro-business advocacy will help reverse decline. “Everyone my age goes to college and never comes home,” he said. “I want to be part of the solution.”
At 29, Jenna Geesey is a seasoned veteran of Pennsylvania politics: student council president in high school; elected to county school board upon graduating college; campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker; and now serving as the chair of the Pennsylvania Young Republicans – Geesey’s career vividly demonstrates her commitment to grassroots politicking – or, as she tells it, to her propensity to say “yes.”
She says she takes on so many leadership positions “because I’m often the one who raises their hand in a room of volunteers. I’ve always been one to say, if I’m not doing it, then who’s going to be doing it?”
One of her top priorities as state chair is to find and support others like her to enter the political fray through initiatives like the national Young Republicans’ “YR’s Run” to populate the party’s ranks from local committee people to statewide office to national engagement with her peers – and the effort is already providing results.
“We should have, historically, the largest number of young Republicans serving in the state committee this year,” she says, adding that “we’re focused on making sure that our generation is playing a role not just in the future of our party, but in its present.”
If things had gone differently, Eric Hagarty, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of education, could have been another Seattle musician. But after studying political science and economics at the University of Washington, the Seattle native was offered a campaign job in Pittsburgh and drove cross-country in just three days. The rest is history: Hagarty, 34, is a key player in Pennsylvania state policy – including, until this spring, six years as Gov. Tom Wolf’s deputy chief of staff.
“I’ve had the opportunity to help improve so many people’s lives on a scale I’d never imagined,” Hagarty reflected. He helped create Pennie, Pennsylvania’s state health insurance exchange, which has enrolled 400,000 mostly-subsidized residents. Hagarty also worked on Pennsylvania’s Opioid Command Center and its medical marijuana program. His education bonafides include leading the team that secured $2 billion in school funding increases, and collaborating on a $100 million program to bolster historically underfunded districts.
Last year, Hagarty recorded every instrument track on an album covering the Seattle favorites of his youth: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie. “It was on my bucket list,” he confessed, “and during the pandemic, I finally had a chance to do it.”
Based on Larry Hailsham’s track record, it’s easy to see why Josh Shapiro hired him as political director for his gubernatorial campaign. Hailsham’s previous times out on the trail were all victorious, stretching from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign to Bob Casey’s 2018 reelection bid to Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
If that seems like an unusually lengthy resume for someone on the Forty Under 40 list, that’s because Hailsham says his passion for politics “took form in high school, where I had the opportunity to intern on the 2008 Obama campaign – Obama was such an inspiration for me in my political journey that I think that was the starting point.”
In addition to his campaign work, Hailsham has focused on the day-to-day doings of government affairs at all levels, from working in then-state Rep. Jake Wheatley’s office – also in high school – to an internship at the White House to working as the government affairs manager for the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.
On the campaign trail, Hailsham’s motivation is a simple one. “You may be tired, you may get frustrated with the state of the current world,” he says, “but at the end of this, you will be able to say that you made an impact – that’s what keeps me going.”
After Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election, progressive activist Alisha Hoffman-Mirilovich was determined to learn from past mistakes. “We didn’t have the infrastructure on the ground to influence elections across Northeastern Pennsylvania,” she recalled.
The result was Action Together NEPA, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to electing candidates who support reproductive rights, the environment, gun control and other progressive priorities. A founding board member of the organization, Hoffman-Mirilovich is now executive director as well as president of its affiliate, In This Together NEPA.
“I grew up in farm country, so I understand the issues in rural areas, which is a lot of northeast Pennsylvania,” said Hoffman-Mirilovich, 38. A Somerset County native, she came to Scranton for college and left a history Ph.D. program to raise her son and fight for progressive change.
Action Together NEPA now boasts five chapters across six counties. Hoffman-Mirilovich and her team knocked on 8,000 doors in the 10 days before the 2020 election; this year, they knocked on 30,000 doors. “Teaching doesn’t have to take place in a formal classroom,” said the academic-turned-activist. “Teaching can also be motivating and showing people what is happening around them.”
Carissa L. Johnson
Carissa Johnson decided on a career in criminal justice after watching the 9/11 attacks, which blared from screens across Reading High School, where she was a senior. Foiled by the FBI's notoriously tough physical test, Johnson landed a post-college job as a treatment counselor at the Berks County Jail.
A decade later, a mentor suggested she run for magisterial district judge – a “community peacekeeping” post, as she describes it. “I'd been frustrated by seeing people who truly needed not jail, but help with mental health or substance abuse,” recalled Johnson, 38. “I knew that if a judge listened to them, maybe they would be sent on a different path, as opposed to just locking them away. So that resonated with me.”
Now Johnson is that judge. She won election in 2017 and is finishing out her first six-year term, during which she launched an internship program in collaboration with local police, public defenders and other criminal justice entities. She also was part of the team that created a “shadowing” initiative to expose local students to the criminal justice system from a career perspective. “I want to expose kids to the system so that they're not afraid of it,” Johnson said. “So they can see the other side and think about their futures.”
A month after Jessica Kemmerer joined Harrisburg-based McNees Strategic Solutions Group as a grassroots consultant in February 2020, the pandemic transitioned her advocacy to the virtual world. That agility has served the 33-year-old well during a decade in Pennsylvania politics as well as at McNees, where Kemmerer specializes in legislative and campaign strategies and business development.
Kemmerer was the youngest woman ever elected to chair the Lehigh County Republican Committee in 2016, and is also founding chair of the Lehigh Valley Young Republicans and secretary of the Pennsylvania State Young Republicans Executive Committee. She committed to politics during a college internship with Congressman Charlie Dent and later worked on Dent's 2014 and 2016 campaigns, as well as serving as executive director of the Chester County Republican Committee.
Deciding it was time to “get out of the heightened partisan political environment,” Kemmerer joined McNees to advocate at the county and local level for clients including Procter & Gamble and the Pennsylvania Auctioneers Association. She also works on grassroots energy initiatives and a casino community reinvestment program. “I've always believed that municipal government, more than any other, has a major impact on our daily lives,” Kemmerer reflected.
If you’ve enjoyed being able to use an e-scooter to motor around Pittsburgh recently, or if you’ve enjoyed partaking of a DoorDash delivery – or even if you’re excited about the future of autonomous vehicles in the commonwealth – you can thank Kevin Kerr.
As a government relations principal at Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies, Kerr counsels clients on public policy matters and helps them navigate legislative and regulatory environments across the commonwealth.
For Kerr, who holds leadership positions with several nonprofit boards and task forces, including the Strip District Neighbors and the Allegheny RiverTrail Park, his background in emerging tech and startups – provides him with the opportunity to make people’s lives easier and their environments more livable. He was even a key figure for Uber’s expansion in Pennsylvania.
One such opportunity will seem fantastical for anyone forced to deal with idling delivery vehicles: a tech-driven initiative being tested in Pittsburgh to reduce carbon emissions by holding idling vehicles responsible for their pollution.
When asked about expansion of the program, Kerr was diplomatic. “The program’s only been active for a few months in the city,” he said, “but I imagine once we get some better, clearer data to show how successful it's been in Pittsburgh, Philly will be a little bit more interested.”
When Pennsylvania reporters or city agencies have questions about the implications of public policy, they frequently turn to Dan Mallinson, a specialist in commonwealth state and local policy. The 36-year-old Lancaster native is a rising star at Penn State Harrisburg, where, as an assistant professor of public policy and administration, he is up for tenure this year.
Mallinson is a go-to expert on energy and cannabis – the latter an emerging Pennsylvania industry on which Mallinson has two forthcoming books. His own interest in public service stems from his scouting days (he is an Eagle Scout) and has included stints at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and the Philadelphia Office of Inspector General. Under his guidance, Penn State public policy students have worked with the City of Harrisburg to analyze topics ranging from a new comprehensive plan to coping with severe weather.
Currently the second vice president of the Pennsylvania Political Science Association, Mallinson has been lauded for his teaching by Penn State and for his scholarship by the American Political Science Association. “Balancing all of my roles is challenging,” he says, “but public service has been a throughline in my life.”
Laura Manion recently assumed leadership of the county’s Chamber of Business and Industry, after a stint managing the Great Lakes regional office for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There, she said, “What I learned, traveling from Indiana to Toledo or Michigan, is that even though we’re a diverse country, we’re all working through the same issues: workforce, supply chain, inflation,” she observed.
Manion, 31, began her career heading the Republican Committee of Chester County, then serving as finance director for the state Republican Party. But her recent roles transcend partisanship, which became apparent as she recently worked to unite her diverse constituency around a federal infrastructure bill. “There’s no Republican bridge or Democratic road,” Manion pointed out.
The Chester County native was previously assistant director of government and community relations at Villanova University, where she created a restaurant week and other programs bringing together the school and surrounding business community. Four years ago, City & State recognized Manion as among 25 outstanding Pennsylvania women in 2018’s Above & Beyond awards. Her current role, she said, suits her accumulated strengths: “Fundraising, public policy, and just being a people person.”
Kaitlyn R. Maxwell
Environmental litigation expert Kaitlyn Maxwell helps clients negotiate the Northeast Corridor’s checkered post-industrial landscape. An attorney at the Philadelphia firm of Greenberg Traurig since 2014, Maxwell was named a shareholder in 2020 and concentrates on regulatory compliance issues, major contamination cases and toxic tort litigation.
Maxwell grew up in Chester County, where her parents, both teachers, “supported my love for the outdoors and the environment,” she said. Her interest in law and policy coalesced in college, supported by numerous mentors and a federal clerkship.
At Greenberg Traurig, Maxwell was part of the litigation team that handled a large-scale enforcement and cost recovery case around PCB contamination of Wisconsin’s Fox River. She also assisted in the acquisition of a former manufacturing site in Philadelphia, laying the groundwork for redevelopment and creating a regulatory framework for similar properties.
Maxwell was recently named to the board of directors of the Public Interest Law Center, which employs legal strategies to address discrimination and inequality in Philadelphia communities. “I interned with the Law Center, and they supported me during my job search,” Maxwell said. “It is incredibly rewarding to be able to support the center in a new way 10 years later.”
Brendan McPhillips had about as rough an introduction to campaign politics as there is: on a Democratic congressional campaign during the party’s notorious “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms. Despite that experience, McPhillips has continued to work ever since on races at all levels, from Helen Gym’s successful 2015 run for Philadelphia City Council to statewide contests like Andrew Gillum’s nailbiter 2018 Florida gubernatorial campaign, to national tilts like Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
McPhillips is following up his stint as Biden’s state director with another high-profile, high-stakes gig: as the campaign manager for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman. This is his second time working on a Fetterman campaign; he was also part of Fetterman’s unsuccessful 2016 Senate run.
McPhillips makes no bones about his commitment to the campaign cycle, despite never having planned to become a political lifer. “I never really had a career trajectory mapped out,” he says. “I just knew I wanted to work in politics, advocating for what I believed in. I do take pride in being pretty particular about working for candidates that have a unique, inspiring and authentic motivation – I’m very intentional about looking for people that inspire others and trying to do my part to help push that forward.”
As Pennsylvania state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, Greg Moreland has a clear mission: “Standing up for Pennsylvania’s 13,000 small independent businesses – and for the people that make up our communities, just like I did in the military.”
But when Moreland, 38, left the military, he wasn't sure he'd ever stand up again. As a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne, Moreland was badly injured in a 2012 explosion in Afghanistan and underwent years of physical therapy. Drawing on the resilience he learned from his own father – a child of poverty who worked his way up to direct Dauphin County’s juvenile detention center – Moreland earned a master’s degree in public administration, interned with state Rep. Maureen Gingrich, and launched a late-blooming but meteoric career in Harrisburg.
After four years at the Pennsylvania House of Representatives – including as a policy analyst to then-Speaker Mike Turzai – Moreland became chief of staff to the late state Sen. Dave Arnold before joining the NFIB last year. “Every bill affects our membership in some way, and we have a lot of competing interests, so we have to maintain visibility on everything,” Moreland said of his new role. “There is a lot of strength in numbers – like in the military.”
While his colleagues at Comcast are building a cable empire, human resources project manager Keith Mui is building another kind of infrastructure: a company whose diversity informs and improves its products and services.
Mui has been with Comcast for three and a half years, including the last year spearheading diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for Comcast’s Technology, Product, Experience (TPX) business unit as part of the People & Integration team. His chief accomplishment is the formation of their DEI Council, whose programs build a team of Comcast DEI leaders “to create a culture of belonging that allows employees to fully embrace all aspects of their experiences, and bring them into our products,” Mui explained.
Mui’s parents were his role models in community-building and connected him to his cultural identity. Having immigrated as youths, they helped many Chinese immigrant families navigate everyday issues in health care-related social work. Mui has been advocating for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities since college. He has held executive leadership positions on the board of the Asian Mosaic Fund – for which Mui helped organize COVID-19 relief efforts – as well as serving as the national human resources chair of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, and previously worked as the civic engagement lead for SEAMAAC, a nonprofit Asian immigrant organization in Philadelphia.
His Comcast role, Mui noted, “offers the perfect opportunity to merge corporate impact with the community, bringing benefit and value to both. It’s very much a win-win situation.”
When it comes to making history, Jennifer O’Mara is an old hand – at age 32.
O’Mara, who represents the 165th state House District, which includes Media, Morton and Swarthmore boroughs, and Springfield and Upper Providence townships, was first elected to her post in 2018 at the age of 28 – the first female Democrat to represent her district and the youngest female Democrat ever elected to the state House of Representatives.
O’Mara says that the 2016 presidential election – and her combat veteran fiancé – drove her decision to run. She recalls him saying: “‘I’ve already served our country – it’s your turn, you should run for office.’ And at first, I dismissed it because I thought it was a little crazy, but I looked into my district … and sort of realized I can do this.”
Named one of America’s 11 Most Accessible Legislators by the Town Hall Project, O’Mara, a first-generation college graduate who worked three jobs to put herself through college, is a co-founder of the bipartisan Student Debt Caucus – and an expectant mother working to make things better for future generations. “I want to make sure that when I’m done working in the public sphere,” she says, “that I feel like I’ve done enough to leave behind a better world for my daughter.”
Chris Petrone’s dad found a remarkably effective way to get his son to move back to Pennsylvania from California: Make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Petrone’s father, an executive officer with Operating Engineers Local 66 in Pittsburgh, was ready to retire – but “a lot of folks at the local didn’t want to take the job,” Chris Petrone recalls with a laugh.
Prevailing upon his son to interview for the job led to the younger Petrone’s 12-year stint as the local’s legislative director before he joined Allegheny Strategy Partners, where he handles many of the same organized labor-specific issues. His expanded role at Allegheny means that “I also get to work on other projects and issues that have helped me broaden my role and my understanding of state government and how it interacts with business development and (the) nonprofit world,” including a program to get veterans back into the workforce and a school that helps disadvantaged youth get into college.
Education is a constant in Petrone’s life as well, whether learning about obscure craft beers or attending Harvard Business School’s Young American Leaders Program and Leadership Pittsburgh XXXVII. “All we can do is learn,” he says. “If you get a little better every day, you just keep making that climb – and you can only do that through learning.”
When asked what drove him to co-found the grassroots organization MarchOnHarrisburg, Rabbi Michael Pollack has a three-word answer: “Fear and love. The devastating, horrifying fear of the potential of humanity for evil: What happens when we’re blind to each other’s humanity and bewildered by corruption and greed? And then there’s the question of: What is our potential as Pennsylvanians?”
As a religious leader, Pollack is used to asking the big questions – and putting the work in to find the answers – which is how he also became an activist. “Part of the joy of life is engaging in problems and then working with other people to solve those problems,” he explains.
Pollack, who also serves as a tri-chair of the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, counts the passage of Act 77, which expanded voting by mail to all residents, as among his group’s biggest victories, and getting a ban on gifts given to state politicians as his top priority for when the General Assembly comes back into session in September. Other focal points include open primaries, ranked-choice voting and dark money groups. “There’s a lot of corruption that we need to dismantle brick by brick, bill by bill,” he says, “until we build a government of, by and for the people.”
Nedia Ralston recently chaired the Community College of Philadelphia Foundation’s Black & Gold Gala, which raised $800,000 for scholarships. She knows many of the youthful recipients will seek careers in Philadelphia's major sectors, education and health care – but since assuming leadership of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board last year, Ralston hopes some will find their way to the gaming industry.
“Until I was commissioner, even I wasn't aware of all the opportunities that are available under the gaming umbrella,” noted Ralston. “We're talking about family-sustaining jobs with good benefits, the opportunity to go back to school. These are jobs that are really changing households."
Ralston’s community engagement dates to her Philadelphia childhood in a politically active family. After college, she worked on campaigns for now-U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans and Gov. Tom Wolf, whose Southeast regional office she directed from 2015 to 2022.
Currently, Ralston, 38, has prioritized recruitment to broaden the pool of workers for Pennsylvania's vast and expanding gaming landscape. Eventually, she envisions a gaming workforce pipeline program to raise the industry's profile and attract more women and minorities. “When a lot of people think of gaming, they think about casinos, but it's so much more than that,” Ralston said.
From speed cameras in work zones to robotic personal delivery devices and self-driving cars, virtually every transportation-oriented measure floated in Harrisburg has involved Nolan Ritchie. The 39-year-old has served as executive director of the Senate Transportation Committee since 2015 under three senators, currently in the office of state Sen. Wayne Langerholc.
“I’ve just been so blessed with having a passion for transportation,” said the Berks County native, who got his start as a clerk in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and worked his way up. Ritchie’s last PennDOT role was as innovations officer, where, alongside Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, he reviewed “hundreds and hundreds of ideas,” from cost savings to customer service improvements.
In his current role, Ritchie has worked on some of the futuristic innovations for which Pennsylvania is known, like 2020 regulation around robotic personal delivery devices and Langerholc’s DRIVE SMART Act, a package of reforms that includes safeguards for automated vehicles.
As for his own transportation, Ritchie drives an energy-efficient Honda Civic – but he fantasizes about a commute via light rail à la Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail. “Or maybe someday it’ll be a self-driving car,” he mused.
Lobbyist, attorney and gaming industry expert Sean Schafer has run his own lobbying firm, Schafer Government Affairs, since 2017. “As in the law, in lobbying you are required to become an expert on a variety of issues you wouldn’t have come across any other way,” said Schafer, 36. “I have always enjoyed learning and advocating for those issues in the Capitol.”
The Bensalem native was drawn into politics through a friendship with now-state Rep. K.C. Tomlinson and her father, 6th District state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson. Schafer worked for the elder Tomlinson after college, including as chief of staff, honing expertise around Pennsylvania’s gaming industry and helping craft key consumer protection legislation. After a stint steering clients through high-profile gaming sector mergers and acquisitions at the law firm of Duane Morris, Schafer headed up government relations for PARX Casino before launching his own firm.
Schafer views his work in the gaming industry as part of his civic-mindedness. “I’m proud of protecting good-paying jobs in Pennsylvania casinos, and ensuring our seniors continue to receive property tax relief,” he said. Schafer also chairs the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority and was nominated by Gov. Tom Wolf to serve on the Delaware River Navigation Commission.
Ryan Stevens was just 20 when he realized youth was no burden to his political ambition. “I wrote myself in for a seat on the Republican committee,” recalled Stevens, now director of public affairs and business development for Duane Morris Government Strategies. “I won with a single vote.”
Emboldened, the young Stevens next won a seat on the East Stroudsburg school board at age 21. Still a student at East Stroudsburg University, he emphasized the youth perspective by installing student representatives on the board. After graduation, Stevens worked in campaigns and field organizing for the Pennsylvania Republican Party, then ran state Rep. Sheryl Delozier's district office, where he worked on criminal justice legislation.
Stevens is the rare 30-year-old with a decade of grassroots political experience, which he brings to his multi-state client advocacy at Duane Morris. “I’m glad to be in a profession that allows me to use my skills across business, politics and government,” he noted. Stevens’ millennial tech savvy has also come in handy as clients adapt to the pandemic: “Virtual work in government affairs has turned from a challenge into a tool we can use going forward.”
Dr. Monica Taylor has a newborn, two school-age children, a job as a health sciences professor at St. Joseph’s University – and was just elected chair of the Delaware County Council, having served since 2020. Since Taylor is a former professional basketball player and college coach, it’s tempting to say she has a lot of balls in the air, but that’s not technically true anymore: “With a 1-year-old, I don’t get on the court lately,” Taylor laughed.
Still, the 39-year-old’s agility is obvious. At the Council, Taylor spearheaded the creation of the county’s first-ever county health department, the first in Pennsylvania since 1989. She also championed deprivatization of the county prison – the state’s only private prison – as part of a review of the county’s criminal justice system.
Health care and community outreach have been constants since childhood for Taylor, a kinesiologist. “I always loved science,” she said, “and learning about the human body and how to improve people's health outcomes.” At St. Joseph's University, Taylor leads a program engaging high school students in health careers, as well as Early STEAM, which introduces school-age children to science fields. Soon enough, she might even get back on the basketball court: “I’m hoping this winter I'll get into one of those co-ed leagues.”
When Tim Ward joined the Pennsylvania Health Care Association as director of government relations in 2021, one of his first accomplishments was securing nearly $300 million in federal stimulus money for commonwealth nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“It was so rewarding to join this association in the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately impacted nursing homes and assisted living – and then help secure resources for those providers,” Ward reflected. This year, Ward and his team are lobbying for the first Medicaid increase in nearly a decade for Pennsylvania nursing homes, as well as higher wages and workforce recruitment initiatives.
Originally from Montgomery County, Ward, 31, started as a district aide and then chief of staff for state Rep. Todd Stephens. He ran Stephens’ successful reelection campaigns in 2016, 2018 and 2020 and worked for a boutique lobbying firm before joining the PHCA.
Ward credits a series of inspiring teachers with setting him on his career path. “I had a really great AP government teacher,” he recalled, “and a Temple University mentor through several internships that ultimately got me to the track that I’m on now.”
Growing up on his family farm in Huntingdon County, Caleb Wright was a state officer in Future Farmers of America and was sure he’d be a veterinarian like his grandfather. “But I did not like chemistry quite as much as I needed to,” Wright laughed.
Instead, he found a very modern way to build a career in Pennsylvania agriculture: as a lobbyist. Wright, 31, is the chief operating officer at Versant Strategies, a Harrisburg firm that advises and advocates for agricultural and rural clients. “I had always been interested in public policy,” said Wright, who previously taught high school agriculture. “Why is one policy good for production agriculture? Why does one group like an idea and another group does not?”
Wright met his future boss at a networking reception he signed up for “because I wanted free food as a college student,” he recalled. Since 2015, Wright has leveraged his deep rural roots and relationships to steer clients through pandemic challenges. He’s currently president of the Pennsylvania FFA Foundation and was elected to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences alumni society board.
And he goes home to the farm each weekend, tending sheep and goats and feasting on his great aunt’s ham loaf and his grandmother’s hickory nut cake. “I love food with tradition,” Wright said.
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