Years before opioid addiction became an urgent national conversation, it was the personal story of Sara Innamorato and her family.

As an early teen, Innamorato and her mother and sister discovered that her father was addicted to opioids. The resulting turbulence necessitated a lot of moving—from their home in Ross Township to Millvale and other suburbs. Back then people didn’t talk openly about addiction, says Innamorato, who credits the community that sprung up around her for meeting the needs of her family.

“A lot of people would let me stay when I needed to, and we never went without a meal because there were enough people who had enough. The community took care of me without expecting anything in return.” 

Now, Innamorato is looking to be a louder voice in the community, running for a state representative seat in the coming primary election against incumbent Dom Costa in District 21.

Having personally experienced the ravages of a public health crisis that now rages in this region, as a legislator, Innamorato would design policy with a nuanced understanding of its effects. For example, she notes that while state-led initiatives to provide Narcan to first responders help prevent overdoses, addicts are then left to fend for themselves.  

Innamorato wants voters to know that she shares their community’s diverse background, and will give voice to identities not often represented on southwestern PA’s political landscape. Specifically, she pointed to “being a woman, business owner, lower economic class, not having a traditional path to politics.”

“I would love individuals like me and people I’ve interacted with to have an ally in office,” she says.

She sees herself as a welcome contrast to her opponent, who she contends is out of touch with the residents of PA’s 21st.

Innamorato points specifically to Costa’s vote in favor of a 20-week abortion ban as a sign of a disconnect between the Representative and the district he represents. On frontline issues like affordable housing, she’d like to see the state legislature get more involved so that the city isn’t left to fend for itself.

“There are groups of residents organizing that want to make Costa more accountable. They want an organized representation of more progressive values.”

For Innamorato, the gap between Costa and his constituents mirrors the one between Pennsylvania’s Blue Dog Democrats and progressive Pennsylvanians who want to see more liberal stances on reproductive rights, police accountability and universal health care coverage. The distance between these two Democratic factions has inspired one of her major goals: addressing Pennsylvania’s disproportionate representation of women in elected office.

“So many state reps that have run unopposed for years are Democrats but don’t necessarily reflect the party’s values or the people who live in the district,” Innamorato says.  

She cites an abysmal statistic: Pennsylvania ranks 49th in gender parity. In 2016, the 31-year-old Innamorato founded She Runs Southwestern PA to address the lack of women running for office. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Innamorato found her commitment to She Runs SWPA soundly reaffirmed.

As young women around the country surge toward elected office, Innamorato was inspired to do the same. Local organizations like the PA Center for Women & Politics at Chatham University noted an “unprecedented” interest in their workshops from women across the state. And from Borough Council candidates like Kathy Risko in Wilkinsburg to Pittsburgh City Council candidates like Ashleigh Deemer, young women are stepping up to the challenge of PA’s gender imbalance. “We can’t rely on the existing establishment to solve gender parity,” she contends.

Looking ahead to the battle against an established incumbent with a long local history, Innamorato lays out an essential part of her campaign: giving local women the tools and support they need to step up and run.

“I’m obviously running a campaign to win, but I’ll also make one hell of a white paper or guide for women who are going to run in the next cycle about how to run outside of the party establishment in this area,” she notes.

“All politics are local, and that was a big thing with She Runs, something founded here . . . as opposed to adopting a national organization and bringing it here because it’s not the same.”

Through her emphasis on local engagement, Innamorato intends to put progressive values—women’s rights, social justice, affordable housing and universal health care, to name a few—front and center at the community level. To do that, meaningful conversations have to take place.

“Individuals like me and people I’ve interacted with want someone in the state house that you don’t have to [protest against] just to have a common sense decision made. I want that door to be open. Let’s craft policy together.”

The self-declared “professional generalist” has made a career of communicating community issues—from local food supply and community gardens to the city’s affordable housing crisis—in an accessible way. As the founder of the social good marketing firm Innamo Co., she heads into her 2018 election against current state rep Dom Costa bringing a lengthy history of experience in communication expertise.    

Innamorato says there simply hasn’t been enough creativity and openness from Costa in how his office engages the community.

“I want to see more public servants who are elected officials, and a key component of that is [bringing] everyone with you, not just special interest groups.”

Innamorato seeks to bring community engagement to problems of policy as well. She believes core policy issues and broader, systemic issues—like the lack of women in elected office—can be broken down by taking a new approach, and by putting people with knowledge in places to contribute.

She says that having a well-rounded perspective requires bringing knowledgeable people to the table. That combined with community engagement can get to the common sense nature of the most contentious issues.

“We all want to feel safe and provide for ourselves and our families in a meaningful way. When you talk about universal health care, that may alienate people who say ‘oh, taxes, I don’t want that.’ But when you’re talking to people one-on-one about what they want, and how comfortable people feel with their ability to be able to pay for a medical emergency, getting sick shouldn’t be a sentence to economic distress.”

As her campaign kicks into gear, expect to see Innamorato in neighborhoods throughout the 21st District holding constant conversations with residents, from Sharpsburg to Bloomfield, and meeting with experts to develop policy.