What are your top three legislative priorities in 2021? First of all, COVID relief is No. 1. This pandemic is getting worse by the day. The Governor in his briefing (December 10) shared a true concern that our hospitals are going to be overwhelmed. So, from our small businesses that have been negatively impacted with the decline of sales, to just regular people who worked and no longer are able to get to work, or are sick from work, we have a ton to do to make sure we get COVID relief to individual families, but also to the small business owners, specifically restaurants, really having a challenging, challenging time.
The second thing is our public schools. So many of our children have been learning through distance or virtual learning, and it is very important that in Harrisburg, we are doing everything we possibly can to be able to fairly fund our schools across the state, and to make sure children have access to the tools they need. Whether they are in rural Pennsylvania or urban Pennsylvania, broadband access is still a challenge, getting laptops and Chromebooks is still too difficult, more than it needs to be. So that’s the second priority.
Then the third priority is for those who are currently in the workforce, or managing several jobs who are underpaid. I look forward to working across the aisle to give Pennsylvanians a long overdue raise in the minimum wage. There has not been a raise in the minimum wage for 12 years. Come next year, it will be 13. All through law school I waited tables, and I’m very sensitive to the fact that we have people who are on the front line in the pandemic who are still seriously underpaid, and we have got to do better. If you work hard all day long, you should be able to put food on your table and keep a roof over your head. But because of the inequities in the standard minimum wage, people are having a harder time than they should be.
I’m incredibly grateful to my colleagues for having the faith and the vision that we collectively share to fight hard for families across Pennsylvania, keeping them at the forefront of our agenda."
What are the important issues facing your district? Back home in southwest Philly in lower Delaware County, I am seeing a lot of challenges as it relates to expanded poverty. All my neighbors work hard, but because certain industries are totally shut down, my neighbors who worked in hospitality or who worked in service at hotels, (for example) downtown at the convention center, (have been particularly affected). The poverty in our area is expanding because people are out of work due to this pandemic.
Some of the priorities for the caucus overlap back home. We need COVID support here, too, so that people can stay in their homes, in their apartments. ...I’ve got people calling me, emailing me on the weekends saying that they’ve got eviction notices, because, of course, the moratorium is expected to expire (in December). I’m very concerned about poverty. I’m very concerned about one of the symptoms of poverty, which is violence—violence in our community. Much of it is handguns, gun violence, but not exclusively. It’s a top concern of mine, and to me. The way you tackle violence is, first of all, making sure there are more opportunities to combat poverty, and to make sure there is more support and intervention for children, teenagers, and young people who are very susceptible to making bad decisions quickly due to a variety of circumstances that also stem from a poorly underfunded education system.
Where do you shop locally for food? Locally, I am often seen in ShopRite. I go to one of Jeff Brown’s (CEO of Brown’s Super Stores) stores a lot. I also like to stop at the Giant, which is nearby. One of the things I hope PFMA will brainstorm on with me is having more access to food in my district. We don’t have a large, major grocery store in my district. Part of it is how my district is drawn. You can go two blocks and go to another district and get to a market, but we still have a bit of food insecurity on this side, so I would love to get PFMA’s feedback on what it takes to do, and brainstorm, even on a multiyear project, to see how we can attract a more major grocer in our area.
What is your favorite vacation destination, and why? I’ll say that if I could go anywhere, I would probably go back to Jamaica. I’ve only been there one time, and at this point, it’s getting to be a while ago. It was almost 10 years ago. But, anywhere with blue waters and light sand and great local food. If I could go anywhere once a year, a dream trip for me is to go to the Caribbean. Two to three hours on a plane and, voila, lovely.
What are the biggest challenges for grocers in your district? One of the challenges is transportation—making sure that there are lots of options so that people who get to the market can get home, or in this pandemic, that people can order. I have done more online orders than I ever thought. I am one of those, I want to go inside the store, I want to push the cart through every aisle, I want to look at the fruit. I have a very hectic schedule. I have been taking advantage of the online ordering, which is usually either within the ShopRite I’m shopping at in the southwest, or they partner with an outside vendor to do the delivery.
What are your biggest challenges and successes as a legislator? The obvious one for me is my entire tenure, my caucus has not been in the majority. My list of demands may be long but, of course, I have to, and I’m proud to work across the aisle with the majority party to make sure that my ideas and my neighbors’ concerns and legislative goals are shared with other colleagues who are not in my area but also see these issues as being important. And this year, I was very happy that Gov. Wolf signed into law my automatic expungement bill that I have been working on for five years. Which sounds like a lot, but in Harrisburg, people have been working on bills for over a decade, so in some regards, it was fast tracked. This bill will make sure that when people are in court, and they are acquitted of all charges, and it’s a non-violent case that they will automatically get their bill of charges expunged from their record within nine months.
Can you describe what it means to you to make history as the first Black woman elected to be the House Minority Leader? It’s truly humbling and an honor. I’m incredibly grateful to my colleagues for having the faith and the vision that we collectively share to fight hard for families across Pennsylvania, keeping them at the forefront of our agenda. I look forward to working with them to ensure that all of the issues that are most important to them back home are uplifted, are amplified, and that we strategically make efforts throughout this session to get the small victories that lead to a big one.
What is your favorite food or meal to cook? My favorite food is pizza. I have to push back and say, “You don’t need any pizza!” It’s great and delicious, but it’s just not something you should consume often! I do enjoy cooking. At holiday time, I like making staple soul food meals for my family, whose roots are in North Carolina. The standards are way up here! You’ve got to spend hours making everything. But on a regular day-to-day, I enjoy fresh vegetables, I eat a lot of fish.
What do you like to do for fun? I enjoy a good Zumba class. Me gusta bailar—I like to dance!
(This Q&A has been lightly edited for length.)
Liz Kemmery, director of communications