A Young Autistic Pennsylvania Lawmaker Overcomes the Odds

Jessica Benham has faced disadvantages that would keep most people out of politics. She hasn’t let that stop her from getting elected to the state Legislature.

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Pennsylvania Rep. Jessica Benham.
(David Kidd/Governing)
When Jessica Benham talks to her fellow members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, she avoids eye contact, focusing instead on their foreheads. That’s not just a personality quirk. It’s a function of autism. “Some of the things that I do to cope are not noticeable to other people,” she says. “Or they might think are a little odd.” Even so, she manages not to feel entirely out of place in the Legislature. “I don’t think you can look at state legislators,” she jokes, “and think ‘these are the most socially graceful people ever.’”

“I’m not disabled because I’m autistic,” she insists. “I’m disabled because of the way the world treats autistic people. I often have to overcome people’s preconceptions before I can do other things. That’s my life. And I’m good at it.” When she took the oath of office as a freshman Democrat earlier this year, Benham became one of the few openly autistic people to serve in any legislature in the United States. “I didn’t run to be the first of anything,” she says. “I ran to make a difference.”

She is distinctive from her colleagues in one other way: She is bisexual. A 30-year-old bisexual autistic female might seem to many an unlikely candidate for office. There was a time when Benham would have agreed. “People do not often look at a queer disabled woman and see leadership,” she says.

“The first time someone asked me to run, I was like ‘okay, that’s a funny joke,’” she recalls. “Tell the queer autistic girl that she should run for office. Yeah, that’s hilarious…It’s hard to envision yourself running for office when you don’t see other people like you in positions of power.”

Conservative Upbringing and Closeted

Benham grew up in a small Pittsburgh townhouse where her parents still reside. “Among the poor folks,” she says, “who lived in the area.” Her mother teaches piano and her father, a retired minister to two congregations, teaches music education at Duquesne University. The Sundays of her youth were filled with church, first at what she refers to as an English-speaking “American church,” followed by a two-hour service with Ukrainian Baptists. Her father still speaks to her in Ukrainian, but she answers in English.

Politics was not often a topic of conversation in the Benham household. With huge glasses, braces and a questionable haircut, Jessica remembers herself as “the most awkward 15-year-old ever,” a quiet wallflower who felt more comfortable around adults. “I was also growing up as a queer kid in a very conservative religious context,” she says. “And that was hard.” Closeted until she left home to attend a Christian college in the Midwest, she came out to her mother and father just three years ago. “I don’t think it was easy for them,” she says.

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Jessica and her chief of staff, Moira Kaleida, head off for a Saturday morning pancake breakfast in the basement of a nearby church.
(David Kidd/Governing)
The pastor’s daughter avoided church for 10 years after leaving home, something she and her father never really talked about. “There’s a lot of pain there,” she says. “I still consider myself deeply religious. It’s very much a part of who I am. To bring to fruition a society that demonstrates we truly value everyone. I think that’s what my call is. And so much of that comes from what I believe about God.” Today she is active in a church that makes a point of welcoming all. “LGBTQ people can serve in leadership, can be a pastor, all of those things.”

After earning degrees in political science and communication studies from Bethel University in Minnesota, her mother’s alma mater, Benham went on to receive an M.A. in communication from Minnesota State, and an M.A. in bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh, where she also taught for several years.

Her experience as a graduate student teacher drew her to labor issues. Spurred on by what she thought were unfair working conditions, Benham joined an ongoing movement to unionize Pitt’s graduate student teachers. Although the efforts to organize ultimately failed, she has kept up her interests in workers’ rights. “That was pretty formative for me,” she says.

As a disability rights activist, Benham co-founded the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, an LGBTQ and autistic-led group advocating on behalf of adults on the autism spectrum. She served for a time on the board of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an organization promoting “equal access, rights, and opportunities” for people with autism. She was a constant presence at community meetings, writing grants, addressing water management issues, and organizing neighborhood trash pickups. She wasn’t thinking about running for office. “I was going to be an academic and an activist, and that was the plan.”

But the plan changed. Even before her predecessor, a 24-year incumbent, announced he would not seek re-election, Benham began her campaign for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Touting her experience as a community organizer and advocate, she ran on issues that resonated with the citizens of the heavily Democratic 36th District: education, the environment, workers’ rights, and health care for all. “I always thought I would be on the other side of the desk,” she says. “Advocating to legislators about decisions that needed to be made for the good of our community. And then holding them accountable.” But she turned out to be an impressive candidate. She was elected in November with nearly 63 percent of the vote.

Adjusting to Life at the State Capitol

Due to concerns over the coronavirus, the state Capitol in Harrisburg is closed on a Tuesday in late March, as it has been since early December. Even though the Legislature is in session, the collection of buildings that make up the Capitol Complex is eerily quiet. A few officers are at their post by the main entrance and a lone soldier, dressed in camouflage fatigues and heavily armed, stands in the shadows of the rotunda, its ornate Beaux Arts dome 250 feet overhead. Two women are behind the counter in the empty snack bar downstairs, the unused tables and chairs stacked against a wall.

Rep. Benham’s office is at the end of a glass-lined hallway, across from a small communal kitchen. Most of the members in this part of the building have plastered their hall-facing walls with signs and posters: RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE, PEOPLE NOT PRISONS, END GUN VIOLENCE, PRE-K FOR PA, HELP STOP PUPPY MILL CRUELTY. But there is just a single handwritten note taped to the door of Benham’s office. “Ravi (cat) is visiting. Please avoid him escaping.” Five-year-old, brown-and-white Ravi has the run of the small suite that includes Jessica’s office and that of another freshman, Rick Krajewski, a longtime friend and fellow activist from Philadelphia. Their shared legislative assistant is working from home. With the exception of a single brass lamp and a calendar still turned to the previous month, the office is devoid of decoration. A lone nail is barely visible on one wall, having once held something belonging to the previous occupant. The wall clock by the door is an hour behind.

“I’m a working-class kid who grew up poor,” says Benham, surveying her designated space. “You could not pluck a regular person from my district and bring them to Harrisburg and have them feel comfortable,” she says. “So why should I, a regular working-class kid from South Pittsburgh, feel comfortable?” She doesn’t offer an answer. Nevertheless, she’s happy with her assigned space, mainly because it’s a short walk to the House floor.

She may not have a fondness for furniture, but clothes are another matter. Today, the freshman representative is outfitted in black pants that literally sparkle, and a red tunic top, both purchased at a thrift store. Mandated face coverings present another opportunity to accessorize. “At a certain point, the mask makes the outfit,” she says through a swatch of black cloth decorated with large pink roses. “People sometimes think about style and fashion as frivolous. I think about fashion as political,” she says. “I am not here to wear a black suit and fade into the background.”

The Virtual Legislator

With coffee, tea or Red Bull always close at hand, Benham typically begins her workdays in Harrisburg at 7:30 in the morning. It’s often close to 9:00 at night when she and Ravi head back to their budget hotel by the Susquehanna River, less than a mile away. In between, when she isn’t making intermittent trips to the chamber to vote, or reading up on the issues, she is answering email, engaging on social media or attending virtual meetings. Every vote she takes is immediately followed with a tweet explaining her position, and she regularly posts Facebook and YouTube videos, updating her constituents about the goings on in Harrisburg.

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Ravi the cat is a fixture in Benham’s Capitol office. “When he interrupts me while I’m doing a live video, people are like ‘bring back the cat!’”
(David Kidd/Governing)
Still, comfortable at virtual meetings as she is, Benham longs for the time when people can literally work together again. “I do lots and lots of virtual meetings,” she says. “They’re definitely useful. But it is much easier when we’re able to do in-person meetings and in-person organizing.”

Today is the last day the Legislature will meet this week, and a flurry of bills have passed, some to the great dismay of the freshman from Pittsburgh. At the end of a long day, she delivers a 10-minute video rundown of the day’s events, beginning with a vote she wished had gone the other way. “Absolutely unacceptable and just incredibly frustrating,” she says into the camera. This is followed by news on the governor’s back-to-work plan, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and her thoughts on a recent shooting incident. She talks about hyperlocal details as well. “We have our community cleanup, which is coming up very soon, from 10 a.m. until noon. We’ll be socially distancing, masks, all of that good stuff. I’m really looking forward to cleaning up the neighborhood with you all.” With that, she and Ravi head out the door for another virtual meeting at the hotel. Early tomorrow morning they will be on their way back to the district.

Representing Pittsburgh’s Economic Spectrum

If Benham sometimes feels ill at ease at the ornate state Capitol, she is right at home in her district office, a century-old storefront located on a busy but slightly rundown corridor lined with pizza shops, a candy store, bridal salon and tattoo parlor. A pair of massive old churches and a brand-new library are across the street. A jumble of power lines hangs over the narrow sidewalk.

A proper sign has been ordered for the front, but for now, the only indication this is a state representative’s office is Benham’s name on a piece of paper taped to the front door, and a map of the 36th District on display in the window. For the time being, walk-ins are discouraged, in accordance with current COVID-19 guidelines.

At the back of the room, away from the display windows and behind a flimsy folding screen, Benham works at a small wooden table with barely enough room for a computer, phone and her ever-present planning book. A narrow wingback chair occupies a dimly lit corner, the centerpiece of an eclectic array of mismatched furnishings and decorations. With everything sourced at area thrift shops, the look is decidedly shabby chic.

Hiring personnel and balancing the office budget are tasks new to Benham. She often finds it difficult to reconcile her political beliefs with the fiscal realities of running an office. “One of the things I find a little frustrating is that the budget is just not big enough to have everyone on full time,” she says. “I think that’s not necessarily living our values as a Democratic caucus.” She does pay everyone more than minimum wage; the lowest paid of her part-time staffers earns $17 an hour.

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Virtual meetings take place in a back corner of the district office and are often shared with constituents. “I try to bring in as many folks whose lives are impacted by a given policy as possible.”  
(David Kidd/Governing)
Covering southern parts of Pittsburgh and adjacent suburbs, Pennsylvania’s 36th District includes some 60,000 people all across the economic spectrum, nearly 90 percent of whom are white. The most common problems facing Benham and her staff these days involve unemployment and access to vaccines. A host of perennial issues still need attention, though, regardless of the needs of the moment. In a district of steep hills and valleys, landslides and flooding are a constant threat. So is aging infrastructure. “We have huge water main breaks,” she says. “So that’s what I dealt with waking up this morning, an enormous water main break. Those are the issues that I’m fighting for.”

The surroundings may be different, but just as she does from her office in Harrisburg, Benham relies on her phone and computer to connect virtually with colleagues and constituents alike. Every weekend she makes random calls to people in her district, taking their names from voter rolls. “The calls where you’re asking people for their votes are not nearly as fun as the calls where I’m just saying ‘Hi, this is State Rep. Jessica Benham calling for so-and-so. How are you doing today?’”

Sponsoring Broad Interests

“Sometimes people don’t know what to make of me,” Benham reflects. “Certainly, on the other side of the aisle, there are people who will not work with me. Not so much because I’m autistic, but because I’m queer. Maybe they believe it’s catching,” she says. “But for the most part, people are kind and welcoming. If anything, there’s a bit of benevolent paternalism.” Republican Speaker Bryan Cutler was one to reach out early, wanting to discuss disability policy.

As the first and only openly autistic, LGBTQ person elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature, Jessica Benham is understandably concerned with issues related to her lived experience. “All policy issues are disability policy issues,” she says. “Every single policy that we decide on in this place impacts disabled people.” Proud of who she is, Benham is nevertheless wary of being defined by her disability or sexual preference, and quick to point out the broad range of interests she has advocated for in the first few months of her term. “I’ve prime-sponsored bills about health care, bills about education, and bills about the environment,” she says. “I’ve co-sponsored loads and loads of bills on a variety of different topics. It’s hard for people to paint me as ‘oh, she only cares about disability issues,’ when they see me advocating on so many different topics.”

“Folks with disabilities are underrepresented at every level of government and in every kind of leadership position that there is,” Benham says. Against the odds, she has taken a personal disadvantage and turned it to her favor. “I think that having overcome difficulty, having overcome people’s preconceptions of me and doing that over and over and over again, makes me a better legislator.”

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Benham reviews the day’s events with her chief of staff.
(David Kidd/Governing)
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jessica Benham was the first openly autistic person to serve in a state legislature. In fact, she is one of several autistic lawmakers in the country.
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.