Exactly one month after Election Day, Penn Democrats held a virtual meet-and greet with Penn graduate and State Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, one of the youngest members of the Pennsylvania State Legislature.
Around 20 students met O’Mara through Zoom on Thursday night to hear her speak about her experience campaigning in a highly competitive district of the Philadelphia suburbs considered key to President-elect Joe Biden's victory in Pennsylvania. After securing her sophomore term in the Pennsylvania State Legislature, she addressed the impact of COVID-19 when running for office and highlighted priorities of mental health reform measures, women's equal pay legislation, and candidate recruitment and mentorship for the years ahead.
O’Mara, who received a master’s in English and History from Penn in 2017, ran for the second time this election season to continue representing Pennsylvania’s 165th District in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. Though the race was close, O’Mara emerged victorious against Republican Bob Smythe with 51.5% of the vote.
“I went to Penn and I worked at Penn," O’Mara said. "The one thing you learn about yourself there is that you can achieve things that you put your mind to, and that you should try and give back to your community."
After repeatedly asking herself, ‘How can I best serve my community in this time of great need?’, O'Mara said that running for office was the answer.
Expecting to run twice before she could win, O'Mara stressed the importance of having a long-term work ethic and determination when running for office.
“In 2018, I thought I would lose. In 2020, my second time, with which I would have better name recognition, I could reach that goal. So I'm trying to convince others that you really need to have that long-term plan because if you do, eventually, you’ll get there,” O’Mara said.
Heading into her second term, O’Mara said she is spending time helping other candidates and focusing on candidate recruitment in hopes to secure a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
“I think that’s a way I can be impactful for this caucus because we really need to get a majority," she said during the event. "Until we do, we're going to be dealing with all this crap in Harrisburg.”
As a native of Southwest Philadelphia, O'Mara told The Daily Pennsylvanian that her perspective as a Philadelphian helped shape her approach when running for office.
“Being from the city, especially a city like Philly, you just get so accustomed to such diversity and meeting people from all different backgrounds, races, socioeconomic statuses," O'Mara said. "Now, in Harrisburg, I can tell that there isn’t enough diversity here. For so many people, their eyes have never been opened to that [kind of diversity], and I think that perspective is very needed when you’re representing a state as diverse as this one.”
Because campaigners were unable to door knock amid the pandemic, O'Mara celebrated the current power of social media as a means of voter engagement — particularly the youth demographic.
When running for her second term, O'Mara said she had 15 high school and college students running registration drives, making TikToks, and using various social media platforms to engage and excite potential voters. While she encouraged elected officials to use social media to remain engaged with her constituents, she clarified that they should not use it like President and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump notoriously does.
In her final remarks, O’Mara urged Penn Dems members and event attendees to remain involved in the wake of the election and to not shy away from speaking their minds.
“I think it is really important that young people are able to actually see themselves in their elected officials. I want them to know that we are just like them, it’s just that, you know, we have a different job now,” O’Mara said, adding that she may have realized her career path earlier if she had similar opportunities as a young student.
"I want to lead by example and show them they can, too," O'Mara said.
Since O’Mara has engaged with Penn Dems multiple times — appearing at several phone banks and other virtual speaking events — College sophomore and incoming Penn Dems political director Noah Lewine said he appreciates the allyship she has provided to the group and is hopeful she will play a significant role in the direction of statewide democratic politics moving forward.
“Representative O’Mara has been a great public servant and ally to Penn Dems. It was really interesting to hear her take on the state of local politics in Pennsylvania,” Lewine said. “I think her leadership and ideas are a really promising sign for the future of Pennsylvania Democratic politics.”
College junior and outgoing Penn Dems political director Michael Nevett added that introducing students to young voices in politics, especially Penn graduates, is important in empowering their budding political voices in college.
“The more thoughtful and inspiring the people we’re bringing in front of our members are, the more engaged our members will be, and thus the more willing they will be to get out there and fight for the values we hold [as a group]," Nevett said.
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