Board Member Spotlight: Caitlin Handerhan

Caitlin Handerhan

By Samantha Semanek

Emerge Pennsylvania has trained dozens of talented and driven women to run for office, but the driving force behind the organization are the board members and volunteers from all across the state who support the program.  Today, I spoke with Caitlin Handerhan from the northwest corner of Pa.

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in Mercer, Pa. and I now live in Northeast Pennsylvania, just outside of Erie.

What do you do for a living?

I’m the Executive Director of the Behrend Public Policy Fund at Penn State Behrend. It’s a new center that just launched and I am the first director they brought on. Right now, my job largely consists of three components: supervising and placing students in policy related internships; organizing policy-related events (forums, etc.); and facilitating interdisciplinary, policy research. My favorite part of this position is the teaching component. Last semester I taught a course called “Media & Politics” and we all had too much fun in that class.

How did you learn about Emerge PA?

I first learned about Emerge very organically on social media. Later on, when I was running County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper’s campaign, she recommended that I apply to be on the board.

Was there a defining moment that inspired you to run or support women who want to run? What shaped your decision to join Emerge?

I have always been really interested in politics, even from the time I was young. I was that kid that would rather watch CNN than MTV in junior high. That interest in current affairs and politics all came together when Hillary ran in the 2008 primaries against Obama--that was the first time I really realized, that running for office and being a woman in politics was really plausible. I volunteered on that campaign when I was 17 years old and couldn’t even vote. That was a really big moment. People in this line of work either love it or you hate it right away, and I loved it.

Is there a specific policy issue close to your heart, and can you tell us about it?

There are so many things--it’s hard to pick just one. Broadly, one thing that defines my political worldview is equality. In graduate school I was working on health care issues, specifically access to care. I spent a summer in Kigali, Rwanda working on these issues. Nearest and dearest to my heart right now are LGBTQ issues. In Pennsylvania, we don’t even have a statewide ban on [sexuality-based] discrimination. To me, that’s just medieval. How can we not have basic protections like that in place in 2018? Major cities have passed nondiscrimination rules, so living in Erie or Pittsburgh is safe, but living in Mercer, you’re not.

Would you consider running for office in the future?

I am not running for office currently, but would never rule it out.

Over the course of your time with Emerge PA, what has been your best insight into yourself and/or the campaign process?

I only came on board at the end of last year, but even the time I spent interviewing for this new cohort, I saw such a sense of camaraderie in even the network alone. The first day that I walked in, I met Tina Davis, who is so phenomenally welcoming. I remember thinking, if this is what this is about, then I’m on board.

What has been your biggest success or proudest moment thus far on your journey?

In the 2017 cycle, I was running the Erie County Executive’s race, and it was an uphill battle from the start. My candidate was an incumbent, female, Democrat, which are dirty words in Trump country. The county went for Trump, and we were running against a very “Trumpian” candidate. In many ways it felt like 2016; we had an extremely educated, qualified woman running against a man who didn’t know the first thing about local government. Luckily, we worked really hard in the field and came out on top by a 304-vote margin.

Who is a woman you admire?

I have to say Kathy Dahlkemper, the candidate I worked with in the 2017 Erie County Executive race. While we may have some differences of opinion on a few policy issues, I have always admired the way she sticks to her convictions. For example, in her re-election race, I wanted to run negative ads and she did not. Despite immense pressure, she was willing to take the high road even if it wasn’t the most politically expedient. That is a testament to her character, and I admire that deeply.

What’s one thing you’re loving right now (food, TV show, book, hobby, etc)?

Right not I am loving HBO’s “Veep” - how can you not love to hate Julia Louis-Dreyfus in that role? Also, of course, I just finished Fire and Fury, in all of its gossipy drama.

What’s your favorite place in Pennsylvania?

Lake Erie. Living in Erie, it sounds cliché, but it is definitely my favorite place. I actually live on the lake right now.

What advice do you have for our future candidates or volunteers?

Oh, so many things! As a candidate, you’re going to have three consultants tell you three different things, so you have to run the race that you want to run -- a race you’re proud of. As a volunteer, choose for a candidate that you are passionate about, because otherwise you run the risk of burnout.

What’s your favorite way to spend a few empty hours of free time?

Over the last few years, I started this adventure into running, so any free time I get right now is spent training. I recently ran a half marathon with my training partner and we referred to ourselves as ‘Nasty Women’ as we ran that race.

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