By IVAN PEREIRA, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — As an openly bisexual, autistic woman, Jessica Benham, of Pittsburg, told ABC News she decided to run for a state legislature seat when she realized her communities have not been well represented in government.
Benham, 29, who co-founded and ran a grassroots advocacy group, The Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, said other autistic and LGTBQ Pennsylvanians share her sentiment.
“I was hearing from my community that they wanted to someone who was like them to be represented,” she said. “Their voice was long unheard.”
Benham will fill that void in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives next year. The Democrat won the race for District 36 — which includes parts of Pittsburg — with 62.5% of the vote on Election Day, according to election results.
Autism advocates say her historic win will help promote awareness for the millions of Americans with disabilities and encourage members of the community to seek political careers.
“There is a stereotype that public office is only people with neurotypical social skills, people who are extroverted,” Sam Crane, the legal director for the nonprofit Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told ABC News. “Ms. Benham’s success might help others realize that’s not typically the case.”
Benham said she was always passionate about politics and advocacy work at an early age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and communication from Bethel University, a master’s degree in communication from Minnesota State University and a master’s degree in bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh.
During her time at the University of Pittsburg, Benham helped form a union with other graduate students.
Five years ago, she co-founded her nonprofit and worked with other autistic advocates to fight for stronger rights for the community, particularly in terms of health care.
The organization advocated Paul’s Law, a state legislation that passed in 2018 and prohibits individuals with disabilities from being denied an organ transplant.
“That combination of advocating for health care and fighting back against union-busting lawyers, gave me an experience of what working Pennsylvanians experience,” Benham said.
During her campaign, Benham made health care and her top priority. She said she’s heard too many stories of constituents who lost their jobs and health insurance and are worried about their health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people who lost [their insurance] were people who were in higher risk,” Benham said. “My time advocating for health care has given me a nuanced perspective on health care legislation. I will fight for health care that is truly affordable to people.”
Since her victory last week, Benham said she’s gotten hundreds of messages from LGBTQ members and autistic members who were thrilled to see someone like them elected into office.
“Some of the messages were like, ‘I never thought I could do it and then I saw you won,'” Benham said. “Those comments are really meaningful, and I’m trying to get back to each one.”
Crane said there has been increased interest from autistic members to pursue civic-related careers, and there have been more members elected to state and local offices.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has a program for college and graduate students called the autism campus inclusion project, which trains autistic members on public policy and connects them with elected officials and policymakers. Benham is an alumnus of the program, according to Crane.
“One of the things that we tell our participants in ACI, our leadership training, is if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. We want to make sure that autistic advocates are involved in all of the policy discussions,” Crane said.
Crane said there have been other autistic members who have been elected to office at local levels including, Yuh-Line Niou, who serves in New York State Assembly.
She said news of Benham’s win has enlightened the autistic community and is already inspiring members to think about running for office.
Benham said she takes her responsibilities as a role model to her LGBTQ and autistic communities seriously, and is looking forward to empowering others through her work.
“What sticks with me every time I walk into those gilded walls in Harrisburg is how honored I am to represent my constituents,” she said. “I was never sure that someone like me would have that privilege.”
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