For the first six months Jessica Rothchild attended Scranton University, where she studied physical therapy, she didn’t know a single other person who was part of the LGBTQ community. Looking back, she tells NewNowNext it was “a bit of a lonely time.”
When she finally did get to meet with other LGBTQ people, they had to do so in the basements of dormitories, without official school sanction. The administration, she says, had blocked attempts at forming a student group.
Rothchild didn’t have much previous leadership experience, but decided something had to be done and that she was in a position to make it happen. Taking initiative, she founded Scranton Inclusion, the first recognized LGBTQ student organization on campus.
She says the school wouldn’t allow them to call it a gay-straight alliance, “which was initially what we were going with.” Still, they got their group, which continues to exist, and demonstrated for Rothchild what was possible.
“We held regular meetings, events, brought in speakers, participated just like any of the other student clubs would, and I was there for seven years because I was at the university for two degrees, my bachelors and my doctorate. So, I really felt like I got to see a change on campus over that period of time,” she says.
“Just feeling a lot safer, feeling like you could walk down the commons holding the hand of your significant other. It was a really great experience and opportunity.”
Rothchild, who works as a physical therapist, recalls she fell in love with Scranton while attending university. It was also there where she met and fell in love with her wife, Bridget, who hails from the city. So she stayed on, even after earning her degrees, while at the same time branching out with her community organizing efforts: first working with students from other colleges across the state, then joining the board of Equality Pennsylvania.
While with the LGBTQ organization, she served as the president of its political action committee, Equality Pennsylvania PAC, which supports candidates it feels are in line with its mission.
“I dealt with our endorsement process, and talking to candidates and legislatures, and also trying to get legislation passed,” she explains. “So, I can understand the frustrating process behind it.”
In 2016, Rothchild was asked to run as a delegate for Hillary Clinton, which she did, although ultimately she did not end up going to that year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC), which was held in Philadelphia. Still, she says, it afforded her the opportunity to further connect with other politically engaged members of her community.
Following the presidential election, she decided to apply to the Emerge Pennsylvania program, part of the national Emerge America network, which “recruits, trains, and provides a powerful network to Democratic women who want to run for office,” according to its website.
— Jessica Rothchild (@jess4scranton) February 2, 2019
“You just basically get to know everything on how to run, how to be a candidate, how to be a candidate as a woman, which can be different than running as a man. There are some different challenges. And that really gave me the confidence, and made me feel prepared for running.”
“I didn’t see enough people stepping up,” she adds. “We really don’t have much in terms of LGBTQ representation in all of Pennsylvania, but especially Northeast Pennsylvania, where I live. We also don’t have any women on our city council. So, we have five white, heterosexual, cisgender men. There’s no diversity on council.”
“I was always disappointed by that, and I felt like it was somewhere where I could really do a lot of good work and bring a new, different vision to Scranton.”
Her fellow Scrantonians appear to agree a change is needed, turning out to support her in large numbers, making her the top vote-getter in the Democratic primary held in May.
But not everyone is a supporter.
Notorious local anti-LGBTQ rabble-rouser Bob Bolus, a businessman who has made a name for himself by plastering his tractor trailers with pro-Trump, racist, and xenophobic messages, like, “All Lives Matter,” “Keep Mexican Dope in Mexico,” and “Close the Borders,” has taken special interest in Rothchild. He has shown up to two different city council meetings to oppose her candidacy and spout anti-LGBTQ bigotry.
Rothchild is unphased, seeing him as an exception to the rule of an otherwise welcoming city and region.
“We have received an incredible amount of community support since that happened a few weeks ago,” she tells NewNowNext. “We just really saw people come together to stand up against that hateful rhetoric and to stand up for the LGBTQ community.”
“I’ve received a lot of messages from a lot of people; from young LGBTQ people who want someone they can look up to, I’ve received messages from Republicans who say that’s not what they believe, that’s not what they feel, and that they’re still going to vote for me regardless of my sexual orientation. So, I really don’t think that’s a good representation of Scranton and Northeast Pennsylvania as a whole. I know those aren’t our values, and I’m looking forward to representing everyone.”
Republicans in the state Senate recently provided another example of why visibility and representation are needed, as they blocked a Pride Month proclamation, put forward by Sen. Sharif Street.
I had a great time at the #LackawannaCounty Democratic breakfast this past weekend. A lot of fired up people ready for the mid-terms! I also had the pleasure of meeting @SenSharifStreet. pic.twitter.com/Xf5NsSZnVb
— Jessica Rothchild (@JessRothchild) May 7, 2018
“I think that the more representation we have, the better off we are to passing more legislation or better protections for LGBTQ people,” Rothchild reflects.
For instance, she notes that Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast without LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections in housing, public accommodations, and employment.
“We’ve been working to add those on a state level and it still hasn’t happened. We’re hoping with a better legislature that things will be able to happen, but right now the Republicans do have the majority in our Senate, as well as the House of Representatives.”
Rothchild will now face off against the second Democratic vote-getter, Mark McAndrew, in the general election in November. Another Democratic candidate, Andy Chomko, won a Republican write-in, giving him the opportunity to run for as a Republican in the general, should he so choose. Otherwise, Rothchild informs, the Republicans can choose to put up another candidate.
Scranton, the birthplace of Joe Biden, has long been known as a moderate Democratic stronghold. But Rothchild sees a new Scranton emerging, of which she counts herself a part.
“There are a lot of progressive organizations around here,” she says. “I do see a change. I think that people are willing to elect me shows that.”