HARRISBURG, Pa. — State Rep. Sara Innamorato stood outside the restaurant, staring at her phone, contemplating what to do next. Should she get on a conference call with the presidential campaign for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or go to a happy hour with some lobbyists?
For her, it was a difficult choice. The democratic socialist’s surprisingly salient first run for president had inspired Innamorato to campaign for him in 2016, and then to campaign for herself in 2018 as one of the first socialists to join the Pennsylvania state legislature in nearly a century.
But the lobbyists were mingling with other lawmakers, and Innamorato was eager to show her colleagues she was more interested in legislating than in labels. So she stuck her phone in her purse. She took a deep breath. And she walked inside.
“I feel like I wasn’t elected to be into this, this tribalism,” Innamorato said. “But no one wants to be at the lunch table feeling alone.”
When she walked in, she realized she would at least have some company in this uncomfortable new terrain. Two other newly elected democratic socialists — state Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler and Summer Lee — were there, too, chatting with a lobbyist who represented domestic workers.
“There are good lobbyists, and there are bad lobbyists,” Lee said to Innamorato, after the man walked away. “You have to find out which ones are good and which ones are bad.”
“I’m just going to make a few connections and learn what I can,” Innamorato said.
“I told someone I believed in the radical redistribution of wealth,” Fiedler said. “He gave me a face. Awkward.”
The three women had emerged as the local faces of one of the most provocative forces in American politics. President Trump was using the success of newcomers like them to resurrect the rhetoric of the Red Scare, warning that the Democratic Party is being seized by radicals.
Going into the 2020 elections, Democrats themselves are grappling with how much they want to be defined by the party’s far-left faction, given how popular Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are with young voters who have no recollection of the Cold War.
In Pennsylvania, a state that swung for Trump in 2016, its highest-ranking democratic socialists had only been affiliated with the term a few years. Six weeks into their jobs, they were asking themselves a simple question: How do I fit in? Every choice they made would forge a path for a group inching its way into electoral politics.
On this night, the women chose to be surrounded by the old-time political mechanics they wanted to upend. Lobbyists swirled around lawmakers, telling jokes and handing out donations (among the three of them, only Fiedler received one — from the Humane Society). Amid all the dark suits and gray hair, the women stood out.
Innamorato was 32 with an asymmetrical bob haircut, nose ring and tattoo of a Harry Potter wand on her right index finger.
Lee, 31, was the first black woman representing the southwestern part of the state. She wore a pin in the shape of a black power fist on her blazer.
Fiedler, 38, had her hair shaved at the sides to create a trendy undercut. A Democratic staffer recently stopped her at work to tell her she was “one of the best-looking women we’ve had in the Capitol in a long time.”
“I’m hard-working, too,” Fiedler replied, giving a faint smile and then turning away. She muttered to herself: “This place is a time warp.”
The women were so often seen together that people in the Capitol often mixed up their names. Their offices were right next to one another, and they shared a secret stash of sweets. They received stares when they walked together across the brick-paved floors of the state Capitol, striding past painted depictions of the American Revolution. One day, they heard a man mumbling about them.
“Did he just call us g--d--- communists?” Innamorato said.
“Just keep walking,” Lee said.
It wasn’t communism that illuminated their thinking, but the version of socialism most loudly described by Sanders, whose message about working-class exploitation resonated.
Innamorato lives in a gentrifying neighborhood in Pittsburgh and had only a passing interest in politics before 2016. Sanders’s campaign felt to her like the opening act for a newer, more inclusive type of politics, and she tried to continue the work by recruiting local women to run for office.
But Innamorato could find no woman in her home district to challenge the Democratic incumbent, a former city police chief from a prominent political family. So she ran herself.
In a nearby neighborhood, Lee had been organizing against an overwhelmingly white school board after a video surfaced of police officers attacking black high school students. She had a law degree from Howard University and was unemployed, sleeping in her mother’s house. In organizing, Lee found a purpose.
A member of the local chapter of democratic socialists invited her to coffee, where he asked, “So, what do you think of capitalism?”
“I think it’s evil and inherently racist,” Lee recalled responding.
She said something never felt right about a system that enabled such blight in Pittsburgh’s poor and working-class black neighborhoods, while allowing such prosperity in white suburbs — even though they all worked in the steel industry.
“You should run,” he said, which was the push Lee needed.
On the other side of the state, in Philadelphia, Fiedler quit her reporting job at a local public radio station after Trump was elected, saying she needed to do something more proactive to give her two small children a better future. She had covered politics and politicians and felt like democratic socialists presented a big picture vision of what the country could be. Mainstream Democrats moved too incrementally for her, particularly about climate change.
The women heard about each other over the course of their campaigns. A friendship was formed, a group text started. They attended each other’s fundraisers, took pictures together on Instagram, and formed an identity as an anti-establishment political trifecta, a socialist sisterhood.
This was not a surefire strategy to succeed. A commercial in Pittsburgh warned about the impact of socialists being elected, using a Che Guevara impostor sneaking into suburban homes and stealing cups of coffee and a man with a bad Russian accent and a fur cap saying, “Socialism? We gave that up years ago. It doesn’t work.”
A voter called Innamorato a “moonbat,” a phrase she had to google to learn that it was pejorative, and others accused her of trying to turn the country into Venezuela.
“Geopolitics isn’t my thing,” Innamorato would say. “What does the word ‘socialism’ meant to you?”
She would then restate her value that no one in the country should worry about the cost of health care or about getting a good education.
Voters elected the women, handily. They were sworn in at the beginning of the year, wearing the nicest blazers they could find at Goodwill. Now, they had an annual salary of $87,000, the most lucrative jobs of their lives.
Innamorato could finally afford dental insurance. Lee could finally cover her $3,500 monthly student loan payment. She also upgraded her 2006 Hyundai Elantra to a 2017 Nissan Rogue, an all-wheel drive that could easily navigate the state’s winding highways. She and Innamorato use the vehicle to carpool together, taking up the anthem “Defying Gravity” from the show “Wicked,” as the “song of their political story.”
“I feel like I can be bold and take actions because I have nothing to lose,” Innamorato said during a car trip one day. “I don’t have a great fortune to lose if we don’t succeed.”
“Oh, I have everything to lose,” Lee said. “If I fail, my community will be set back.”
Inside the Capitol, they were just three freshmen in the 203-person state House of Representatives, a minority within the minority party. They had to figure out when to speak out or say nothing at all, when to compromise, when to take risks, how fast to move.
“We know that we can’t go to Harrisburg and propose legislation that is radical,” Lee said. “It’s the tortoise and the hare. We know that we’ve got to be the tortoise. And whoever the hare is is going to get burned out.”
One of their first steps in the race came a few weeks into the session, when Fiedler and Innamorato grabbed their iPads and met early for breakfast. They had spent the night perfecting what would be their first speeches on the House floor.
Lobbyists for left-leaning health organizations had sought them out to introduce amendments to offset a Republican-sponsored bill about Medicaid payments.
Innamorato’s amendment would expand eligibility for the type of caretakers qualified to receive those payments. Fiedler agreed to put forth an amendment that would set the minimum wage for caretakers at $15 an hour. They received drafts on a Tuesday and had one day to learn as much as they could about the sprawling government insurance program.
“How does the speech sound?” Innamorato asked.
“It sounds good, really good,” Fiedler responded.
“Do you think I’ll get to say, I yield my time?” Innamorato said. “I always wanted to say that.”
“Me too,” Fiedler said. “And make sure to address the speaker as Mr. Speaker.”
They finished off breakfast and soon took their seats at a closed-door meeting with the Democratic caucus. There, their enthusiasm began to dim.
Their colleagues had concerns about the amendments, and neither Fiedler nor Innamorato had the answers. Some wanted to know how raising the minimum wage might affect small business, according to the attendees. Others wondered whether the changes might impact liability for the agencies.
The two then learned that the inquiries probably would not stop at the meeting. If Innamorato and Fiedler brought the amendments to the floor, Republican lawmakers could also pepper them with questions, in public, on camera. In Pennsylvania, that procedure is called “an interrogation.”
The women had a choice to make: subject themselves to an interrogation or withdraw the amendment. They had about 15 minutes to decide.
“This is nerve-racking,” Innamorato recalled thinking.
The caucus meeting adjourned, and soon the House speaker was gaveling in the legislative session. He introduced the Medicaid amendments, and Fiedler grabbed the microphone.
“Thank you, Mr. Speaker,” she said.
Fiedler began a short speech discussing how Medicaid can pay a home-care agency up to $19 an hour for services, but, on average, the caretaker only receives $12 an hour. The “moral thing” to do, Fiedler said, would be to raise caretakers’ minimum wage.
But before anyone had a chance to ask any questions, she said one more thing: “I withdraw the amendment.”
Innamorato walked up to the lectern. She spoke about the values of having a relative take care of someone on Medicaid, and how the government should lessen the burden of those who practiced in-home care. And then: “I withdraw the amendment,” Innamorato said.
The speaker banged his gavel, and moved on. Innamorato tried to move on, too.
“There are definitely days when I wake up now and I am, like, I am not equipped to do this,” Innamorato said later. “But I’ll figure it out. It’s a system. There are rules. It’s imperfect because it’s run by human beings, and I’ll figure it out.”
A few days later, the three democratic socialists jumped into Lee’s Nissan Rogue. They were on their way to be the featured Democrats on a local TV show, “This Week in Pennsylvania,” with a cheerful host named Dennis Owens.
Fiedler pretended to be a TV announcer, introducing the type of segment she hated.
“The Red Scare returns,” she said. “Socialists! Why should I not be afraid of you?”
The women made a decision to present themselves as not so terrifying.
“Let’s make sure no one talks over each other,” Fiedler said as Lee pulled into the studio’s parking lot.
“And let’s keep our answers to under a dissertation,” Lee said.
“And can we do that thing like we did the last time, where we complimented each other on making good points?” Fiedler said.
“That’s right!” Innamorato added. “Hashtag Amplify!”
Soon, they were sitting on set with Owens.
“The term ‘democratic socialist’ is all the rage these days, and it has actually won elections,” he began as the cameras rolled. “But what exactly is it? Someone take that. Jump ball. What is democratic socialism? What is this thing all about?”
Fiedler seized the ball. But instead of discussing ideas such as the radical redistribution of wealth, she used a simple definition of a politics that put the needs of “working people over corporations.”
“I hear over and over from people in my district who are struggling with health care, struggling to afford their prescriptions, find a good public school in the neighborhood, get clean water, clean air,” she said.
“Doesn’t every politician believe that?” Owens pressed.
“There are not as many as you would think — even amongst Democrats — who have come forward to actually walk that walk, and fight, and march and legislate these things,” Lee said.
The answers were concise, devoid of policy and ran out the clock until the first commercial break. When the cameras stopped recording, Owens told his guests he needed some clarity.
“You all want Medicare-for-all, government funded,” he said. “Free college, too?”
“Of course,” Innamorato said, as the others agreed.
“Okay,” Owens said. “I’m going to label that a utopian world.”
After the break, Owens didn’t wait for the women to speak about their socialist bona fides — he flatly stated their support for free college and health care.
“Who pays for that?” he asked.
“The richest 1 percent,” Fiedler said.
“Realistically, what we are asking for is not utopian,” Lee said, co-opting the word before Owens could get to it. “There are other countries, European countries, who have been able to figure this out.”
Owens looked at them and smiled.
“I have a feeling you guys aren’t going anywhere,” he said, suggesting they had a long political career ahead of them.
“No,” Lee said, “we aren’t.”
The women took a selfie together for Instagram and headed back into the car.
“Good job, ladies,” Fiedler said as she buckled up. “We’re having some success.”
A few days before, they had to pull amendments from the House floor. Now a television host was remarking on their political savvy and inviting them back on his show. Step by step, meeting by meeting, each day brought another lesson in how to navigate the political world.
“I’m learning to be more comfortable with myself,” Innamorato said one day, before grabbing her coat and walking out of the Capitol building.
She looked down at her phone. She had a message from a number she didn’t recognize.
It was Sanders’s team, reaching out again.
Moments later, she was on the phone with the senator himself. Sanders asked for her support for his presidential campaign. She responded using the technique she mastered on the campaign trail.
“What does support mean to you?” she asked.
It could mean anything from fundraising to hanging up a yard sign, he said.
Innamorato had practiced what she would say in this moment, but it felt so uncomfortable to her. Sanders’s first campaign had given her a new hope, a new outlook on life; it led her to a new job. But she was a politician now, and politicians’ endorsements had consequences. In 2020, she would be on the ballot, too.
“I admire your ideas, and I admire your independence,” she told the candidate. “But right now, I really want to focus on legislating.”
The conversation lasted four minutes. She put the phone in her purse. She exhaled and walked to her hotel room. She pulled out her iPad, reading about the next bills coming before the state house. The legislature would be in session the following day, and she wanted to be prepared.