Gopal Balachandran’s bid for State College Borough Council began with a Twitter direct message.
“It was the last thing I could have expected,” Balachandran, assistant professor of clinical law at Penn State, said. “I had never considered a political run of any kind before, but after this organizer reached out, it immediately put a bug in my ear.”
The organizer, 17-year-old senior at State College Area High School Maddie King is part of Central Pennsylvania's chapter of PA United, an organization working to mobilize a new type of government statewide.
“There are so many people in this town who feel disengaged or disconnected from local politics, because they have never had someone represent their priorities,” King said. “What we’re trying to do is take back that narrative and put in its place candidates who will serve as community members first and politicians second.”
CPAU is one of seven chapters across western Pennsylvania that are part of PA United’s 2021 “Our Communities Can’t Wait” campaign slate to elect and support a government “where the people who work the hardest and bear the greatest burdens are also the ones who write the laws,” according to its website.
There are 25 candidates running as part of the broader “Our Communities Can’t Wait” slate — with four candidates located in Centre County, where the campaign is called “Centre County Can’t Wait,” according to PA United’s website. The local primary election will take place on May 18 with voter registration closing on May 3.
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The slate is sponsored by PA United’s Political Action Committee, which supports each candidate's “people-powered, people-funded” campaigns through donations and grassroots organizing, according to its website.
A campaign slate allows a group of candidates to consolidate their beliefs into one united front. Whether through campaign funds or shared positions over major issues that affect the community, King said the “Centre County Can’t Wait” slate gives CPAU candidates, organizers and volunteers the “opportunity” to get more results from their joint platform while still running an “individual campaign.”
“Our ultimate goal is to build a broad coalition that represents everyone,” Balachandran said. “By having a diverse set of viewpoints as part of our slate, it enables for more creative solutions during this campaign period.”
While the slate was finalized at the beginning of March with the addition of Balachandran, the roots of CPAU go all the way back to spring 2020 when Daniel Susser, CPAU team leader, and other local progressive activists came together to support Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
What started as an idea from a small group of activists working to integrate progressive politics into local elections slowly transformed into something much more long-lasting.
“We wanted to build an organization that operated independently of the Democratic party so that we could channel our energy into a movement for real progressive change in central Pennsylvania,” Susser, assistant professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, said. “We partnered with PA United because we knew we could make that real change happen [with its support].”
A borough resident since 2017, Balachandran sparked the interest of King while she was scouting for candidates over social media, which led to conversations about his potential to run.
“He just needed someone to reach out and encourage him to take that jump,” King said. “For too long, certain politicians have dictated the political scene. Our community members deserve more — not from people trying to make career moves but from those in our community who will do their job as an act of service and love for the space we live in.”
State College native and local activist Abbie La Porta said the impact a candidate slate brings to local elections can have the ability to change the direction of a political party.
“Looking at the Democratic party in Centre County, we know there have been Democrats elected in local elections before and in many positions, but that does not mean they will do what is best for us,” La Porta (sophomore-architectural engineering) said. “CPAU formed this slate to help bring progressive politics to State College. It’s a symbol that we’re here and we’re not going away anytime soon.”
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PA United encouraged candidates with “diverse life experiences” to run rather than “traditionally ‘electable’ candidates,” according to a March press release.
Joining Balachandran on the Centre County slate are small business owner and long-term resident Richard Biever, current Penn State student and organizational leader Divine Lipscomb and 3/20 Coalition co-leader Tierra Williams, all of whom have been backed by PA United.
“Each one of us isn't running to be individual saviors,” Balachandran said. “We are a part of a broader movement representing local interests by stressing the importance of having dialogues within the specific communities we represent.”
For Williams, being a part of the slate represents new beginnings as well.
“Policy change starts at the community level,” Williams said. “[Running] was not something I had initially thought of, but the priority with the slate and CPAU is about making our area a better place. If I can have even the smallest impact through this campaign, it will be worth it.”
While Balachandran, Biever and Lipscomb are campaigning for the three open borough council seats in State College, Williams is running in the neighboring municipality Ferguson Township to be the next township supervisor.
“Of course everyone is invested in seeing each other win because we’ve got an amazing team that’s working together,” Williams said. “However, at the end of the day, we all come from different parts of this community, so we think about complex issues very differently. If I say police reform, it’s not going to mean the same thing to other candidates due to how our life experiences differ. Our positions are still independent of each other.”
Williams said the issues at hand in Centre County “won’t change” unless the community can address the problems properly.
“Affordable housing, mental health reform and zoning are all problems that have roots in our community, just as they have overarching roots nationwide,” Williams said. “Maybe we can't change everything immediately, but we have to start somewhere.”
However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, efforts to fundraise, canvas and get the word out about the slate have been limited to virtual meetups and the impact of social media platforms.
Balachandran noted that social media can “only do so much” and is looking forward to a day when that aspect of normalcy becomes day-to-day life once again.
“A lot of our meetings have become virtual, so it is challenging,” Balachandran said. “The great thing about CPAU is this group recognizes that contact with voters is important and that those conversations are what influence our work.”
Like Balachandran, Williams said there have been additional problems running a local campaign virtually.
“It’s already hard work to get yourself elected in a district, township or county no matter what size it is,” Williams said. “But with the difficulties the pandemic has brought to what would have been a regular campaign cycle, makes it 10 times harder.”
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As the weather gets warmer, CPAU has been able to offer more events outside, including the first canvassing event in the State College area on March 27 about the primary election.
La Porta volunteered at the recent event in support of the borough candidates alongside King, who created handmade zines for volunteers to distribute to nearby neighborhoods.
La Porta said spending four hours in the borough is not where most college students might find themselves on a Saturday, but she credited the importance of targeting those in the community — including students who might not even be aware that a local election is coming up.
For King, the CPAU slate offered her another opportunity to work on a campaign in her own backyard.
“This is my hometown,” King said. “So the work here has given me a totally new outlook on my community and what voices continue to be silenced.”
For now, the group looks toward the primaries, which will decide the future of the slate going into municipal elections this November.
“While it is still early to think about official outcomes, no matter what, it will let the community know that this kind of work needs to be done more often,” Williams said. “It’s time to rethink what we have all settled for in local government and focus on the people in this community and what is best for them.”