With the election in less than a week, the Pennsylvania District 10 State House of Representatives race includes Republican incumbent Aaron Bernstine, Democratic candidate Kolbe Cole and United Party independent candidate Johnathan Peffer. Each candidate was asked about their positions on platform issues, like the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, the reallocation of police funding, higher education, abortion, family-owned farms during the pandemic and gerrymandering.
Bernstine is running for re-election this November, with a focus on five main issues: protecting the values in the state Capitol, fighting to reduce government spending, reforming Harrisburg, eliminating “burdensome taxes” and improving the climate for businesses. He has a degree in business management from Penn State University and a master of business administration from the University of Pittsburgh, where he serves as an adjunct professor.
Cole is a graduate of New Brighton Area High School and earned her bachelor’s degree at Youngstown State University, where she studied criminal justice. She currently works as a program coordinator for youth in her community. Being an active member in the community, Cole puts a large emphasis on education for the youth of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Cole would focus on quality education, fair representation, sustainable jobs, access to healthcare and social issues if elected for District 10.
Peffer is running as an independent candidate, and if elected, he would focus on farming and agriculture, education, equal representation and the economy. After he graduated from Riverside High School, he went on to graduate with honors from Slippery Rock University with a degree in business management. Being a former member of the Local 1058 Laborer’s Union, Peffer advocates for the Hunter’s Sharing The Harvest Program, as they have been donors for more than 30 years.
The election of District 10 gained local attention earlier this month after USA Today shared Snapchat videos of Bernstine enticing his son to smoke a cigar in addition to other videos from his now-deleted Snapchat account. Bernstine responded with a video on Twitter with the tweet reading, “I vow to do better…..” Cole released a statement on social media, and Peffer retweeted the Beaver County Time’s tweet of the original story.
Members of The Rocket’s news team spoke to each of the candidates about their platform prior to the election on Tuesday.
Why do you best represent District 10?
Bernstine said that his background working in a variety of different fields, including small businesses to large businesses and labor jobs, provides him the expertise to deal with issues that the district faces. As an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, he states he is passionate about higher education and having Slippery Rock within District 10.
“I’m a farmer and a small business owner myself, [which] really provides me the expertise to deal with the many issues that our district has,” Bernstine said.
Cole said she is the best fit for District 10 because she was born and raised in the area. She has worked in the public service field in many different areas of the district, like Beaver, Lawrence and Butler Counties.
“I know how to serve our people,” Cole said on the Zoom call from her living room. “I know what our people are thinking and feeling, and I see who we really are. I do have full confidence that I’d be able to represent our district in a way that is true to who we are.
Discussing why he would be the best representative for District 10, Peffer said he would bring his life experience and “heart of a servant” to not only lead the district but provide residents with solutions.
Peffer said the life experiences he has had growing up and getting to know his neighbors allow him to understand the issues residents face. It is something that makes him a solution-oriented person, he said.
“My experience gives me a well-rounded life of knowing who is here and what they need,” Peffer said.
The Coronavirus pandemic
In response to Governor Tom Wolf’s handling of the Coronavirus, Bernstine said that some of the governor’s decisions may make sense for highly populated areas, such as inner-city Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but not in more rural areas, such as Butler, Beaver and Lawrence County where Bernstine currently resides.
“One of the greatest concerns that I’ve seen is the fact that the governor’s unilaterally made decisions without the guidance and support of the legislative branch which is closest to the constituents,” Bernstine said.
Bernstine also stressed that it is imperative for Pennsylvanians to follow guidelines for the Centers for Disease Control, as these are “guidelines that are put in place by some of the best scientists and physicians in the world.”
“And, really to me, it’s about working with the federal government in order to see what things we can do in order to make sure that we have people being healthy,” Bernstine said.
Describing his actions as “honorable,” Cole believes Wolf did the best that he could with the information that he had at the time. Wolf and the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine were thorough in their scientific research and made an effort to learn about the virus and how it affects Pennsylvanians, according to Cole.
Cole said her only suggestion for Wolf would be taking a more individualized approach to handling the pandemic. She added that he had no real direction from his leadership, President Donald Trump and his administration, so she believes he did the best he could given the circumstances.
In regards to the way Wolf addressed the public throughout the pandemic, Cole admires his way of relaying information to Pennsylvanians. According to Cole, Wolf remained unbiased when educating his fellow Pennsylvanians, which Cole said is sometimes really hard for a politician to do.
If elected as state representative for District 10, Cole would continue to promote the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and safe social distancing protocols. She also feels it is important to show that these guidelines are not an infringement of our rights, but rather a duty to one another.
“[It’s one way that we can] really show our love and empathy towards each other, which is what District 10 is,” Cole said. “In District 10, we are people that love each other, we respect each other, and I think mask-wearing should be just that. It should be an act of love and empathy and awareness for others that are in the community with us.”
In dealing with the pandemic, Peffer does not believe Gov. Wolf and other leaders had taken into consideration the effects their policies would have at the local level.
Peffer said leaders should have had a plan in place before this happened. He said experts had been telling the public for a long time this would happen – Netflix even put out a docuseries about it, but no one listened to them.
One thing he wants to see going forward is a more unified message, not only within the state but across the nation. Peffer said he has traveled to other states during this time and he has seen things like no temperature screening in Pennsylvania airports, but it is being done at regional airports out of state.
Peffer added that by communicating not only what the state is doing to protect residents but the why which can inform the people and combat the misinformation seen on social media that has come to dictate the narrative of the virus.
“I’m hoping we can learn from this and in the future have a plan,” Peffer said.
Racism and the Black Lives Matter Movement
Bernstine believes that most of the conversations about addressing racism and treating people equally should be done at home.
“To me, there’s no doubt that government can play some part in that, but so much of it has to do with kitchen table issues, and you know, raising children in a manner that they understand that all people really should be treated equally,” Bernstine said. “So I think most of those things are really done at home.”
In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Bernstine believes that the movement has changed direction from its original positive intentions, as he says violence and the burning of buildings are counterproductive to the movement’s original goals.
“It started in a positive direction, in a positive way,” Bernstine said. “It really has been hijacked by extremists and people that are very anti-police.”
If Cole is elected, she would do her best to end social and racial injustices in the district.
“Racism is a matter of the heart,” Cole said. “I think that our institutional injustices can be resolved through legislation, of course. But, I think we need leadership that is really looking at the heart of what we are and encouraging and empowering our hearts in a way that makes it safe enough for us to accept the reform of racial injustices.”
Cole believes that when a person is hateful, biased or judgmental toward another, that that is a form of fear.
“You don’t fully, truly understand that thing of which you hate,” Cole said. “I think if we have leadership, mature leadership, that will promote cultural education for everybody, we will really be able to denounce [fear and hatred] in a way that will touch our hearts. Our legislation will be able to reform in a way that will ensure that those injustices are no longer a thing.”
Cole said reform starts with bringing mental health professionals “into the realms that need it,” incorporating cultural diversity training into each profession in our communities and promoting safety and truth.
As for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement protests, Cole has been involved in many protests in the last few months, including those in Slippery Rock. She said she is “definitely in support” of the movement.
“I think [the protests in Slippery Rock] are simply amazing,” Cole said. “I commend [SRU Police Chief Kevin Sharkey] in his heart and in his leadership. He has really shown a sense of unity, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about unifying our communities. I’m honored to be a part of any protest that does that and any rally that does that.”
Cole believes that the movement is crucial and is transforming the way we are thinking. She said the movement is led by college-aged students, which she said is one of the things she loves about it.
Peffer said it sickens him when he sees bigotry, especially within his district. He said the first thing he would continue doing what he has been doing every day – pray.
While he understands that he alone cannot change racism, Peffer believes a lot can be done by educating people about racial injustice.
“No one can turn a blind eye to this,” Peffer said.
As for the BLM Movement, Peffer said he agreed with their core tenants of education and equality, but said the good they have been promoting has been overshadowed by violence.
Peffer blamed the leaders in areas where there has been violence for not stepping up and others who have used the protests as photo ops instead of working for real change. While he supports peaceful protests, the violence has now become a distraction from the BLM message.
“No one sees what they are asking for now, only burning buildings,” Peffer said.
The reallocation of police funding
Bernstine clearly stated that he is strongly against defunding the police.
“Without a doubt, there are a few bad apples that do bad things in every profession, whether that’s a politician, a police officer or a professor,” Bernstine said. “You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Cole said one state or one district is different from another state or another district in terms of police funding. She believes we shouldn’t fund our police forces like they are military forces, but rather as the public servants they are.
Cole supports reallocating funding to having mental health professionals or therapists as well as social workers employed in police departments. She said police officers just aren’t trained in that particular field.
“These police officers are the front line to any dispute or argument,” Cole said. “They are the mediators, and they aren’t trained in that way, and they should be. If that’s not their duty or job, then we need professionals on their force to be able to handle those situations.”
Not only would these trained mental health professionals be able to help in a dispute, but according to Cole, they could also be of assistance to the police officers themselves.
“They have hard jobs,” Cole said. “They have families to go home to every day with their own stressors. They need that level of support that I think a mental health professional or social worker would be able to provide.”
Cole believes reallocating funding to provide mental health professionals to police departments would help our police forces be public servants. Cole emphasized that it would help them serve and protect, not just “protect.”
Peffer said that he would not support any defunding of the police or any reallocation plan that would take funding out of budgets.
With constrained budgets already for many departments, Peffer said the focus should be on providing police with resources, training and equipment like body cameras.
“They can’t do more with less,” Peffer said.
Peffer added that reducing the number of officers a department has would also be detrimental because they would now have to cover more shifts and lose sleep in the process, making them less effective at their jobs.
For officers who do act improperly, Peffer said those police officers need to be held accountable for their actions.
Bernstine expressed that he is in favor of reallocating funding for universities within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), adding that Slippery Rock University in particular is “stronger than ever” while PASSHE has experienced other major issues, such as finances, over the last decade.
He also stated that Slippery Rock’s success should not be used to support the issues experienced by other universities. Most recently, PASSHE’s initial plans to consolidate administrative roles between Slippery Rock and Edinboro Universities were rescinded in favor of a revised plan involving Edinboro, Clarion and California Universities.
“Slippery Rock should not be used to bail out the rest of the other PASSHE universities, which is currently what’s happening right now,” Bernstine said.
Bernstine stated that the amount of debt college students take on is in many cases unrecoverable. He believes that rewarding the universities who are producing and graduating students is key to keeping tuition affordable.
“I think making sure that we’re rewarding those universities that are doing the right things, such as Slippery Rock, is really how we can continue to keep tuition at an affordable rate,” Bernstine said.
Cole said she needs to better educate herself before making a concrete decision on whether the 14 PASSHE schools should have increased funding. However, she does want to find ways to bring revenues to the PASSHE universities.
Looking at where the PASSHE universities can reform their funding is one way Cole suggested keeping college tuition affordable for Pennsylvanians and out-of-state students.
“Creating new job opportunities and different revenue sources for Pennsylvania that could subsidize some of those costs for the colleges to lower the tuition hopefully for our residents,” Cole said.
When it comes to funding the state university system, Peffer said they would be held to the same fiscal responsibilities of any other agency that uses state funds.
Peffer wants to see the universities and all other agencies work toward creating a surplus without being punished for not spending all their funding every year. Creating a surplus would allow them to be prepared for hardships in the future.
Along with fiscal responsibility, Peffer said universities need to look at providing education for future tech jobs in areas like artificial intelligence and robotics to stay competitive with other area schools. By providing those education options, state universities can drive up enrollment and provide a workforce that is trained in Pennsylvania and stays in Pennsylvania.
Peffer added that whatever SRU is doing, they are doing it right and need to share that information with the other universities that are in financial trouble.
Bernstine says that he is pro-life, adding that he unapologetically wishes to protect the unborn. He added that he is a firm believer in life starting at conception.
In 2017, Bernstine supported a bill to ban abortion in Pennsylvania after 20 weeks of pregnancy. This bill passed in the House 121-70, but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Wolf.
“But really, any pro-life legislation I’m in support of,” Bernstine said.
He added that his status as a pro-life supporter is making adoption affordable for parents.
“I’m also a large proponent of making adoption affordable, and providing those options for parents that want to adopt young people or infants,” Bernstine said, “Being pro-life isn’t just being anti-abortion. It’s also understanding that we have an obligation in society to protect our most vulnerable.”
Cole is pro-choice when it comes to access to abortion.
As a woman who was pregnant in college, Cole said she was lucky to have the support system she needed, or else it would have been “a thousand times harder,” so she understands.
Through working with at-risk youth and pre- and post-incarceration, Cole understands that there are different circumstances when it comes to a woman and her body.
“Just as God has given us free will, I totally feel that a woman should have free will of her own body,” Cole said. “I am a supporter of choice. God has given us choice, so who am I to take that choice away from anybody?”
Cole said no one knows what a woman goes through with her body during pregnancy. She wouldn’t be there to help raise that child, so she believes she can’t infringe on somebody else’s right to choose how they live their lives and make their choices.
At a legislative level, Cole said she would do whatever is in her power as a state representative to promote freedom of choice.
Peffer said he is a pro-life candidate who does not support abortion, but understands there are some issues when it pertains to the health of the mother that it may be medically necessary. In those cases, he does not want to be involved with what a woman and her doctor are deciding.
Peffer describes the abortion debate as having a “lot of weeds” that many are afraid to get into to find common ground solutions. That discussion needs to separate abortion and women’s health services.
While he acknowledges that Planned Parenthood does a lot of good by providing women with affordable health services, they should not be providing abortion services with taxpayer money (Note: According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “at present, the federal Medicaid program mandates abortion funding in cases of rape or incest, as well as when a pregnant woman’s life is endangered by a physical disorder, illness, or injury”). Along with that, Peffer would like to see more funding for women’s health services.
Peffer added that he had been asked about his position on this matter a lot and while this is where he stands, his platform does not revolve around this issue.
Family-owned farms during the pandemic
Bernstine, who has his own farm with over 100 animals, has raised beef cattle, lambs and hogs and runs a breeding operation for beef cattle. Bernstine’s farm sells directly to customers in place of working with grocery stores.
As one of the areas he is more passionate about, he explains that farming is a national market that runs through the Federal Department of Agriculture.
Bernstine also added how different types of farmers have been impacted differently by the pandemic. In his example, he explained how the closure of schools impacted the demand for milk.
“So for example, the needs of milk or the milk farmers have been hit, not necessarily because of the pandemic, but because kids aren’t in school and their largest provider, or who they provide the most to, is schools, right?” Bernstine said. “In school, every kid got milk from the time they’re in kindergarten through 12th grade, while all of a sudden, they’re not there and they’re not buying it. So each of these [farmers] really have unique needs.”
Cole believes that family-owned farms have been hit hard by the pandemic and need financial relief.
“[Local farms] have been hit hard,” Cole said. “The restaurant business really affected them and we don’t really take into account how huge of a blow that was to our farming families. I think we need to put some energy into our agricultural family. They need a bailout just like the airline industry needed a bailout, just like the automotive industry needed a bailout, they need a bailout as well.”
Cole added that family-owned farms need more innovative options to be able to farm in Pennsylvania, like other crops for them to farm and sell.
She also suggests that we need to make a program in District 10 that would combine food desert towns and the rural areas with plentiful farms to create a program that would bring youth to the area.
“We need to build a connection between these two amazing entities that we have in District 10,” Cole said. “[And use these to] start building some programs to bring some energy and youth that are interested in farming, cultivating that energy and that interest in them so that there are different families and people that would take over those farms when the farmers are ready to retire.”
Peffer said the state needs to do more to help get farmers cheaper money so they may pass their farms onto the next generation.
He would like to do more for farmers by providing them with a better-escalated depreciation scale for the equipment they own so they may get out of debt faster.
Peffer added there needs to be better communication of what resources are out there for farmers so they can keep their lands healthy and farms financially stable. Farmers who take measures or already have to make their farms more environmentally friendly should be rewarded for that effort in a way they can invest more in their farms.
For dairy farmers, Peffer wants to see an increase in the hundredweight payout of milk to farmers.
He also supports a dealer’s license for companies in Pennsylvania that buy their milk out of state. Peffer said funds from those licenses could go back to local producers’ hands.
Bernstine says he supports legislation that calls for districts to be redrawn to eliminate gerrymandering and has co-sponsored House Bills 22 and 23 alongside representatives Jim Marshall and Rob Matzie.
“I think it’s an atrocity what it does for constituent services,” Bernstine said. “The fact that it makes it more difficult to serve your constituents for political reasons is really unfortunate and not helpful to help people.”
In a historically conservative area, HD-10 was drawn for Democrats. Bernstine was elected in 2016 after securing 58.45% of the vote in the race against Democratic incumbent Jaret Gibbons with this layout in mind.
Cole doesn’t agree with gerrymandering. She said whenever we allow political parties to be in charge of drawing districts, we need to have some non-partisan professionals in place to “make sense of our districts.”
“There are five state representatives in Beaver County,” Cole said. “One county has five representatives. There’s no need for that. Also, the fact that Slippery Rock is in the same district as New Brighton also doesn’t make sense.”
Cole believes the only reason why this is happening is so that certain political parties can guarantee a seat in the district. She added that this is not a true representation.
“The voters should be picking the politician, the politician should not be picking the voters,” Cole said.
With the way districts are currently drawn, Peffer believes it intentionally misses the needs of the people to help candidates of the party that is doing the redrawing.
Peffer would like to see an independent, nonpartisan agency take over the task of redrawing districts. Those districts should take into consideration local governing bodies and school districts, Peffer said.
Taking into consideration school districts is especially important because many in Pennsylvania have more than one representative in the state and that could cause confusion if there is no unified voice.
The candidates’ final thoughts
Bernstine expressed his appreciation for the developments in the Slippery Rock area, especially his work with the Slippery Rock administration and Mayor Jondavid Longo. He says he looks forward to continuing to serve the Slippery Rock constituents going forward.
“I continue to appreciate the good things that are happening in the Slippery Rock area,” Bernstine said. “A lot of growth opportunities have transpired there.”
Cole encourages students to vote and reminds them of how important their voices are.
“I’m doing this for you,” Cole said. “I want you guys to know how important leadership is. [College-aged students] are our future leaders, you guys are who are going to shape our communities and what our world is going to head into. Be the leader you’re meant to be.
Peffer said that if you look at all he has accomplished in the two months since he announced his candidacy, then you will see the drive and work ethic he will bring to the job of state representative.
“I’ve gone above and beyond, I’m certain, then anyone else has,” Peffer said.
He added that he knows how to get stuff done and be a voice for those of District 10.