Given just 84 days to get his name out to the residents of District 10 and his opponents with a head start, third-party candidate Johnathan Peffer has been running non-stop to become the first independent to win a statehouse race.
Peffer said he has been running on little sleep to reach the many corners of the district and talk with residents about their needs and talk about what he wants to accomplish as a state representative.
Bright orange tee shirts that read ‘I want a tattooed representative’ and towing a large four foot by eight foot sign behind his truck wherever he goes, Peffer is doing whatever he can to get residents curious enough to talk with him.
An Ellwood City native who has maintained a residence in western Pennsylvania while pursuing business opportunities in places like Nashville, Peffer is a man who has worn many hats.
Over the last 15 years, Peffer has moved through many industries from starting restaurants and catering companies to paving roads in District 10 with Lindy Paving. Throughout all of that, Peffer has continuously helped his father at the family meat processing business, Doug Peffer’s Deer Cutting, which has been operating for 45 years.
At the behest of an uncle when he was 14 who told him that everyone needed to know what hard work was like, he learned how to pour concrete and how to take pride in his work. The depth of work experience gave him an appreciation for different fields and guided him to pursue work he enjoyed and could see as a finished product.
“I never really found what I loved to do, I just always knew the jobs I didn’t like to do,” he said.
Currently, Peffer is using the business management degree he earned at Slippery Rock University to run Bull’s Eye Technologies, Incorporated – an app development company with work in the online dating and matchmaking field.
In announcing his run as a third-party candidate in the District 10 state representative race on Facebook, Peffer said, “I believe in solutions, not picking sides and fighting.”
Originally a supporter of Rep. Aaron Bernstine, the current representative for District 10 and one of his opponents this election, he became disillusioned when he saw nothing happening with the Hereford Manor Lake restoration project.
Wanting to ask questions and get answers, Peffer took time during quarantine to research not only the issues but how previous elections had gone and what it would take for him to get on the ballot.
Realizing that for $100 and 300 signatures he could get on the ballot and hopefully get into office and get answers, Peffer set out to reach the required number of signatures. When he turned in his petition, he had over 1,000 and was placed on the ballot as an independent under the United Party banner.
Social media tensions
About a month into his campaign, Peffer had handed out hundreds of tee shirts, signs and facemasks and took to social media to get his platform out there. While some welcomed the idea of a third-party candidate entering the race, others became skeptical that he was on the ballot to take votes from one of the major parties.
Historically in District 10, when candidates from the Republican and Democratic Parties have run for the seat, races have been narrow.
Third-party candidates have also garnered a lot of support in past elections. During the 2018 race, Green Party candidate Darcelle Slappy received nearly 22% of the vote – but no Democrat candidate was on the ballot that year.
Peffer has been adamant that he is not here to split the ticket, but to win.
As he began to put the rumors at ease that he was not trying to sway the election for either party, claims about a history of drug abuse began to emerge.
When rumors of using and selling heroin began circulating online, Peffer chose to either not engage or promise to address the issue. While he would say publicly that he had not had alcohol in almost a decade, the rumors about drug use were dismissed as smears by Peffer.
In the early summer of 2010, Peffer was a turn away from his home when his motorcycle hit the gravel on the road and came out from underneath him.
The wipeout left him with a dislocated shoulder and broken collarbone. With the help of a neighbor, Peffer limped his bike home and went to the hospital.
There, doctors prescribed 30-milligram Roxicodone and they “got their hooks” in him, he said. When his prescription ran out, Peffer began to self-medicate.
Peffer said he was only buying prescription opioids and never ventured into the heroin. He denied that he ever sold drugs.
A check of Pennsylvania state records show no criminal charges for Peffer.
He said when his dad told him he did not need his help with the condition he was in, he decided to seek help. While he did not get clean overnight, Peffer said he is not ashamed of the experience that has given him a perspective into what some families in the district have dealt with.
“I have compassion for people who are in that situation and part of everything I do today revolves around using that experience to benefit others,” he said.
Where he stands on certain issues
While Peffer wants to get answers to his questions, he also wants to accomplish a lot if elected.
Important to Peffer is helping local farmers become sustainable financially. He said he wants to work to get farmers cheaper money and an escalated depreciation scale for their equipment.
Peffer, who is a former member of Local 1058 Laborer’s Union, said union jobs were some of the best jobs he had. He wants to encourage people in the district to get into the trades, which he believes, in turn, will improve the local economy.
For those looking to further their education, Peffer said he will commit $10,000 of his salary toward scholarships for anyone in the district.
With that platform, Peffer has racked up a few union endorsements – from his previous union to Teamsters Local 261. Most recently, Peffer received his largest endorsement from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13 based in Harrisburg.
Peffer, an avid morel mushroom hunter, considers himself a steward of the environment. If elected, Peffer said he will work to increase littering fines and a larger impact on drivers who commit the act from their vehicles.
One specific stance Peffer has taken is that of adding additional sentencing and monitoring to those who commit sex offenses against minors. Peffer, whose work on his dating app has provided him with a geofencing tool he would like to see implemented, would monitor those offenders once out of prison.
When asked if he believes it to be a conflict of interest that he would push for the state to utilize technology his private company developed – and would most likely charge for – Peffer said he did not run for office to make money.
He clarified that this is technology is something he would want to lend to the government to protect children. Whether that would be feasible, and not considering the privacy concerns inherent with this sort of technology, remains unseen.
T-minus four days
With the final weekend before the election, the politics in the District 10 race have become more personal.
Recently flyers went out to residents referring to Peffer as a “Socialist Sympathizer” and the Democratic candidate, Kolbe Cole, as a “’Defund the Police’ activist.”
In response, Peffer retaliated with his his own attack, releasing screenshots allegedly from Bernstine’s personal Snapchat account. The screenshots appear to show Bernstine talking to a woman who is not his wife.
The Rocket reached out to Bernstine for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.
The incumbent received backlash earlier this month when videos and screenshots showed him referring to a child as being mentally disabled and making his son smoke a cigar. Peffer, along with Democrats and Republicans, called for his resignation.
State legislature forecasters like CNalysis currently predict that Peffer will split the ticket and provide a window for Cole and the Democrats to flip the district back to blue.
Despite all that, Peffer said he is in the race not just to make history but to trailblaze a path for others that feel disenfranchised by the two-party system.
“I want to pave the way for other people so they can also have their voice heard,” Peffer said. “Because it shouldn’t just be about the two major parties. If there’s no healthy competition, we are left with exactly who we have and the people who represent interest groups and money.”